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History & CommunityWest Bay Discovery Centre

West Bay Discovery Centre

Once a refuge built to convert people away from the evils of drink, The Chapel on the Beach in West Bay is about to take the next step in its proud history.  This summer it will open again to the public and present a treasure trove of West Bay stories and information. Trevor Ware details some of the history of the building.

Of all of the old buildings that survive in West Bay today, the Wesleyan Church, better known as the Chapel on the Beach, is probably the most remarkable. Set to the side of the Bridport Arms Hotel, close to the old Watch House and Belle Vue Coast Guard Station, it is an intriguing part of the conservation area on the eastern side of the harbour. Barely 200 metres from the shoreline and built without substantial foundations directly onto the shingle by the owner of the West Bay Shipyard, Elias Cox, it has withstood the full force of nature for nearly 170 years.

During the middle of the 19th Century, West Bay harbour was a seriously busy place. A large shipyard employed up to 300 men and built quantities of vessels for the Royal Navy, private owners and the Customs and Revenue service. In a period of 100 years from 1769 some 350 ships were constructed and many local fishing vessels crossed over the Atlantic to Newfoundland to fish for cod on the Grand Banks. Fishermen, shipyard workers and sailors alike were more than a little predisposed to enjoy their leisure hours in the drinking houses around the harbour. Drunkenness was common and Cox, a staunch Methodist, decided to build a little Chapel with his own money; the cost was £400, approximately £100,000 in today’s money. He and his fellow Methodists plan was of course, to convert men and women away from the evils of drink. Clearly constructed without any practical building experience, the floor and joists contain many offcuts taken from the shipyard presumably to save money. The shape of the roof inside the Church resembles a barrel and the curved structure is like a ship’s hull. It has a remarkable acoustic, probably deliberately so, as Methodists rejoice in singing hymns, and, extraordinarily, it feels as dry as a bone.

One hundred years later, after government requisition and damage caused by the Army during World War 2, there was a gradual decline in Church attendance. In 2006 the last service was held. The building was handed over to the West Dorset District Council that same year in a poor but not critical state. The Council valiantly tried to find a new use for the Church but without success. Finally they agreed to transfer the property to the Bridport Area Development Trust in 2011 with a grant of £30,000, to enable them to evaluate and develop a set of options for future use. A devoted team including Crystal Johnson, Sylvia Stafford and Charles Wild took up the challenge, assessing a range of different ideas, consulting widely with local residents and visitors to West Bay, and, with very little money at their disposal, keeping the little Church safe from the elements.

Coincidentally as this process continued, the success of Broadchurch on TV became bigger and bigger. Many more visitors came into West Bay in search of specific locations. Their interest reached beyond the mere identification of the crime scenes and victim’s homes, and questions were asked about buildings around the harbour, East Cliff and the Jurassic coast. It became obvious that West Bay had a history people wished to learn about but there was nowhere to tell them the stories.

The Trust decided to develop an imaginative scheme which was to use the little Church as a base for Discovery. This was summed up by one simple statement—‘A treasure trove of West Bay stories and information, as well as a base for exploration and adventure’. The church would neither be a standard visitor centre, nor a kind of mini-museum, but a repository of information on its people, their occupations past and present. It would reflect the many interests of its visitors including the Jurassic Coast, birdwatching, camping, fishing, walking and offer ideas activities and trails.

As the plans developed, more and more content became available. Many unusual stories and facts emerged from all sides, so that a grant application of convincing substance was made to the Coastal Community Fund in 2016. This government fund was created to encourage employment and economic growth in coastal communities. Strongly supported by the Bridport Town Council, Jurassic Coast Trust and the local Coastal Community Partnership, the cost of the converting and equipping the Centre was estimated at £250,000. In mid-2017 the Trust was notified by CCF that the entire sum had been awarded. After six long years the future was secure.

After the usual applications for listed building consent, submission of plans and building regulation approval, work on the refurbishment began in late 2017. Under the expert guidance of the Bridport town surveyor, Daryl Chambers, a large amount of remedial work has been completed, although, from the outside nothing seems to have altered. The most exciting stage is just now beginning with detailed planning of the content and its presentation. So much has come to light that the difficulty has been how to decide and prioritise the wealth of history and other material we already have. This is a very nice problem indeed.

When the Discovery Centre opens this summer, it will be fully equipped and have a separate working space for a Manager, who we will be recruiting shortly, and our volunteers. Entry will be free, like all main museums, but we plan to have a small retail shop and to ask visitors for donations to contribute to our running costs. Our volunteers will be vital in helping with these aspects and ensuring that essential parts of the operation work smoothly. We expect visitors to be full of questions and volunteers will be trained and briefed on the display content and means by which ‘discoveries’ can be made. On those few occasions in the past when we have opened the Church doors, people soon arrived wanting to know more. There were just as many wanting to tell all.

As I said at the beginning this is no ordinary building. It appeals to peoples’ memories of childhood holidays, previous visits to Dorset and West Bay, and a general sense of easier times gone past. We would love to meet people who wish to share this extraordinary building and its treasure trove of information with others by becoming a volunteer even if only for a few hours a week. Please contact John West at info@westbaydiscoverycentre.org.uk

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