Best Way to Get a Read on Lyme Regis Is by Foot : LYME REGIS: Literary Distinction

The Ringers are Malibu-based free-lance writers

Whatever most excites the traveler--literature or paleontology, art or history, Jane Austen or Meryl Streep--this tiny seaside resort on the border of Devon and Dorset counties is a town for all reasons.

With a population of only 3,600, Lyme Regis is not much larger than it was centuries ago when it was, by turns, a smugglers' haven, a fishing port and a holiday retreat for the nobility.

Alexandra, the queen consort of Edward VII and the mother of King George V, was a frequent visitor. A hilltop hotel bearing her name commands a regal view of the town and its long crescent bay.

Lyme Regis sits on a steep hillside in a gap between lofty limestone cliffs. The River Lym tumbles noisily down the slope on a parallel course with High Street, where stately Georgian residences mix with the commoner premises of green grocers and fishmongers.

The more interesting attractions of Lyme Regis are accessible only on foot. It is best to leave the car behind in one of the park-and-pay lots in the lower section of town.

The ideal starting point for your walk is the harbor, where a long promenade and an unbroken rank of small hotels, cafes and gift shops extend from the foot of High Street to the town's most prominent feature--a massive, curving breakwater known as the Cobb.

Edward I gave Lyme Regis its royal title (literally: Royal Lime) in 1316 after British ships cruised to safety behind the stone walls of the Cobb during the wars against the French.

Today the Cobb shelters a small flotilla of yachts and fishing craft, all of which sit hard aground on the mud flats at low tide.

Jane Austen was the first to confer literary distinction on Lyme Regis and the Cobb. She spent many working holidays in the town, and the breakwater is where Louisa Musgrove had her dramatic tumble in the novel "Persuasion," written in 1816.

Alfred Tennyson was in Lyme Regis in 1867 and paid a visit to a friend, Francis Turner Palgrave (author of "Palgrave's Golden Treasury"). "Now take me to the Cobb and show me where Louisa Musgrove fell," was said to be Tennyson's first request of his fellow poet.

In 1975, more than a century and a half after her death, the town paid homage to Austen by naming a hillside park after her and by staging a play, "Jane Austen in Lyme," written by the mayor of the town.

John Fowles' neo-Victorian tale, "The French Lieutenant's Woman," is set in Lyme Regis, where the author still lives and works. It was in the opening scene of the story's film version that the Cobb achieved epic fame. Who can ever forget a suicidal Meryl Streep struggling toward the end of the breakwater through lashing spray, with gale-force winds tearing at her cape?

The town also has artistic associations. It was one of the favorite haunts of James Whistler, and a number of his major paintings, including "The Master Smith" and "The Little Rose," were done here on holiday.

A small museum on the Cobb displays marine life native to the south coast, including huge conger eels. The curator is a local fisherman who may or may not keep the museum open during its 10 a.m.-5 p.m. hours. It all depends, apparently, on whether other visitors who will spend more than the admission fee want to be taken fishing or sightseeing on his boat.

It is not necessary to retrace one's steps to return to the car park. Just above the promenade, and running most of its length, are a series of gardens with dramatic views of the harbor. Paths serpentine through the gardens on two levels, where massive beds of roses and other perennials alternate with new plantings of almost every annual indigenous to the coast.

Halfway along the path is a sign that directs visitors to the Alexandra Hotel at a still higher elevation. It's the ideal rest stop. One can have tea or a cold drink while enjoying the spectacular view from tables on the lawn.

There are two return routes to the town center from the hotel--either continuing through the gardens or past the immaculately kept Victorian homes along the upper streets of the town.

Once back at the starting point of the walk, visitors should explore the narrow streets and lanes leading away from the promenade. Attractive restaurants are hidden among gardens and cul-de-sacs and, from most of them, the pebble-rattling River Lym can be heard rushing to the bay.

The most interesting shop in Lyme Regis, a block from the beach, specializes in marine fossils found on the beaches extending eastward toward Charmouth. A massive landslide that sent many acres of cliff-top tumbling into the sea covers part of the strand where fossils were once found in great abundance.

The largest of them--a 2l-foot ichthyosaurus--was found in 1811 by the 12-year-old daughter of a carpenter.

Another of Lyme Regis' attractions is its proximity to other seaside towns and villages, among them Seaton, Sidmouth and Branscombe, all of which have colorful histories of their own.

Nor should one miss the opportunity, just nine miles away, to visit inland Axminster, where the world-famous Axminster carpets have been woven since 1775.

Simon Dutfield, who shares the management of the company with his 81-year-old father Harry, welcomes visitors to the plant. We were fortunate to have him as our guide through the many complex operations inherent in producing more than 110 different patterns.

Axminster, built on a hill above the River Axe, has been the principal market town for this area of Devon for centuries. It still has a livestock auction and a street market every Thursday.

But the auction can be an unhappy occasion. We spoke to a farm woman there who could not hold back the tears. "The day we take the lambs to market is the saddest day of the year for me," she said. "Now I have to go home and listen to the ewes calling for their young ones."

The charms are many in Axminster. We went to a sporting goods store on the main street to buy a cricket cap as a gift for a young friend at home, and were told by the proprietor that he had been in business 20 years and we were the first Americans to walk through his door.

It is not at all taxing to spend the morning in Lyme Regis and the afternoon in Axminster, or vice versa, with a break for lunch at the Hunters Lodge pub in the crossroads hamlet of Raymonds Hill.

Except for a pub and a petrol station, there's little to be seen there. But visitors are in for a treat if they stop for awhile at the pub, which is near the border between Devon and Dorset, at the intersection of A35 and A3070.

After all, where else are leading singers of two major opera companies likely to come to your table and regale you with a chorus of "Happy Birthday"?

The pub's landlord, Craig Sullivan, was a principal tenor with the Welsh National Opera. His friend and golfing companion, baritone Peter Glossop, sang major roles with the Royal Opera of Britain, the Metropolitan, La Scala and other European companies. Glossop's last appearance in Los Angeles, as Sharpless in "Madame Butterfly," was at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion during the inaugural season of the Music Center Opera in 1986-87.

If there's a birthday party in progress--and Sullivan and Glossop are back from the golf course--they inevitably add their fortissimo voices to the birthday song chorus. It's a performance that the honoree is not likely to forget.

The background music from the hi-fi is mostly operatic, and it is not at all unusual for Sullivan to chime in with Luciano Pavarotti in an aria from "Manon Lescaut," or for Glossop to join Leonard Warren in "Iago's Credo" from "Othello."

But Hunters Lodge has yet another musical distinction. Its patrons hold the Guinness Book of World Records championship for nonstop sing-a-longs--37 hours and 52 minutes.

First licensed in 1647, the lodge is still very much a country pub--horse brass, cattle yokes and antique farm implements cover the walls. A centuries-old inglenook and rough-hewn oak beams attest to its age. And not the least of its appeal is the best hot and cold buffet we have found in the south of England.

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