The most westerly town in Dorset is also one of its more popular. Situated at the mouth of the little river Lym. Lyme is first mentioned in 774 in connection with a manor and salt rights granted by the West Saxon King Cynolf to Sherborne Abbey. In the Doomsday Book Lyme was divided into three manors. It became Lyme Regis in 1284 when it was granted a royal charter by Edward I.
Lymeís existence depended upon the Cobb, a small artificial harbour dating from the time of Edward I. The Cobb is first mentioned in a written account during the reign of Edward III (1327-1377), when it was described as a work of timber and stone damaged by storms. The stones were actually huge boulders called cow-stones, brought to the site by being floated between barrels and then stacked loose between oak piles. The Cobb was initially detached from the shore at high tide to let shingle through, which in turn formed protective banks or sea defenses. Lyme is totally exposed to south-westerly gales, and the Cobb is both harbour and breakwater. In 1377 it was destroyed in a storm, leading to the destruction of 80 houses and 50 boats. The presence of the Cobb allowed Lyme Regis to become a shipbuilding centre and important port, trading wool for wine. In 1756 the Cobb was finally joined to land, and beginning in 1820 it was completely rebuilt in Portland stone.
Lyme's most prosperous period was from 1500 to 1700, when its merchants and sea captains traded with the Mediterranean, West Indies and Americas. Lyme was a major English port and as recently at 1780, it was larger than the port of Liverpool.
Typical of the breed was Sir George Somers (1554 - 1610), discoverer of the Bermudas and described as 'a lamb on land, . . . a lion at sea'. Sir George Somers was called out of retirement to mount the Sea Venture expedition to relieve the Virginia settlements. Instead they were wrecked on Bermuda and in the process founded its British colony. He died there "of a surfeit in eating of a pig" and the cluster of islands were known for a time as the Somers Islands in his honor; then the earlier Spanish name prevailed. Somers's pickled body was brought back to the parish church in nearby Whitchurch Canonicorum, where he has a modern memorial tablet, in the chancel.
The town withstood a Royalist siege during the English Civil War, but paid for its independence in 1685 after the Monmouth Rebellion. The Duke landed at Lyme Regis, and 23 rebels were later hung and quartered on the beach were he first stepped ashore.
Coram Tower, opposite and overlooking the car-park in Pound Road, commemorates Thomas Coram [1668-1751], who was born in the town. A shipwright by trade, he went to America in 1693 and settled in Taunton, Massachusetts (1694--1704). There he strengthened the Anglican Church, and promoted settlement schemes in Georgia and Nova Scotia. Back in London (c.1720) he planned and founded the Foundling Hospital (1741), of which Hogarth was a patron.
The steep narrow streets reflect its long history and the Georgian architecture is contemporary with its prosperity as a watering place in the 18th century when sea bathing became fashionable and helped to reverse the tows decline. Two centuries later Lyme Regis still relies on summer visitors for its survival.
Jane Austen spent considerable time in Charmouth and Lyme Regis in the first years of the 19th century. Scenes from 'Persuasion', and 'Northanger Abbey' are set in the area, and in Lyme Regis a plaque marks her accommodation. In 1804 she wrote to her sister, telling of the delights of bathing, walking on the Cobb, and dancing at the local Assembly Rooms. Her descriptions of the town show a genuine affection - though also a touch of weariness at the provincial airs and graces of some local people! A more modern literary connection is with local author John Fowles whose French Lieutenantís Woman is largely set in the town. Fowles is also honorary curator of the town's museum.
The area is also world-famous for its fossils and several local museums, attractions, including Dinosaurland, and shops relate to this geological heritage. The oldest fossils that were found here, are 195 million years old. Material from Lyme Regis is found in all larger museums of natural history in Great Britain. Numerous ammonites were found, as well as belemnites, bone-fish, lobsters, crinoids and a lot of other species. Already in 1819 Mary Anning, the daughter of a local fossil collector and described as "the greatest fossilist the world ever knew", had found the first Ichthyosaur. Several years later the amateur-geologist was in the news again: in the hard clay layers she managed to find a complete Plesiosaur and the well preserved remains of a flying reptile.
Whether beaches and bathing, wildlife and walking or harbors and history make up your ideal holiday, it's all here! Visit the ancient Cobb harbour, wander through seafront gardens and narrow streets which run down to the sea, where children roam the beach and traffic-free promenade in safety. Follow cliff-top paths and explore the natural beauty of lovely Lyme Bay. Take time - relax and discover the special qualities of this unspoilt coastal resort.