Until 1884 this was ‘Bridport Harbour’, but with the extension of the railway it was renamed West Bay and it became the ‘sea-side’ resort for Bridport. This description of West Bay was extracted from Charles Harper’s book ‘The Dorset Coast’published in 1905. The postcard is from around 1930.
Bridport derives its name from the little river Brit, which trickles slowly down a wide and exceedingly fertile valley between the town and the sea, close upon a mile and a half away, and eventually finds an outlet, through sluices and lock-gates, into Bridport Harbour, more generally known as West Bay.
It is a pleasant suburban road that leads from the town to this harbour and little holiday resort. The little single-track branch of the Great Western Railway, which branches off languidly at Maiden Newton and comes down to Bridport by way of Toller and Poorstock, continues to the harbour and presently obscurely expires, as it were, amid sheds and outhouses. But to the good burgesses of Bridport and their kin, wishful of a breath of sea-air, it is nothing but an easy walk and an easier bicycle ride from their pavements to the beach. It is true that on the way they pass the Bridport Gas Company’s works, where the Company gives all and sundry a liberal taste of its quality, but that is an interlude which possibly makes the sea air more justly appreciated. If, however, gas should be accounted good in proportion to the strength of its scent, the Bridport Gas Company’s product should be of the very best illuminating power.
Close by is the “Fives Court” inn, whose sign draws attention to what probably very few would ever notice, the old fives court wall which, dated 1847, and surmounted by two decorative urns, forms the north wall of the inn.
By daylight West Bay is not that place of ineffable tender romance or tragic interest that, by the witching light of the moon, it seems to be. No place ever keeps in daytime the dramatic intensity acquired under the moonbeams, and one, being an amateur of first impressions, should have the mingled courage and wisdom of renunciation, and refuse under any other circumstances to know a place first beheld under such conditions. The place may be very well ; may even be surpassing lovely, but the shameless penetrating sunshine leaves not a scrap of mystery anywhere, and imagination is atrophied : the poetic dream is dispelled and its place taken by the actualities of the guide-book.
The little harbour of West Bay is the smallest of harbors, and the most difficult for ships to enter. Its name creates a mind’s picture of some sheltered natural basin, tucked in snugly from the rages of the open sea behind sheltering headlands and promontories; but it is not in the least like that. The “West Bay” to which allusion is made in that place-name is no mere little quiet pool where ” the stately ships come home, to their haven under the hill,” but is that immense arc of a circle, some thirty-six or forty miles across, which stretches westward from Portland Bill to Devonshire, and is known to cartographers as Lyme Bay: or to sailors more melodramatically as Deadman’s Bay. It is naturally exposed to all the fierce surges from the West and has no sheltering features of inlets or subsidiary headlands to help any vessel in distress; but, as the map eloquently shows, presents a singularly monotonous edge for over twenty miles, without a single cranny wherein to take refuge; and for the rest the merest rudimentary and practically useless headlands, or river mouths. West Bay or Bridport Harbour is situated midway of this arc, and is just a narrow gullet only with constant care and at great expense kept open for the passage of ships through a cleft in the Chesil Beach. Says an old chronicler, “What time Bridport began to be a Harbour of any note surely I could never have any notice.” Early, therefore, striving and hopeful people endeavored to convert the insignificant mouth of the feeble little river Brit to some practical use for sailormen. “In some sort,” continues our ancient author,” it required Art and Man’s help to accomplish the same.” Not a doubt of it, and so much art and labour it has ever been, not by any means to enlarge it, but to keep it in being at all, that its story is a long record of appeals for help to repair the damage wrought by storms and to remove the choking accumulations of gravel, washing irresistibly along out of the West towards Portland, and flinging up unwanted deposits on the way.
There were many ways open in the Middle Ages of compounding for sins. You might gain absolution for a great deal by giving to the Church, whose mouth was as capacious as that of a hippopotamus, and as incapable of being filled ; or might win indulgences by contributing, under the patronage of religion, to such greatly needed works of practical piety as roads, causeways, bridges, and harbors. Thus we find a record surviving of an indulgence granted in 1444 by the Bishop of Salisbury for “gifts towards the building and reparation of Brydeport Haven,” and forty days’ peccadilloes were blotted out by the same hands in 1446, for similar benefactions. In that same year the Bishop of Bath and Wells granted several indulgences for those who would help this “great work of piety and service pleasing to God.” These gifts were supplementary to already existing dues, for, about 1380, we learn that, in consideration of his keeping the harbour in repair, a certain John Huddersfield was granted a halfpenny on every horse load of goods exported or imported here.
In more material days, when the old spiritual concessions were out of date and no longer possible to be the subject of belief, the money necessary was occasionally raised by briefs, when free-will offerings were made for this and other purposes on behalf of Bridport and other places by the congregations of churches throughout the country. The way in which distant towns and villages in this manner contributed towards alleviating the misfortunes of other places is very striking : the more so because those offerings were made from sheer kindliness, and not from hope of securing the doubtful spiritual benefits once purchased in this fashion.
In later times the even more matter-of-fact agency of Acts of Parliament and harbour dues was employed to maintain the harbour as a going concern. That it remains in existence at all may well be a matter of surprise to those who walk its. Wooden piers in summer time and of sheer astonishment in winter, for here the sea is never still. Figure to yourself two sturdy timber arms, packed inside with heavy stones, projecting at right angles from an open, unsheltered shingle beach, on which a heavy surf is continually breaking from the open channel; and between them a deep water passage wide enough for only one vessel at a time to be carefully warped through, into the still little basin beyond. That is the entrance to the haven of West Bay; and if captain or pilot in heavy weather fouls those pier heads, which require such nice handling to enter, his ship is almost certainly lost. A truck and crane installed here as a permanent feature on the stone-flagged quay are evidence sufficient that repairs are always in progress.
It is not often that a large vessel enters, but when it does, the entry is a sight by no means to be missed. With the heavy swell that always sets in here, it is a matter of considerable judgment and finesse that neither ship nor the timber sides of the piers receives a hurt, and the hurrying with fenders, both aboard ship and on the piers, to receive and lighten the shock if she should yaw to one side or the other, and the shouting from ship to shore and back again are sufficient to bring the whole population of West Bay (which to be sure is not a very large one) on the spot. The captain or mate is to the fore, shouting, ” Here, you there, reeve a hawser round that there bollard,” or, ” Another fender on her starboard bow,” and many another technical command that no mere landsman can comprehend ; and it is, in one way and another, a time of breathless excitement until the harbour basin is won.
But the visitor will lie a-basking in the sun many days on the piers, and yet, unless exceptionally lucky, he will not witness such a scene, for Bridport’s goings to sea and comings back are more of the yachting and boating kind, and those lighter pleasure-craft do not afford the excitement and bustle that always attend the entrance of the barques, brigantines and schooners of commerce.
It is to be observed that of late a something in the likeness of an esplanade, with shelters and a bandstand, has been erected on the west side of the beach : attempts are being made to bring West Bay into line with the average holiday resort. I wish those who placed them there no particular ill, but could witness their being swept away by a storm without any severe pangs. Those to whom the sweet simplicity and retirement of West Bay are precisely its charms can do very well, and would do very gladly, without such varieties and “amusements,” and those who really like such things will seek them in larger places, where they are, and must needs be, better done. Bating those unwelcome additions, and the great ugly block of buildings, really lodging-houses, but looking like a converted workhouse, factory, or model dwelling that has lost its way out of the East End of London and come here by mistake, West Bay is delightful. You can fry yourself all day in the sun on the beach or on the more airy pier-heads, and have it very much to yourself. With an interesting book—which must by no means be so exciting or so dull (for they can reach both extremes) as a novel, but ought to be a volume of mildly interesting biography or reminiscence you can, with the golden-hued cliffs and the dark blue seas for sole company, be very happy.
But save me from a wild nor’-easter at West Bay, where the unrestrained wind is severe enough to cut your liver into collops.