18th February 2018
Lymington, the Coastal Capital of the New Forest in England
Lymington, in the New Forest, of England has an unusually wide High Street. It was built like this to accommodate the large Charter Market that has been held here since 1250. Early every Saturday morning around one hundred market stalls are set up and line the High Street on both sides. Generally referred to as a Georgian street this road actually features an eclectic mix of Georgian, Victorian, Art Deco and traces of Medieval architecture. I joined the crowds of visitors thronging the High Street to browse the various stalls that ranged from pet products to home-made bread. All this activity was watched over by the parish church, the Church of Saint Thomas situated at the top end of the High Street. When I finished in the market I made my way to this church. I like visiting churches as they often divulge a lot about the history of their environment.
Historically the Church of Saint Thomas been integral to the development of the town as there has been a church on the same site since at least the mid-thirteenth century. Parts of the present building, a Grade II listed building, date back to the early thirteenth century. The church was badly damaged during the English Civil Wars when the Puritans occupied it. The local inhabitants restored it in the style of the time. The tower was added following the Restoration of the Monarchy in the seventeenth century. It is believed the distinctive white cupola was added in the mid-eighteenth century. This cupola had deteriorated by the end of the twentieth century when the group known as the Friends of Saint Thomas was established and raised sufficient funds to restore it.
A set of magnificent glass doors is a recent addition to the interior of the church. They were donated to the church in memory of Margery Sargent a regular worshipper here from 1961 to 2003. A glass engraver, Tracey Sheppard was commissioned to create the doors. She produced a beautiful design intended to direct the eye through the glass towards the altar. Her design portrays the history and surroundings of Lymington incorporated with traditions of Christian art. For example, the words on the right hand door are worked in the form of an elm trees that represents the trees of the New Forest that sit beside the water. Trees and water are popular symbols of Christianity. The old name for an elm tree Limen could have been combined with the word for a farm or hamlet, tun resulting in the name Lymington. The elm tree here represents the Tree of Life sheltering birds amongst its branches and the birds, a sparrow and a goldfinch, are symbolic in the Christian religion. Decorative textures in the shape of salt crystals were inspired by the fact that from the Middle Ages until the nineteenth century Lymington was famous for its salt production. And salt, as in salt of the earth is also alluded to in the bible.
Banners, made by the Broderers (needle workers) of Saint Thomas and the children. They add a pleasing touch of colour to the interior of the church. These banners represent the church year – Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter and Whitsun (Pentecost). There are also banners representing the Brother Sun and Sister Moon to illustrate the Canticles of the Creatures often erroneously called the Canticles of Brother Sun by Saint Francis of Assisi. These are paraphrased in the hymn “All Creatures of Our God and King” – Brother Sun, Sister Moon. The children created the Baptism and the Children’s Society banners. Sister Moon is the banner featured in the image.
Worship was not the only activity the church and its parishioners shared in bygone days. Lymington was once a favourite haunt of smugglers and there are tales of a funeral scam involving the vicar and a coffin full of contraband. The vicar also allowed the smugglers to use the tower of the church of Saint Thomas for storage. The notorious smuggler Tom Johnstone was born in Lymington in 1772 and was brought up as a fisherman by his father, also a smuggler. As a boy his skills of seamanship and knowledge of the south coast of England were renowned. This enabled him to embark on a career that involved a residence in London at its height and a spell in jail during its depths. He was never confined for long and tales of daring escapes enthralled the smugglers in their regular meeting place, The George Inn, on the High Street of Lymington. The George Inn, the oldest coaching inn in Lymington, was renamed the Angel Inn. It is now a small hotel called the Angel and Blue Pig and reputed to be haunted.
I found another interesting church at the end of a narrow alley off the High Street, a Catholic Church, dedicated to “Our Lady of Mercy and St Joseph”. This church was built at the lower end of the High Street by the Weld family in 1859. Prior to this, local Catholics had been able to attend Mass at the private chapel on the Weld’s estate at nearby East End. When this church opened in May 1859 it meant Roman Catholics could worship publicly for the first time in three hundred years. Today it is the oldest building that is still used as a Catholic Parish Church in the West Hampshire and East Dorset area. It was established by Joseph Weld junior who was the son of the yacht designer Joseph Weld and the nephew of Cardinal Thomas Weld the first Englishman to be made a cardinal since the Reformation. The architect was Joseph Hansom, the inventor of the Hansom cab, who also designed the Cathedral of St Phillip Howard at Arundel.
Curious to discover more about the history of the town I followed the signs to the St Barbe Museum and Art Gallery. Opposite the museum is an unusual white building. This is the Baptist Church, that was founded here in 1688. Prior to that its members had met secretly in other locations for fear of persecution. The Baptist Church originated as a break-away movement from the Church of England which they believed to have become corrupt. They only accepted true believers in their church and all members were baptized. Hence the name.
St Barbe Museum and Art Gallery occupies a Victorian school building that once housed Lymington’s first National School established in 1835. National Schools were set up to give poorer children a basic education and moral and religious instruction. However, attendance could be erratic for multiple reasons from blackberry and potato picking to illness. Ann St Barbe, a member of an important Lymington family, provided the money to set up this school which was named after her family. Charles St Barbe established the first bank in Lymington in 1788 and his son was mayor of Lymington five times. Francis Walkingham St Barbe was an early partner in the law firm of Moore and Blatch founded in 1797. This firm currently occupies a building that was the St Barbe family home for many years. The museum first opened in 1999. Two years ago it was closed for a total re-refurbishment and was re-opened in 2017. Its forbidding brick façade has been replaced by a glass fronted entrance that leads straight into a cosy cafe. This café is not exclusive to visitors to the museum. Beyond the café is a small shop that includes a good range of tourist information.
The museum takes the visitor through the social history of the New Forest area that encompasses Lymington. It is a fascinating journey from the time of William the Conqueror who hunted in the forest telling of smugglers, salt production, boat building and wartime evacuees. It also tells the story of an engineering company called Wellworthy that brought prosperity to the town at one time employing 2,500 people. The company prospered during the Second World War but subsequently struggled and was finally forced to close in 1989. The modern Art Gallery features temporary exhibitions with different themes.
When I reached the lower end of the High Street I crossed the road and walked through the narrow cobbled streets to the Town Quay in Lymington Harbour on the Lymington River. The old Ship Inn was dong a roaring trade and the small harbour was busy with families enjoying a day out. The river opens out into a wide estuary and for this reason has been a popular place for boat building. However, it was the arrival of Thomas Inman that quickly established Lymington as an important yacht building centre. Under the patronage of Joseph Weld, Inman set up his boatyard by 1836 one of his yachts, Alarm, was dominating racing in the area, including Cowes. His boatyard was taken over by Berthon, whose large marina still dominates the riverside. With four other marinas and several boat-building yards Lymington is nationally renowned as a centre for sailing. Just beyond Berthon I discovered The Shipyard, a small restaurant serving fresh fish. I chose one of the catches of the day, Tess River trout, with two sides and it was excellent.
After lunch I continued exploring the riverside. Walking through the Bath Road Recreation Ground I found an old drinking fountain that had been moved there from the High Street. A little further along, beside the Royal Lymington Yacht Club, I found the Gas Light Memorial. This is one of the original gas lights that once lit the town and commemorates Admiral Sir Harry Burrard Neale a local naval hero.
Lymington’s Sea-Water Pool, close to the Royal Lymington Yacht Club was built in 1833. Although public bathing in Lymington dates back to the late eighteenth century when people bathed in Mrs Beeston’s baths. Mrs Beeston capitalised on the growing public interest in sea water and mud by using an inlet from the Salterns and advertising her sea baths as “strengthening”. She offered baths with or without a guide. A male guide was available to keep bathers afloat using a rope. As the baths became more popular customers travelled long distances to use them. In 1833 these baths were replaced by a larger building under the auspices of the Lymington Bath and Improvement Company to house hot, cold and vapour baths and a large outdoor swimming pool. More mud flat areas were taken over for pastimes like archery, rifle shooting and golf – all below sea level. A golf club was established but after being flooded twice the golf course when the Second World War began. The baths had a variety of owners before they were acquired by the local corporation in 1929. They are now owned by Lymington and Pennington Town Council and leased by a private company to manage them. This sea-water pool is the oldest in the UK and in 2016 they were extensively renovated to preserve them for future generations.
Skirting the pool, I came to the beginning of a walk through the sea marshes. Now restored to nature and incorporated in the Lymington to Keyhaven Nature Reserve. For many years the sea marshes were important to the economy and development of the town. Historically salt was a valuable commodity and not only used to flavour and preserve food and other purposes but also for trade and payment. From the Middle Ages until the Nineteenth Century the Lymington salt marshes were the ideal place for salt production with its strong sunshine and low humidity which aided evaporation. The salt marshes were known as the salterns and each saltern had an individual owner many of whom made a lot of money producing salt in the salt pans. Seawater was channelled through trenches into large, shallow gravel bottomed ponds. In these ponds a lot of the water was allowed to evaporate in the sun. The water was then drawn off through pipes to a boiling house where the water was boiled to complete the process. By 1817 increased taxation on salt and rising costs of coal and transportation heralded the beginning of the end for the salt industry and in 1866 the salt industry in Lymington ended when the last saltern closed. Today the salt marshes are rich in bird life and criss-crossed by public paths offering yet another dimension to the town of Lymington.
Although the New Forest is well-connected to major roads within the forest the roads are narrow and get very busy during the holiday period. There is a regular train service operated by South Western Railway from Waterloo to “Brockenhurst”:“https://www.thenewforest.co.uk/explore/towns-and-villages/brockenhurst. From Brockenhurst station there are trains and buses to Lymington. There is a regular” bus service”:http://www.bluestarbus.co.uk/page.shtml?pageid=925 between Southampton and Lymington and between Bournemouth and Lymington. Don’t forget to buy your Go New Forest Card that offers discounts on local New Forest businesses.
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