From 1968 until the turn of the century, John Fowles lived at Belmont, his home in Lyme Regis, Dorset. Author of The Magus and The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the latter is a post-modern take on the spirit of Thomas Hardy, an investigation of the Victorian psyche written in the midst of the 1960s’ liberating atmosphere.
Belmont has been restored in the last decade by the Landmark Trust, and is preserved in its original eighteenth century form: all traces of Victorian additions, save for the observatory, have been removed. When I visited, you could see John Fowles’s teapot in the adjoining stable room and a few sentences. Otherwise, his ghost is exorcised.
Yet beneath the idealised re-creation of a 1790s townhouse, now a Wes Anderson-esque confection landed by the car park, I found a deep melancholy.
Fowles’ Victorian imagination, which I think we can safely assume was fired by the house he found in 1968, has no place in this restoration for the 21st century. Yes, we have a beautifully preserved building after years of neglect, but – save for a weekend this year when it is open for the public to view – it only exists because the super-rich can afford to stay here (the Landmark Trust funds its restorations by renting out the properties).
It would be more than churlish to not appreciate the work of The Landmark Trust. We have to be so grateful that they have rescued so many buildings and left them alive with possibility for future generations.
Yet Fowles also wanted Belmont to be a retreat for nurturing new writers. At least this has been given some lip service, though I can find scant current information.
You can’t help thinking: our world could be so different, but we gallop towards extremes of beautifully-curated heritage and plate-glass luxe-life stores at one end, and at the other – well, the opposite, with not much in the middle.
Photos copyright WhistlesintheWind