Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Protecting our prized asset

WHICH is the best loved building in Lyme Regis?  

Is it the Guildhall? The museum perhaps? How about St Michael’s Parish Church? Or is it the Cobb?

The Cobb is undoubtedly the most iconic building in town – made famous in recent times by Meryl Streep, home port to ships that sailed against the Spanish Armada, and to Admiral Sir George Somers, who colonised Bermuda, the back drop for trendy TV advertisements and photographed a million times a year (a rough estimate that).

But it is certainly not the best loved – not if ongoing repairs to the surface of the harbour is anything to go by.

Since the 13th century the Cobb has stood proud protecting the town from the ravages of the English Channel. Once among the biggest ports in England, this unique construction has dominated the maritime history of our town, featured by Jane Austen in 'Persuasion' and immortalised by John Fowles in 'The French Lieutenant’s Women'.

With just a few commercial fishing boats operating out of Lyme, the Cobb is now primarily a recreational harbour which has been reorganised in recent years by harbourmaster Grahame Forshaw, resulting in the creation of more moorings and therefore more income.

The harbour is operated and maintained by West Dorset District Council and over the years it has been the cause of much falling out by its users and disputes with those who run it.  

In recent times harbour users’ meetings have been lively to say the least. Grudges and grievances have simmered for years.

When I was mayor I was given a good piece of advice by former councillor Ken Meech: “Never go west of the Marine Parade clock”.  It turned out to be wise counsel.

I suspect it’s pretty much the same in most harbours where the needs of those who earn their living from the sea have to be balanced with those who get their thrills from it. 

But one thing that has remained constant for the last 800 years, the Cobb is Lyme’s greatest asset and over the years has pumped millions into the economy of the town and coffers of the local councils.

One would have thought, then, that this prized asset, the jewel in the crown of the Pearl of Dorset, would be top of the list when it comes to keeping it shipshape. 

Regrettably, that does not seem to be the case. 

On one of my too infrequent early morning walks I could not help noticing on Saturday morning how the main harbour walkway, mainly cobbles in keeping with its longevity, has been repaired spasmodically with what I can only describe as lumps of tarmac. 

The unsightly repairs were raised at the last Coastal Forum meeting by former boatman Ken Gollop who for years has been complaining about the out-of-keeping repairs to the Cobb. I gather the response from district council officials was not altogether satisfactory.

In days gone there used to be a Cobb mason whose sole purpose was to repair and lovingly restore the harbour walls and walkways. 

It was a job carried out with great pride and skill. Remember Frank Stone? Those days, of course, have long gone.

West Dorset District Council has done a brilliant job on the ongoing coastal protection schemes and I am sure will do likewise with the next phase to the east of the town.

Funding is clearly not available for a major scheme at the Cobb at present - I seem to remember £2 million being mentioned at some stage - but I have no doubt that when East Cliff is finished they will be turning their attention to the Cobb for phase five with equal professionalism.

But at the moment there is no money available for this or a time scale. However, I am assured by Grahame Forshaw the matter is very much in the minds of the council engineers.

Following the severe gales in the spring during which the Cobb took a real battering from the south/south-east, the decision was taken to take a close look at the structure of harbour.

A team of surveyors monitored the Cobb and came to the conclusion that there had been no significant movement, although the high seas had ripped out a great deal of mortar from the surfaces.

Grahame Forshaw was then left with the problem that a huge number of people were about to descend on the Cobb for their summer walks with many dangerous potholes having been exposed. 

As a temporary solution the harbourmaster was instructed to get the holes repaired with a tarmac-looking substance which, in fact, has no tarmac content at all.  That means when the filling is washed away no obnoxious substances are left behind.

One of the problems down the years of repairing the Cobb has been the influence of English Heritage - a quango that exists to protect England’s spectacular historic environment - over the materials to be used and their insistence that a permanent solution had to be found.

These discussions have been going on for 20 years and more at a huge expense (I am told that English Heritage has taken a photograph of every stone on the Cobb).

But progress is, at last, being made. I am given to understand that English Heritage and the district council engineers are committed to finding an early solution and that English Heritage are providing a list of materials that can be used in repairs and coming up with some suggestion for possible funding.

It has always been the view of those who know the Cobb best that it must be possible to repair the Cobb using a more appropriate material than the unsightly black stuff. 

If you owned a 13th century listed building in Lyme Regis, do you think you would be allowed by the ever-vigilant conservation officers at West Dorset to carry out surface repairs in a tarmac-like substance, irrespective of whether you could afford it or not? 

Look at the farce that continues at the parish church over the replacement of the old railings!

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