Magazine article The Spectator

What Happened When Lord Palmerston Was Ticked off for Smoking

Magazine article The Spectator

What Happened When Lord Palmerston Was Ticked off for Smoking

Article excerpt

Jast week, on an expedition concerning carpet underlay, I found myself in a little Somerset town called Burnham on Sea. So I looked around to see what I could find. Summer having set in with its usual severity, as Coleridge put it, the front was windswept. Lowering clouds scudded overhead. A few bedraggled holidaymakers huddled on the rain-sodden beach. Fat ladies waddled past with screaming children. Eight patient donkeys took toddlers on short, chilly trips up and down the beach, and an old cart-horse pulled a wooden train full of mums and babies. There was a rather antiquated pleasure-den called the Charlie Chaplin Bar and a hostelry, the Duke of Clarence Hotel, with the grinning nautical mug of the future William IV swinging in the wind outside. That more or less completed the amenities. I was reminded of Norman Garstin's masterpiece, which also depicts a semi-deserted West Country resort in high summer, and which he entitled `The Rain It Raineth Every Day' (now to be seen in Penzance).

But there is no place in England without an intriguing past, if you dig for it. That, however, requires a sense and knowledge of history. The great archaeologist Sir Flinders Petrie used to say that those without history were forced to live in one dimension of time - the present - whereas those who knew history could live in as many as they pleased. The fact is, if you teach little history in schools, as is now almost universally the case, and dismiss the subject as 'nostalgia', as the present government does, you are robbing children not only of their heritage but also of huge future pleasures.

Burnham was a fishing village to the west of the main Bridgwater-Bristol road. That is a historic highway to me, for Coleridge, Hazlitt and others of their circle thought nothing of walking all its 40 miles. Thomas de Quincey did it overnight, and left an evocative description of the experience. It was quite an effort for him as he was only four foot ten inches, if that; Dorothy Wordsworth, who was just five foot, said, `He is the only gentleman who ever made me feel tall.' They did not pass through Burnham, which was connected to the road by a mere sandy track. In time, however, the speculative creation of seaside resorts, which Jane Austen satirised in the unfinished Sanditon, swept the village a few paces along the road to prosperity, and Burnham was connected first by road, then by rail. Mineral waters were discovered in early Victorian times, and in 1855 a local entrepreneur put up two classical quadrants, in beautiful Bath stone, at either end of the front. They are still there, time-stained and shabby-genteel. There was a lighthouse, too, and a pier, built to receive steamers from the Bristol Channel. But the pier has gone, leaving only a cavernous hostelry called the Pier Head Arms, and the top of the lighthouse was removed, the remains being incorporated in a weird little whitewashed villa, which stands between the two quadrants, like a white hen between two brown cocks, or an exercise in architectural incongruity. For the waters were found too sulphurous and the carriage trade departed. Poor Burnham has always had to compete with the slightly more upmarket Weston, along the coast, which added to its dignity by assuming the title of Weston-super-Mare, rather like its most famous alumnus, who now calls himself Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare. So Burnham added `on Sea' at some stage, which at least is unpretentious. The locals simply call them Burnham and Weston. …

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