Poole to Dartmouth


A busy little harbour set up to receive visiting yachtsmen and women and take their cash. Pubs and restaurants line the wharfs, and in the tiny neighbouring streets and alleys are rows of miniature, neatly painted cottages with flowers in the windows - no longer, one suspects, the modest homes of those who make their living from the sea, but the picturesque country pads of a moneyed middle-class.

Weymouth offers itself to the world as a vacation resort: a beach of "golden" sand, the lonely splendour of Portland Bill, and the dubious attraction of being a gateway to England's Jurassic coast where tourists can tread the same shore as our reptilian ancestors, become paleontologists for the day, and dream of finding an ancient bone or footprint uncovered for the first time in a 100 million years by a receding tide.

But this is a summer of vile weather - of gales and chill winds. The beach is deserted; the bed and breakfasts all have "vacancies"; a handful of holiday makers wearing anoraks walk determinedly along the promenade like intruders in a surrealist landscape.

On the west side, in the direction of Portland Bill, a path winds through a park along the edge of a rocky shore. Half way along we pass a man lying on a manicured patch of grass before a small cooking stove on which he is cooking a meal. Alone, absorbed in stirring his pot, he ignores us.

On this day, there is something sterile and sad about Weymouth. Even the harbour, with its dozens of yachts rafted up three and four deep, seems quiet and uncommunicative. The yachtsmen and women keep to themselves. The fishermen come and go in their boats, unsmiling and monosyllabic as if whatever joy they may once have found in their work has wilted under the stress of routine and - who knows - the economics of the industry. Nets and lobster pots piled in a compound on the wharf exude an odour of rotting fish.

One senses that the prettiness of the harbour - and the charming pedestrianised shopping precinct behind - are no more than facades disguising a fundamental lack of purpose - as if the raison d'├ętre of the town, the reason why earlier generations settled there and prospered - had faded into history, leaving behind only traces of the activity that had once given it life, and turning it - perhaps like much of "pretty"England - into a combination of museum and amusement arcade.

In a line of three impressive yachts rafted up behind us sat a carvel-planked streamlined forty footer manned by a crew of four men of advanced years - three of whom had clearly reached the age at which limbs threaten to disobey the simplest commands, and movement of any kind on a small boat looks inadvisable. As they set about preparations for departure, the youngest and fittest of the quadrumvirate came forward to take charge of the bowline.

- We're missing a crew member, he tells me in an unmistakable American drawl.
He's from Santa Barbara, California but his fellow sailors are English. All four are former BOAC pilots and have been sailing together for years (the British Overseas Airways Corporation disappeared in 1974 when it merged with BEA to become British Airways.)

At length, the errant crew member appears. Red-faced, he hurries down the walkway in a series of stiff lunges as if bracing himself for a fall. Somehow, he reaches the pontoon unscathed, trips twice on his way across the two intervening vessels and finally joins his companions. There, embarrassed and anxious to show himself useful, he unties and then immediately reties a fender.

A plummy voice on the helm barks an order to release the bow line but this merely provokes a discussion about whether the stern line should have priority. Should they go forward - or spring off in reverse? The debate courses back and forth along the length of the boat. Finally, they reach a consensus and we watch them move off, spin round and head for the harbour entrance. She's an old girl that yacht, narrow-beamed, with a long canoe stern and low freeboard. Despite her length, she can have only minimal facilities below and we wonder at the spartan conditions in which these elderly sailors are travelling, at their undimmed sense of adventure, and the warmth of their companionship.


Two vicious rocks guard the eastern approach to the River Dart, but once they're rounded, the entrance shows itself serene and beautiful. Ancient fortresses on each bank overlook the modest estuary and immediately afterwards we see the steep hills of Dartmouth with houses rising high on each side, the imposing Naval College in the middle distance and at water level. a jumble of commercial and pleasure boats of every conceivable shape and size. And overlooking the town, the rich countryside of rural Devon, countless shades of green, from the sombre tones of forest embedded in hollows barely touched by the sun's rays to the soft, yellowish verdure of the hilltops which, under the sun's blaze, shine too brightly to gaze at with comfort.

But the sun seldom blazes this summer. Gales are rolling in from the Atlantic in quick succession, and the locals inform us laconically that "nobody will be going out for a few days".
Richard and Danielle - old friends from Greenwich - invite us to dinner. They live on a 42 ft Vancouver moored in a tranquil creek next to the boatyard where Richard works as a shipwright. On a quiet night before the next gale, we arrive by tender to find them watching out for us from the side deck. Their welcome is typically warm and generous. They seem - as always - transparently happy - more so than ever since the arrival of little Saxony whom Richard is holding in his arms as we come aboard.

There is something at once profoundly simple and beautiful about the bond between these two fine people. Though both have strong, crisp personalities, it is almost impossible to think of them apart or separate from each other. When in their presence, I sometimes have the impression - I don't exaggerate - of being in a privileged space, not in any religious sense but because what they reveal of themselves and radiate to others is an affection so deep and trusting as to suggest a spirituality that maybe we all search for but don't always find, a sense of shared humanity, an instinctive recognition of the bond that unites us, and a reminder, perhaps, of what Dante expressed unforgettably in Canto 17 of the Purgatorio:
Ne creator ne creatura mai
- comincio el - figliuol, fu sanza amore
("My son," he began, "Neither creator nor creature ever lived without love.)

Weather keeps us in port. Grey clouds hang over the town like a dense pall of smoke, the wind whistles in the rigging, sheets of rain sweep across the river valley. In the colourful Royal Avenue Gardens - a stout middle-aged woman wearing a yellow hat and matching coat sits alone and implacable on a bench while the rain assaults her.
During a lull, a group of morris dancers inject some cheer into the landscape, the music played by a wizened accordian player dwarfed by his instrument over which he leans lopsidely, his left ear resting on the sound box as if he were hard-of hearing, while he taps out the rhythm first with one leg, then with the other. The effect is absurdly comical.

With such observations of local life we must content ourselves because for the moment we are stuck. An attempt to break out to Plymouth - a mere 30 miles away - failed as we found ourselves heading at snail's pace into 32-knot winds and rough seas with no prospect of being able to unfurl the sails for several hours - at least until we had rounded Start Point. A forecast of further deteriorating weather and poor visibility had us turning tail and motoring back to the Dart where we lie at anchor swinging this way and that under a leaden sky, listening to the inevitable, inescapable, apparently inexhaustible rain that raineth every day.