Tales: Elizabethan Lyme Regis, Part I

The Cobb circa 1540 showing its early construction and the fire beacon to warn of invasion

IN this article I invite readers to take a stroll through the town as it was in Elizabethan times, its simplistic street pattern was of medieval origin which by necessity being determined by Lyme’s hilly topography.

The eastern access from Bridport and Charmouth entered the town just above St Michael’s Church after descending a byway from Stonebarrow, crossing the Buddle on the aptly named Gretebrugge/Great Bridge. Adjoining the bridge on its south west corner was a private dwelling which had previously been a Priest’s Chamber.

Coombe Street/King’s Highway, the town’s ancient major road (an Elizabethan word) into Lyme, shadowed the River Lym providing a northern link to Axminster crossing the river by way of Gosselyngesbrugge/Gosling Bridge.

The old Roman Road/Colway Lane to the north had a ramshackle bridge that was often impassable when the river was in flood; it was known as Colway Bridge – today’s Horn Bridge – which latterly took its name from an adjacent tavern, close by was the Fulling Mill.

The commercial heart of the port was centred at the mouth of the river, a medieval jetty was situated below the important Cobb Gate (today the site of the Millennium Clock) through which all its seaborne trade passed.

Records show that there was a double-gate, each gate being some six meters high and two meters wide. The gates were cork lined to make them fire-resistant in order to prevent attackers burning them down. Storm damage in the 1950s revealed the remains of a stone ramp built circa 1556 which led from the beach to the gates.

Within the walled enclosure of Cobb Gate were warehouses which merchants leased to store their merchandise, there was also the Town Beam on which all imports and exports were weighed to assess duty payable to the crown.

The Custom House was adjacent having been built in 1580 to replace the one sited on the Cobb which had suffered storm damage.

The Cobb, as shown on a chart of 1579, reveals that it had undergone reconstruction, its new shape resembling a figure seven, like its predecessor it offered little protection from storms and was not joined to the land.

Some 100 meters west of Cobb Gate was the Stone Fort, its cannon was ideally placed to defend the Cobb and Cobb Gate. From Cobb Gate the steep street we know as Broad Street was then West Street, it being wider that the other principal streets would indicate its origin as being that of an ancient market place.

Elizabethans added a clock/bell tower to the covered market which they called The Shambles, it stood at the lower end of West Street and reached up as far as the Lion Inn, today’s Royal Lion. Early leases refer to it as being a ‘flesh and fish market’.

The word Shambles originally denoted a butcher’s slaughter house that it certainly was with animals being killed, disembowelled, chopped and jointed in full view of the public. The squeals of the animals along with the blood and the stench of death would today be nauseating.

However, Elizabethans were not so squeamish, their sensitivities not so fragile, they were accustomed to unwholesome sights which included heaps of human excrement in the street.

Below the Shambles was a row of buildings dating from circa 1585 and known as Middle Row, in all probability they were workshops/retail outlets.

To be continued…

Peter Lacey
Local author and historian

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