Things to do in Weymouth for a pound

A sunny late summer's day found me in Weymouth on the South Coast (of England) enjoying an awayday by the sea. I'd never visited before and was pleasantly surprised to find how little the English seaside experience has changed over the years since my childhood - pedalos in the sea; traditional deckchairs, sandcastles and even donkey rides on the beach; waltzers, bumper cars and all manner of stomach-challenging rides along the prom; and tables heaving under innumerable fish suppers & pints of lager outside every pub & eatery. There was rather more (sun-reddened) flesh on display and nearly everyone wearing shoes was in techno-trainers but apart from that you could blink and be back in the 50's.

I'd done no planning or preparation and was happy to just wander around and see what I found, enjoying the sunshine as I did so. During my meanderings I discovered three ways of having a good time, each for the princely sum of £1.

Punch & Judy

The candy-striped fit-up with flags, bunting and ornately painted fascia stood just a dozen yards from the prom and a good sized crowd, about 50/50 adults & children sat waiting for the next performance. I found an unobstructed viewpoint towards the back and joined them in anticipation.

Punch & Judy was one of those things that was always being referenced during my childhood but that I couldn't get a clear memory of actually seeing in the flesh. The characters were familiar on an almost mythical level, as was the essentially unchanging storyline and the strangely disturbing "That's the way to do it!". Waiting for the show to begin felt like preparing for some ancient ritual, honouring old gods that were on the edge of being forgotten. This was subtly reinforced by the man gathering the crowd's contributions in what looked very like an old church collection box from my Catholic past. I added my offering and prepared for revelation.

The story kept well within the bounds of the traditional narrative. Joey the clown (a character I didn't remember as clearly as the others) introduces Mr Punch and then departs; Judy joins Punch, they kiss and then she presents him with the baby (a connection that went right over my head as a child). Punch teaches the baby to walk but when it cries he throws it down the stairs. The Policeman enters to arrest Punch but is dispatched by being thwacked by Punch's stick. Punch gets a string of sausages but these are stolen & eaten by the Crocodile who, in this performance, then proceeds to eat Punch himself. Joey reappears to say goodbye to everyone and the curtains close.

This was all pretty much as I remembered it. A few of the lesser-known characters were missing - the Hangman, the Ghost & the Devil - and there was a new one, a black & orange spider who had its own little back & forth with Punch.

The story rattled along, finely matched to the attention span of the (very young) target audience but with enough wry asides to garner a few chuckles from the adults. My favourite of these came when one of the characters asked the children what they thought he was going to have for dinner, following lots of references to sausages. After they dutifully shouted back "Sausages!" he replied "No, we're having pizza to acknowledge our Italian origins". But it was primarily a kids' show and, on reflection, most of it was just peek-a-boo - asking the audience to shout out when a specific character appeared. And that entertainment format is still very potent, the yells of "Over there!", "Other side!" and (the classic) "Behind you!" were loud & impassioned. And, I must confess, not just from the young ones.

It's hard to make sense of Punch & Judy. The story deals with child neglect, domestic (and other) violence, murder and being eaten alive but with virtually no emotional connection or sense of morality or ethics. Most of the characters are essentially the same - a parent or obliging adult from a child's perspective, powerful and patronising but a bit slow - with the exception of the implacable Crocodile and the wild & uncontrollable Punch, clearly the star of the show. Perhaps Punch is a rare insight into the worldview of a toddler, looking for affection and trying to be good but all too easily overwhelmed by waves of strange & powerful feelings & emotions. Is there some deep realisation that although most things can be dealt with by an aggressive assault the Crocodile will always get you in the end? Or is the Crocodile just the end of the day, a frightening loss of consciousness but not too terrible as the realisation grows that there's always another morning after that? Or am I getting too analytical here? Watching a crowd of small kids shout & point it was clear that this was a world they knew well and at the back of my mind a memory stirred.

Weymouth Museum

There's something uniquely charming about local, volunteer-run museums. In this age of polished infotainment, corporate sponsorship and quantifiable Learning Experiences it's very refreshing to visit a Bunch of Local Stuff organised by people with more enthusiasm than marketing focus. More on this later.

The first indication that Weymouth Museum wasn't going to be a vast, anonymous Information Refinery came with its signs - simple A4 sheets, carefully inserted into plastic sleeves. The entrance looked like a 'collectables'/tat bazaar but another sign guided the visitor 'upstairs' from where, with a little searching, a third notice proudly stated that the museum was 'Open Today!' No dull, predictable list of opening times - the mysteries of when the doors would be unbarred remained veiled & unexplained but by great good fortune they had come into alignment and you, the lucky seeker after (local) knowledge, would be permitted entrance.

The guardians of the doorway were two very sweet ladies. They took my pound, dropped it into the cash box, issued me with a numbered 'Adult' ticket and helpfully pointed out that the single visible doorway was the way in. This struck me at first as a very high level of security - did one of them wrestle unwarranted intruders to the floor while the other called for rapid response backup? Or was the risk of embezzlement so great that they each provided security oversight for the other, with the cash box tally audited against the issued ticket count as a final check? It seemed to me that having a (secured) donations box and a single person to keep an eye on things would be an easier, cheaper & generally more efficient way of running things.

But after further thought I realised the system worked very well on a human level. With a very low throughput of visitors - there was nobody else there when I arrived and there were never more than two people present during my entire visit - having a second official meant someone to talk to, someone who could hold the fort while the other popped out, and someone to provide a second source of answers for visitors' questions. The process of issuing tickets meant that rather than just sitting by the donations box and nodding politely they had a job to do, something that established their function & status in the eyes of the visitor. They were almost certainly volunteering their time anyway so the only real expense was the roll of tickets. It seemed worth it.

The museum contents were the usual semi-random collection of bits & pieces - lots of old pictures, a display case of off-white clothes, several model boats (we were in a seaside town), a few paintings and various other odds & ends. Nothing startling or particularly unexpected, in a way it was like rifling through a dusty corner of the town's collective attic. And, wringing the metaphor to get the last few drops out of it, the information displayed beside the objects had the vagueness & uncertainty of the attic's elderly owner - lots of 'probably's, 'sometime around's and, in a few cases, outright admissions that things had been forgotten or were just unknown. This was probably frustrating for the expert viewer but for me it flipped them from being a bunch of Facts to be Learned to a collection of Stories to be Enjoyed. I've often found that museums put me into a schoolboy mode where I feel I need to take everything in as if there's going to be a test at the end, this one was like listening to an old codger relate half-remembered tales from the town's past, each one partial & incomplete but giving a flavour of days gone by.

Pride of place was given to a portrait of George III which seemed to personify this approach. The painting was a copy of a more famous one that had been destroyed in a fire long ago, the original subject was the King and his entourage reviewing the troops but everybody else had been painted out - an 18th century form of Photoshopping? The artist was unknown, when it was painted was unknown and how it had ended up in Weymouth was unknown. But here it was, and wasn't it nice (or at least impressive)? As an insight into sociological transformations over the centuries it was a bit of a dud but as a kicking off point for imaginative rumination it was hard to beat.

The harbour ferry

I'd been puzzled by a sign on the last crossing over the river which stated that it was not permitted to 'enter the harbour' from the bridge. At first I'd assumed that it was part of a one-way system but traffic seemed to be using it happily in both directions. Eventually I twigged that it was saying "Don't jump off the bridge". Odd to have it expressed so obtusely but I wonder if the idea was to not put the thought in people's heads.

A pause between boatloads

My tourist map had shown a ferry crossing near the mouth of the river and I'd allowed my meanderings to gently lead me towards it as the day progressed, figuring it would be a nice way to round off my visit. Having been along the prom and the beach looking seawards it would be good to be on the water and take in the view from the other direction.

I was expecting something like a lovingly maintained old steamer or a slick, modern water bus but when I arrived at the quayside there was nothing visible at all. The river was too narrow to hide such a vessel and inside I gave a sad sigh as I imagined the ferry service closed down in the face of some heartless bureaucrat's cost analysis spreadsheet. But as I reached the edge I looked down and saw a rowing boat loosely moored below, and soon I was sitting in it, bobbing up & down while we waited for more passengers.

Our captain was a man of about my own age, not exactly a grizzled old sea dog but no flashy young tour guide either. Within a few minutes six passengers were boarded & positioned, the oars were unshipped and we cast off for the crossing of the mighty Wey. Our snappy departure seemed in part due to the imminent arrival of a matching boat - there were five or six similar vessels providing a shuttle service between the banks.

If there's something timeless about being in a small boat (which is certainly true for me) then this experience is made strangely intimate when being rowed. There are very few situations in the modern world where you pay someone to transport you with their own physical effort and yet the smooth action of rowing makes this seem less exploitative than (for example) the muscular straining of a rickshaw pedaller. Controlling & steering a boat, even one as small as this, is a skilled operation and I have this expert waterman in my employ, hired without recourse to petty timetables to convey me (by this point my fellow passengers are mere cargo) across the silvery waters. He may be the master of this vessel but I am, for the nonce, the Commander.

During the crossing my father comes to mind. A Merchant Navy seaman in his youth & early adulthood he'd found himself landlocked in Essex by the time I arrived on the scene but I could easily see him pulling at a set of oars in his retirement, keeping the boat shipshape and spending long hours ferrying people from one bank to another. I have just a very faint memory of him rowing (no idea if this is real or subconsciously constructed) and it brings a half smile to my lips and a gentle warmth to my heart.

In no time we're at the other side and have to renegotiate with land & gravity, from boat to landing and then up the ancient-looking quayside steps. Coins are slipped into the ferryman's hand, discretely passed as if something more overt would be somehow insensitive & vulgar. As I reach the top and look back the oarsman has tied up and is taking a quick break before the next group arrives & boards. Just another boatload in a day full of them.

And yet for me it's been a marvellously revitalising passage. Far more than a simple A to B I feel like I've been outside of my time, travelling in a way that would have been recognisable and familiar five hundred or a thousand years ago (with the possible exception of the high-tech lifebelts). I have paid the ferryman and crossed over the water, and my life stretches before me.