Any place that’s called the Durdle Door has to be visited as far as I am concerned, unless, I guess, it refers to the entrance to a nuclear waste dump or a Gate to Hell. But that is not the case. It just has one of those irresistible place names that only the English seem capable of coming up with, as if it once belonged to some ancient Celtic giant. Just say it a couple of times yourself. Go on. You’ll see what I mean. The Durdle Door.
I am talking about, of course, the famous limestone rock formation located outside the town of Lulworth some 15 miles east of Weymouth. It is one of the most famous natural arches in the world and has formed the backdrop to countless pictures, paintings, videos, programs and movies. Anything visual. I wanted to go because I knew it would be a great way to get my girls into the English world.
I went to Google and mapped out the basic route. I didn’t have a way of getting a hardcopy, so I took it upon myself to get the mental gist of how to drive there and went for the car. I have a pretty good sense of direction, it’s still one of the few skills that have survived forty-six years of living with me, so I have to make the most of it.
Having said that with a degree of pride, I have to admit that I did miss the first major turnoff which would have taken us by the seawall east of Weymouth. More than a mistake, since my instincts told it that was the right way, it was my limited experience driving on the left side of the road that was to be the determining factor in the end. You see, making split-second decisions when you are trying to adapt to everything being in the opposite place, is both a counter-intuitive and dangerous thing. Kind of like waking up in the morning upside down on a hammock. A rash move might prove regrettable. That’s why, for the first few days, every time I made a decision on the road, I rarely changed it until I could find a place to quietly and calmly make corrections. Much of the traffic peeled off to the right behind; I glided safely off to the left.
This road led me out of Weymouth through the section called Melcombe Regis. Now, Melcombe Regis may sound to you like the name of a man who owns a Jaguar and plans on spending his retired life on the lawn bowling green, but it happens to a neighborhood in Weymouth and was once its own town, located a little further up the Wey inlet. In fact, for years its port competed ferociously with Weymouth for business until the two were finally untied and Melcombe basically absorbed.
Melcombe Regis would probably have gone down in history as a quiet hamlet in English history had it not played such an important role in a rather unfortunate event: The Black Death. In short, it started it.
Well, let me give a less misleading remark. It was in this town, in 1349, that the plague first made landfall on British territory. Sailors were to blame, naturally. They had arrived from France, Gascony, they say, and with a disease just reeling to disembark and start murdering on a mass scale. And just like one of those evil downloaders allows malware into a computer, so did these seamen permit the malady to infect the township. The English already were aware of the plague as it had been raging in Europe for over a year, so when the first signs appeared, the people scattered the countryside seeking safety. The problem was, many of them were already infected and thus aided and abetted in spreading the disease. It was the perfect killer, with the victims acting as the perfect delivery system. There is a plaque explaining all of this in extremely pithy brevity. It states: The Black Death entered England in 1348 through this port. It killed 30-50% of the country’s total population.
Now I am sure no town feels particularly chipper about allowing one of the most lethal diseases in human history to wreak havoc on their countrymen, but the truth is such an occurrence was inevitable, and Weymouth just happened to be the unlucky place where it entered. That partially explains this seemingly odd claim to fame for the town. The other factor is that this was no ordinary cataclysm. Not only did it usher in a new age for Europe, but the effects from the fallout were of such a scope and depth that they can still be felt today. The horror of an invisible enemy uncontrollably decimating a population (that term actually falls short as it literally means one-tenth), and then vanishing into thin air, to put it bluntly, scares the shit out of us. Because we know it can happen. And because we know it can happen again. And yet, at the same time, we are as people almost repulsively attracted to past tragic events of this nature. They intrigue us, almost excite us to a point the boggles the mind. It must have been horrific. Just horrific.
Soon enough, we exited Weymouth proper, came to a roundabout which pointed us in the right direction, and we were once again back on track.
The trip to the Durdle Door was my first real excursion on the English roads, and I was very much looking forward to showing my daughters the beautiful countryside. The hedgerows that so distinctly define the English country road system never seem to tire me, though they do make for some hazardous driving, if you ask me. I get the feeling that the English tend to drive at the same speed regardless of whether they are cruising down the M3 or blazing by endless acres of fields. With long stretches of roadway marked by severe peripheral vision impairment, it is a wonder that more drivers aren’t blindsided by emerging cars, cyclists and cows, even, as was the case outside Abbotsbury one morning. No accident, just a sizable herd switching to a new field for better pastures.
It also comes as no surprise, then, that Lawrence of Arabia met his fate on a motorcycle due to a last-second maneuver to swerve out of the way of some children. That takes place in the opening scene of the movie. The real incident occurred right here in Dorset. The story goes that the doctor who tended to Lawrence was so affected by the wasted lives lost from head injuries that he initiated a movement that resulted in the required use of crash helmets. The safety, I suppose, reduces personal injury, but not necessarily the speed.
I still felt a little unnatural about driving on the left, so I kept my speed to something reasonable, causing backups all along the coast of Dorset.
We wove through woods and fields and hills and villages and finally arrived at a highpoint from which you could survey the expanse of the coast below. The first time I had been there, we went down to Lulworth Cove and hoofed it along a path from there. But Ana wasn’t feeling topnotch so, instead of hiking a mile and a half uphill and doing her in altogether, we slipped by the holiday park and softly parked on a grassy makeshift parking spot. Three pounds for the meter later, we short-stepped it downhill, stopping once to observe a herd of cows which grazed on a meadow so steep the scene defied all logic. How they kept from tumbling down to the beach was beyond us and we paused with amusement at the sight. Then we continued until we reached a ledge where we took in a full and breathtaking view of the Durdle Door arch. It is so perfectly shaped, it gets an “A” in my book for archiness. The girls were so impressed that even Ana began to feel better immediately and suggested we inch our way down the side to the beach below. It was a perfect idea. The skies were quite overcast but not menacing, and the hour, around six, meant dinnertime for most, which translated in our having the place practically to ourselves. Among the few who accompanied us was a group of Indian filmmakers, director, cameraman and an attractive couple who acted. The Durdle Door served as the ideal background to a romantic scene. She sat on her side with her legs slightly stretched out, and we bounded along water’s edge with a big smile to make her laugh and woo her. They seemed to be having fun and we certainly enjoyed watching the spectacle. We lay on the pebbly beach, took pictures and listened to the waves crashed onto the shore and fill the air with ocean spray. This is one of the simple pleasures that England can effortlessly offer the visitor and resident alike. Time was no longer an issue for us. Time had stopped.
The Durdle Door, while open to the public, is actually on private property, which I found to be a shocking revelation. Natural formations of such significance and right on the edge of the coast seem destined to be a part of the nation’s heritage. But no, a family by the name of the Welds owns it. In fact, with 12,000 acres making up the family estate, it would seem that there is precious little the Welds don’t own in that area, except for maybe the ice cream shop in town, and maybe even then. There is a mansion nearby known as Lulworth Castle which burned down back in 1929. Years of research has led me to the conclusion that total destruction due to combustion is the eventual destiny of most British castles, estates and mansions, and this was no exception. Restoration was undertaken in the 1970s and now the place can be visited or rented for special events.
We passed on that option, and instead drove downhill to Lulworth Cove, which is a cute little port town, with tiny cottages for summertime vacationers. The place is so quaint I was quite prepared to see Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle emerge from a painted door or find Peter Rabbit rummaging through a garden.
We strolled down the street to the very end, by the man who sells tie-dye scallops shells, and looked out. The English love Lulworth and visit it in droves all the time. Ironically, the cove itself isn’t particularly picturesque because it’s so barren, almost to the point of desperation. But it is also a textbook book example of a bay. When you think of cove, an image of Lulworth leaps to mind. Its shape is so near perfectly round, with two sharp pincers leaving just a tight gap to maximize protection from the open sea, you’d think it was manmade. But no, time and a helluvah lot of water did the job. It’s hard not to be impressed by that. If only it had a goddamn tree or two. Oh, well, it was still cool to see. We capped the trip with an ice cream which we managed to buy just seconds ahead of closing time, 8:00.