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Tuesday, April 3, 2001

Escape to the Victorian age in the town time forgot


By JULIAN RYALL
Staff writer

SIDMOUTH, England -- If one holds the sepia-tinted postcard and stands in the same spot where the photographer stood at the start of the last century, one is stunned by the changes to the facades of the hotels and shops that line Sidmouth's seafront. There are virtually none.

A couple of coats of paint, no doubt, the odd television aerial and a new sign outside the Marine pub, but Sidmouth folk are proud that their town has changed so little in the last century.

I came across the postcard rooting through a cluttered antique shop on Fore Street. It was among dozens of other images of the town dating from a time when Britain's Empire was at its zenith, the Union Jack flew more frequently and men and women apparently took a little more care with their dress.

The gentlemen in the pictures are wearing bowler hats and suits, while the women's dresses have bustles and high necks, and they are carrying parasols. Children wear straw boaters and sailor-boy costumes while shots taken down the long sweeping curve of the pebbly beach reveal bathers descending the steps of old-fashioned bathing machines (covered bathhouses on wheels that were rolled into the sea to protect the modesty of bathers as they entered and exited the water) clad in striped all-in-one swimming costumes.

Where the River Sid meets the sea, nestled in the still-green valley between Salcombe Hill and High Peak, Sidmouth evolved from a Devonshire fishing village into a fashionable resort in the early 1800s. The Duke of Kent and his family, including the young Princess Victoria, resided at Woolbrook Glen from the middle of 1819 until the duke's untimely death in 1820.

A century later the author George Bernard Shaw was mobbed by fans at his hotel on the Esplanade. Local gossip claimed he had to use the fire escape to leave the hotel.

The Victorian and Georgian-era properties that line the seafront are largely the same as they were when the 1900s dawned, although the Sidmouth Bath Co.'s brine baths are gone and the old lifeboat station at the eastern end of the promenade has become a yacht club.

The town's decision to stay true to its roots has paid off, however, and not just in the number of tourists who arrive trying to recapture some of the gentility of days gone by. Sidmouth is high on the list of locations whenever the BBC films a period drama; "Poirot," "Agatha Christie" and "Brideshead Revisited" have all been shot in and around the town, with modern streetlights disguised as gas lanterns and horse-drawn carriages replacing cars on the streets.

A single main street winds down through the town, with an offshoot leading to the station where day-trippers were disgorged by the trainload every summer. The line is shut down, but the old buildings still remain, the siding sheds turned into warehouses.

Closer to the front, a former convent has become a prestigious private school and what used to be The Knowle Hotel is now the headquarters of East Devon District Council. Its grounds reverberate to music from every corner of the globe in the first week of August each year, when Sidmouth plays host to one of the largest international folk music festivals in Britain.

A little way beyond the cinema (the exterior of which has remained unchanged in decades, though the interior was recently remodeled) the main street divides into Fore Street and the narrower Old Fore Street. Unlike many of Britain's towns, Sidmouth has few chain stores. Most of the shops are still small, family-run concerns: bakers, stationers, a tailor, bookstores and antique shops. The biggest throwback of them all is Trump's, an old-fashioned grocery store with a tiled floor and dark-paneled walls. Its shelves are full of traditional fare: Marmite, Scottish salmon, sage stuffing for a Sunday roast and a great range of cheeses.

The other places where British is considered best are, of course, the public houses. The hand pumps pour out Bass or Flowers IPA, as well as Branscombe Ale, a local beer made in limited quantities in a village just 8 km along the coast.

One of Sidmouth's oldest drinking establishments, the Old Ship Inn, has made no concessions to modernity. It was a haven for smugglers in the 17th century. Beneath it a series of passages run toward the church to the west, emerging in the graveyard; they were once used to smuggle kegs of spirits illegally imported from France.

Beyond the nearby market square the street emerges onto the front, and, invariably, a bracing breeze off the Channel, even in summer. Behind the yacht club to the east, Alma Bridge, named after a Crimean War battle, crosses the river to the start of a steep climb up the footpath to the top of Salcombe Hill.

Distinctive red sandstone cliffs rise at the other end of the seafront, topped by the Connaught Gardens, opened in 1934, and a crenellated stone tower that once served as a coastal watchtower and telegraph relay station.

Beyond the tower, a white-painted zig-zagging wooden staircase, known as Jacob's Ladder, descends some 50 steps to the wide promenade and beach. Jacob's Ladder was featured in the H.G. Wells novel "The Sea Raiders," and from the top on a clear winter's day one can see the towering sea cliffs at the western end of Lyme Bay and out into the Atlantic Ocean.

Getting there: Buses run hourly between Sidmouth and Exeter, the largest city in Devon (about 19 km). The train journey from Waterloo Station in southwest London to Exeter Central Station take 31/2 hours.


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