by Raphael Daden
Weymouth’s history has been shaped by the different waters around it – the beautiful beach on one side, the bird-haunted Backwater on the other, and the boat-busy harbour that connects the beach and Backwater together.
It all began around the harbour, with the rival towns of Weymouth and Melcombe on either side. From the 1100s on their ships traded with other English ports and across the Channel, exporting wool and grain to France and Spain and bringing back wine and other luxuries. Less happily they also carried the Black Death to England, which arrived in Melcombe in 1348.
After the devastation of the Black Death and centuries of legal disagreements, the two little towns were finally united in 1571 by a special Act of Parliament, and they were physically joined a few years later by the first bridge across the harbour, roughly where the Town Bridge stands today. In those days the houses turned their backs on the beachfront, and it wasn’t until the 18th century, when sea bathing first became fashionable, that the town turned round and started spreading along the Esplanade. Its popularity as a tourist resort was given a huge boost in 1789, when King George III himself started taking his summer holidays in the town – which he continued to do until 1802.
Early visitors would have recognised many of the buildings we can still see today, but old Weymouth was much narrower than it is now, and the Backwater was much wider, so you would have seen water everywhere you looked. If you had stayed in one of the hotels on the Esplanade you would have views across the beach from the front and across the Backwater from the back. Right up to the 19th century, when the tide was in, you would have been able to take a boat from Weymouth all the way up to the village of Radipole, which today is several miles inland.
The 19th century saw the arrival of the railways, bringing thousands more visitors to the town, as well as increased industry around the Backwater, including timber yards and a gas works. As the water became increasingly smelly and polluted at low tide, a dam was built across the Backwater to keep it water levels high. The old estuary slowly changed into a reed-filled freshwater lake, which today we know as the RSPB Radipole bird reserve.
While Weymouth is famous for its sandy beach, its harbour and the wetland wildlife areas behind it are less well known. The Weymouth Sculpture Trail aims to link and raise the profile of these environments and what they offer the visitor and residents. The artworks are deliberately located to help tell the lesser-known aspects of Weymouth’s story.
The Levels by Raphael Daden takes the shape of a porthole window looking out to sea.
Duel by Alex Evans is located in the middle of Hope Square, five barrel-shaped pieces guarded by two duelling...
Time and Tide by Nigel Ross is a sculptural bench made from a single huge slab of oak.
Apparition by Steve Geliot is a contemporary artwork that exists in both physical and digital form.
Reef Dwellers by Ben Russell is made up of three different reef dwellers that be found off the Dorset coast.
Constant Bearing by Denman+Gould takes its cue from Weymouth’s maritime connections.
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