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Lerrets and Fishing Off Chesil Beach

The Lerret is a traditional Dorset boat designed specifically for use off the Chesil Beach. They have been around for at least four centuries; David Carter found one mention of a Lerret in the minutes of Weymouth Council of 1615:  “…Mr Mayor J. Roy also furthered Harbour Works eg 2 Lerretts to save the towne boatt from castinge awaye £0.7s.4d…”

Alas, in the name of ‘progress’ and in common with many of the old ways, they are disappearing. In 2010 a new boat was built and launched at Lyme Regis but other than that David Carter, who has made a study of the boats, tells us he believes only four still exist: Pleasure, Blessing, Blessing Two and Silver Star. (David has sent us a photo of Silver Star which we have placed in the photo section).

Lerrets were used for fishing off the Cheseil Beach and are known to have been owned by fishermen from Portland, Wyke, Chickerell, Fleet, Langton Herring and Abbotsbury. Information from Weymouth Council suggests that in the early years of the 20th century over 50 Lerrets were in regular use by fishermen from the area. We have some of the names and the owners: Agnes (Before 1914); Bunger (Fred Sergent); Cauliflower (Sid Huddy); Dawn; Fearless; Girl Pat; Lark; Linnet; May Queen; Ping Pong (F & E Sergent); Queen Mary; Rescue (Jim Burlage); Scarisbrick (Henry Pitman); Speedwell and Twilight (George Morris); Bluebell and Comrades (both owned by the landlord of the Swan Inn, at Wyke, Tom Hatcher); Dauntless (George Randall); Ena (known to have been built in 1926); Lucky Liza (Robert Denman); Mackerell; Nellie and Silver Star (Fred and Toby Randall); Plum (John Randall); Vera( a 19th century boat).

At first glance a Lerret appears to be like any other large wooden rowing boat. But look again. Where is the stern and why is the bottom flatter than a conventional boat? Approximately sixteen feet in length with a beam of between five and six feet, there are three main thwarts across the boat, which would usually be rowed by four men seated on the middle and forward seats, although in some circumstances six oars would be used. Lerrets are double-ended with a high stern post to enable them to be launched off the steep Chesil beach and hauled up onto the beach. Their wide beam and unusually flat bottom makes them very buoyant and they will survive all but the most extreme seas.

The oarsmen will pull double-handed, but the rowers on one side pull stroke alternately with those on the other side. Each oar has a block of wood fixed to the loom by spikes and lashing, this block is known as the copse and it has a hole through it to receive the iron thowle pin, and it is fixed to the gunwale of the boat so standing about five inches above it.
The mackerel move to deeper water by the end of August and soon the weather and seas change from their benign summer ways and will become very ill tempered;  this is the signal for the Lerrets to be ‘beached in’ for the winter. The boats will be pulled to the top of the beach where it is flat, a hollow is made in the beach and the Lerret ‘sunk’ into it, secured with ropes and boxes of pebbles.

William Bilke will be remembered as one of the Wyke fishermen who one day netted 63,000 mackerel off the Chesil Beach. Despite his success on that trip, like most other fishermen in the area he would have had to find other employment as well as fishing to make a living – in William’s case labouring.

He was born in Wyke Regis in 1876; his father, also William, being a fisherman. His grandfather, another William, was a shoemaker but his grandmother, Mary, was the daughter of Joseph Summers, a fisherman. When her husband died in 1865 Mary Bilke went into business as a general carter and by 1871 her eldest son William (24) and Edward (15), his brother, were established fishermen. At that time boys as young as eight could be found helping the men on the beach.

In 1875 William Bilke married Eliza Hallett, they named their first child, who arrived in 1876, William John, and like his father and uncle he was fishing by the time he was 15. In 1898 William married Janetta Critchell and by 1911 the couple had three sons and two daughters. William John Bilke had a long life; he passed away in 1963 aged 87 years; he was buried at All Saints, Wyke Regis. William was also known for shrimping or prawning in the Fleet Lagoon. He would spend hours at a time raking along with a shrimp net in water up to his waist as he worked with the ebbing tide, but he will forever be remembered for his part in landing the big catch.
Eli Hatcher was born at Osmington in 1827 and came to Wyke Regis in the 1840’s to find a bride and employment. He married Elizabeth Roberts late in 1849 and became the landlord of the Swan Inn, where he and his sons would have come into contact with the fishermen of Wyke. Indeed his son Thomas who took over as landlord at the Swan in the 1890’s described himself as an innkeeper and fisherman and is known to have owned two Lerrets.

The Lerret has earned its place in Dorset’s maritime history. Primarily a fishing boat, their crews have often risked their own lives launching into challenging seas to rescue mariners in difficulty on the turbulent seas off our coast.

There are photos of Lerrets in the photo gallery.

Fishing Off Chesil Beach

Seine netting on the Chesil Beach. Our thanks to Nigel J. Clarke Publications for allowing us to use their image.

Seine netting on the Chesil Beach. Our thanks to Nigel J. Clarke Publications for allowing us to use their image.

Chesil Beach

Fishermen on Chesil Beach

Fishermen on Chesil Beach

Fleet – Remains of the Old Parish Church

Remains of the old parish church at Fleet, Photo by Chris Downer, please click on image for more about the photographer.

Remains of the old parish church at Fleet, Photo by Chris Downer, please click on image for more about the photographer.

The Trial of Augustine Elliott

Two men appeared at the Summer Assizes in Dorchester on the 15th of July 1749 to answer for their part in the plundering of the Dutch vessel Hope when it ran ashore on the Chesil on the 16th of January 1748, and resulted in ten days of lawlessness on the Chesil.  One of those men was Augustine Elliott; we do not have the name of the other man.

Augustine Elliott was a Portland man. The son of John and Joan Elliott, he was baptised on the 25th of April 1696 and on the 4th of April 1716 he married Joan Mitchell. The couple had a daughter, Edith, baptised on the 15th of February 1717 but we haven’t found at Portland any other children from the marriage.
The charge against him was: “Feloniously stealing and carrying away ten ounces of gold and twenty ounces of silver from the ship called the Hope, the property of Hendrick Hogenbergh, merchant of Amsterdam, and others.”

Counsel for the prosecution said in his opening remarks: “My Lord and gentlemen of the jury, I am counsel for the Crown against the prisoner at the bar who stands indicted and charged with a crime of a very heinous nature. Considered in itself it is horrid and barbarous, contrary to the first principle of reason and impressions of humanity. Religion most severely threatens and condemns it. A crime it is which the laws of all civilised societies most strictly punish; a crime in its consequences highly prejudicial to the honour and commercial interest of the kingdom in general. And such in every respect as cries aloud to public justice to lift an avenging hand.”

Counsel went on to describe the conditions at sea and the lack of light from the Portland lighthouse that conspired to cause the Hope to run ashore and said of the people who went to the beach from Portland, Wyke and Weymouth “these people I’m sorry to say it, came not with dispositions of men, but with those of beasts of prey, They came for rapine and plunder.” Counsel said of Augustine Elliott he was “accustomed to prey and ravages of this kind”  and described him as one of two men  who led and organised the men on the beach into one “merciless battalion”  and then sub –divided them into groups of twenty. The prosecution claimed: “In vain did the captain and his company in faltering foreign accents as well as they could “No wreck. The goods ours. Bring it to we and we will pay for it” – meaning the salvage.”

The court was told: “it seems the pillaging parties threw all they could snatch into one heap, for the security of which the prisoner at the bar (Elliott) was posted – as commander of an armed select party. As soon as the reflux of the sea had made the ship accessible, the scattered bands were again united – in a hostile manner armed with cutlasses, clubs, hooks and such like. They marched down to the ship swearing it was a wreck and if not so, they could make it a wreck. Shocking to relate!…the injury of strangers in distress is adding barbarity to iniquity and committing an act exceedingly sinful in the sight of both God and man.”

We learn from the court hearing that the captain with some of his crew made their way off the beach and took the goods they had managed to save to Fleet House, where they had hoped the King’s officers would help them. It seems they were disappointed. Counsel claimed in court: “They came indeed, but basely deserted their duty. Their behaviour was despicably timorous and infamously negligent.”

The description of the events to the court reached the point where there were thousands of people on the beach engaged in plunder when the forces of law and order determined to step in. Three Justices of the Peace with a well-armed group of men finally halted the wreckers and proceeded to search from house to house through the hamlets, villages and towns making many people surrender their ill-gotten gains to the agents of the ship’s owners. About £25,000 worth of goods were retrieved.

Elliott, it was claimed, was the principal organiser and the court was told “He was the muster-master, the treasurer, and divider of the prey amongst his plundering regiment.”

Captain Corneliz came to give evidence but was shy of saying how much his cargo was worth, saying only that it was rich and worth over £30,000. His command of English was not very good.

Next up was Bartholomew Cooper, officer of Customs at Portland. He told the court: “Early Monday morning I heard a loud talking in Chesil parish in Portland that a ship was on shore. I got up, but the thing being doubtful, I went and fed my horse with oats at a stable which was at some distance.” Copper was not a very co-operative witness and Counsel for the prosecution had to question him hard to get him to answer any question directly; we might be excused from thinking Cooper was on Augustine Elliott’s side.

It appears that once Cooper had determined there was a ship wreck, he and two other officers of Customs rode along the beach. Under questioning Cooper eventually told the court that there were at least 2,000 people digging and turning over the beach, the ship was pretty much dashed to pieces and he added “My business of surveying would not let me stay long.”

Further evidence was provided to the court that plainly supported Elliott. Another officer of Customs, Benjamin Roper, an officer in Portland quarries, told how he was at Schollard’s public house at Chesiltown when a great number of people clamoured for a division of the loot. Elliott, said Roper, was for keeping the money together till the owners called for it: “But within doors they insisted on sharing the money, as I was told, or else they would burn the house.”

Another witness, John Comben, gave similar testimony. He said “when bags were found they were hoisted on his horse and taken to a boat on the shore of the Fleet…” He said he did not see Elliott in the boat “but saw a man at some distance who mid or mid not be the prisoner. The Captain, I mind, did ask me for a bag but then I had none, The Tuesday after there were a great many of Weymouth, Wyke and Portland at Chesiltown to have the money divided. I did not see the prisoner at first myself but after I did and he said he was for keeping the money together till called for by the owners. But many threatened him, if the money were not divided, and accordingly, it was the next morning – it was £7 a piece.”

Elliott’s defence Counsel took this argument further. “We have several sufficient witnesses to prove,” he said, “that the prisoner in the whole affair acted an open and public spirited part. What he assisted in carrying away home was with an intention to save and not destroy; to preserve for the owners and not to steal and keep from them. On this generous fixed principle he not only acted himself but to his utmost laboured to bring the company he was concerned with to behave in the same humane and honest manner.”

The defence produced a receipt for the money Elliott was charged with stealing, it had been handed to the ship’s agents. The prosecution suggested the money had been brought in as an afterthought by his friends four days after Elliott was committed to stand trial and this was a ruse to mitigate the charges against him.

John Hutchins’ report of the trial reveals the defence had a second strand: arguing the Dutch were pirates who had argued amongst themselves over the division of their bounty and then deliberately ran the ship on shore and deserted her for fear of being taken and punished. The two argued that the Dutch had taken the goods from the Spaniards, who had bought and paid for them; thus they maintained it was lawful to plunder pirates.

Elliott’s trial lasted six hours and thirty minutes and the jury brought in a verdict of “NOT GUILTY

Afterwards, Judge Baron Heneage Legge, commented: “As the nature of this in itself, and the penalties of the law, have been fully and plainly open in the preceding trials, so I am strongly inclined to hope these proceedings might have their proper design and influence, in causing crimes of this sort to cease amongst us.”

An anonymous reporter at the time wrote a layman’s summing up, saying: “As at a moderate computation 10,000 from all parts of the county, of farmers, tradesmen, labourers with one Lord of the Manor, have been concerned either in carrying away part of the property of this ship themselves, or in purchasing the same off them that did so; it is therefore far from being any matter of wonder to find the jury under a strong disposition to favour such, as were tried for offences of this kind.”


This little place is assured a continuing stream of visitors, thanks to a story published in 1898: the thrilling adventure story Moonfleet written by J Meade Faulkner, is set here. The author makes no attempt to disguise the setting under a cloak of fictional anonymity and even goes so far as to weave the real life lords of the manor – the Mohun family – into his tale of smuggling during the mid – 18th century. In 1955 the story was made into a film starring Stewart Grainger.

Nowadays, Fleet is a quiet hamlet but it was once a thriving village community that made their living from agriculture and fishing subsidised by smuggling and the salvaging of cargoes of ships dashed to pieces on the Chesil, a business the villagers were well positioned to exploit.

That was all in the good old days before the dreadful storm of 1824 that wreaked havoc throughout the area, notably washing away Weymouth’s promenade. The people hereabouts relied on the Chesil beach to provide a natural defence from the treacherous seas that run off this part of the coast. The storm that blew in on the night of the 24th of November 1824 cut the Chesil down to size as it carried a tempestuous sea crashing over it, flooding nearby  Abbotsbury to a depth of twenty feet.  The inhabitants of Butter Street in Fleet watched as their homes were completely destroyed and the church all but washed away; only the chancel was left standing. The Countess of Ilchester came to the aid of villagers sending food and clothing.

Butter Street was rebuilt, but a century later disaster was to call again.  In the 1930’s fire took all but one of the homes and again they were rebuilt. In 1826 work got underway on the building of a new church located further inland. The first stone was laid on the 25th of April 1827 and two years later on the 25th of August 1829, the Revd. Robert Gray, the Bishop of Bristol, consecrated the church which is dedicated to the Holy Trinity. The new church comprises a chancel, nave and west tower and is in the style of the 18th century Gothic Revival. A wall plaque in the tower records the destruction of the earlier church.

The name Fleet comes from the lagoon-like stretch of water beside which the hamlet stands. It has been suggested that the name may be a reference to West Bay, as the Saxon name for a bay or gulf was flot, fleot or fleet.

In medieval times the village was the property of Edward the Confessor, who gave it to Earl Harold. The Crown held Fleet at the time of Domesday but it was later granted to The Priory of Christchurch at Twynham, probably when the Priory was established in 1150. After the dissolution of the monasteries it was given for a period of twenty one years to William Cocke, Valet of the Pantry. During the reign of Elizabeth 1st the manor passed to Robert Freke and John Walker and then to Robert Mohun.

Coker’s Survey of Dorset, written early in the 17th century, mentions a large mansion here known as Fleet House, the property of Maximilian Mohun. It was the seat of the Mohun family whose arms can be seen to this day on the two columns at the entrance to the village. The Mohun’s came to England with William the Conqueror. The house has survived a succession of alterations eventually being converted into a hotel. It is located a short distance from the hamlet in a spot facing the calm waters of the Fleet lagoon, sheltered from the north by the rising downs. It is a holiday sun-trap and, not surprisingly, it is named the Moonfleet Manor Hotel.

The chancel of the old church is still standing. Inside on the north wall is a brass plaque commemorating the lives of Robert and Margaret Mohun. They are depicted kneeling at a desk; behind Robert are nine sons and behind Margaret eight daughters. Another plaque has  been placed in the old church in memory and recognition of J Meade Faulkner.

Near to the old church a tunnel was discovered, which, it is believed, was used to move contraband secretly and away from the prying eyes of the Revenue men.

John Hutchin gives this pedigree of the Mohun family. The Mohuns of Fleet were descended from Robert Mohun, his brothers being the ancestors of branches of the family in Somerset, Devon and Cornwall. They were: Robert’s son Maximilian (1564-1612) who married Anne daughter of John Churchill of Corton, in 1593; their son Maximilian (1596-1673) married to Elizabeth the daughter of Francis Chaldecot of Whiteway; their son Francis Mohun (1625-1711) married to Eleanor Sheldon; their son Gilbert Maximilian Mohun (1675-1721) who married firstly Elizabeth Squibb who died in 1701, and secondly Sarah daughter of Thomas Cooper of Sherborne. They had several sons, the last surviving, Robert, died without issue in 1758.
In the mid 18th century the estate consisted of manor of East and West Fleet with farms, the glebe of the parsonage, the advowson of the church, and the water known as The Beach – presumably the lagoon.

The manor passed to Robert’s sister, Sarah, and her second marriage was to John  Gould of Upwey. Sarah died in 1774 and her husband left the estate to his eldest son by his first marriage to Mary the daughter of the Revd. William Glisson, rector of Marnhull, George Gould of Upwey and Fleet.

George married twice. His second wife was Abigail the daughter of Robert Gooden of Over Compton and the couple had two sons, John and George and the manor passed to them in succession. It was the latter George Gould who became rector of the parish of Fleet. He provided the money and was responsible for building the new church after the storm of 1824; he died in 1841 without marrying.
The estate passed to Miss Catherine Jackson who died in 1847 when it was passed to George Gooden, he later became vicar of Fleet.  George was the son of Robert Gooden, the brother of Revd. George Gould’s mother.

This place can feel very sinister. Could it be the ghosts of smugglers past, both real and imagined are just a step away still playing hide and seek with the Revenue Men?

January 1748 – Ten Days of Mayhem on the Chesil

On the 17th of April 1747 the ship Hope set sail from Amsterdam for Curacao, then belonging to the Dutch. She would sail on to the Spanish Main to sell her cargo to the Spaniards, who, because of the war with England, were in some distress in the American provinces. In command of the ship was Captain Boon Corneliz, who had at his disposal a crew of 73 men and 30 guns, although on the outward voyage only 21 guns were mounted ready for action against pirates or the English Navy, should they seek to engage. The ship was owned by the Dutch merchant firm Hendrick Hogenberg and Co, who had loaded the ship with cloth and bale goods.

Business done and nearing the end of her voyage home the Hope of Amsterdam was off Portland on the 16th of January 1748, having sailed through storms and tempestuous seas the previous fourteen days. All 30 of the ships guns were mounted, perhaps because the cargo of gold, jewels and other valuable commodities it was bringing home was, by the most conservative estimate, worth at least £50,000. Its guns would have been sufficient to fight off any attacks from pirates but against the elements they were no help and off Portland that night Captain Corneliz and his crew needed all the help they could get.
No light was visible from the Portland lighthouse, perhaps because of the mist or possibly due to the neglect of duty by those responsible. It was about one or two o’clock in the morning and very dark when the Hope ran ashore on the Chesil beach. When she struck land the mast fell with the force of impact, the ship shattered into three parts. The upper deck was thrown upon a ridge of pebbles and the cabin was buried in the sands; the hull was never found and was thought to have rolled back into the sea. Amazingly, all of the men aboard got safely to the shore.

Word of what had happened quickly spread. A mob soon flocked on to the Chesil from the adjacent villages and from all parts of Dorset and the neighbouring counties. The men of Portland, Wyke and Weymouth were first on the scene and seem to have had a well rehearsed drill for dealing with these events. They formed themselves into a body with colours to secure the goods that floated along the coast. They split into groups of 20, which united as necessary under a leader. A report written latter suggests there were between three and four thousand local men employed in this endeavour and as others arrived from farther afield the numbers on the beach swelled to several thousand.

For ten days the mob held the beach. One report described “a scene of unheard of riot, violence and barbarity.” Another report described the scene thus: “a crowd swarmed about the water’s edge grubbing for gold, tearing up the shingle with their bare nails, fighting over gleaming coins like starved wolves.”

On January 18th the crew set-off for Holland, except for the Captain, his First-mate and another officer. The Captain was forced to leave the beach; the officers of Customs and the Justice of the Peace officers were overawed by the mob that carried on digging and turning-up the beach. On January 20th several bags of money were found six feet under the pebbles.

After ten days three neighbouring Justices of the Peace with a body of armed men dispersed the mob. An inquiry was held and the authorities set about tracing the possessors of the plundered goods, who were compelled to hand over to the agent of the ship’s owners gold, jewellery and other goods with a value of between 25 and 30,000 pounds. They were allowed something for salvage rights.

Some men were committed to prison and two men appeared before Judge Baron Heneage Legge at the assizes in Dorchester on July 15th 1749, to answer for their actions but they were acquitted. The jury accepted their rather far fetched claim that the Dutch were pirates who had argued amongst themselves over the division of their bounty and then deliberately ran the ship on shore and deserted her for fear of being taken and punished. The two argued that the Dutch had taken the goods from the Spaniards, who had bought and paid for them; thus they maintained it was lawful to plunder pirates. The jury also took into account that only two men were before them when all manner of disorders were committed by many of the reported several thousand men who were on the beach for those ten lawless days and nights.

At the time there were stories of men with “bulging pockets” being robbed and strangled on the beach but there is nothing to confirm this. Men did die on the beach but from the affects of the extreme cold aggravated by high winds.

There are modern day examples of similar occurrences. In 2007 the Napoli, on a voyage from Belgium to Portugal, ran aground off the Devon coast. Several containers loaded with consumer goods floated ashore. Hundreds of people flocked to the scene to see what they could get, some leaving with BMW motorcycles worth thousands. The authorities had to point out that people removing goods and not properly declaring them risked fines of up to £2,500 but this did not deter many people intent on seeing what they could get their hands on.

A Natural Wonder Double Bill: the Chesil and the Fleet

Even for a county teeming with many natural and historical wonders, Chesil Beach is in a class of its own and something of an enigma. All hypothesising about its origin has been unable to explain why similar offshore spits have not been deposited elsewhere, though tradition has it that the Chesil was laid down in toto during a very severe storm one night. But why should the sea only deposit its pebbles here? Though it is unlikely the legend could be true, the sea became impounded behind the shingle bar, forming the unique ribbon-like lagoon known as The Fleet.

It was the Saxons who gave us the word ‘Chesil’ meaning shingle. At Portland the end of the beach is well defined, but exactly where the western end should be placed has been a matter of dispute. Some authorities maintain that it ends as far westwards as West Bay (to include Burton Beach and Burton Bradstock); while others hold that it ends at Cogden Beach between Burton Bradstock and West Bexington. There is however, agreement that part of the beach is east of West Bexington, and that there the Fleet is at its most spectacular.

Certainly amazing, though less controversial, are the fascinating facts about this freak of nature. The Chesil is 18 miles long between West Bay and Portland, while from West Bexington to Portland it is 13 miles long. In reality the beach is not built up in one terrace but two, against which the waves break upon the lower and discharge their spray over the upper. At its highest the pebble ridge is 45 feet above mean sea level and 200 yards wide to the Fleet. It has been estimated that the beach contains 50 million tons of pebbles, and that if these were packed into the largest lorries permitted on British roads the convoy would stretch from Dorchester to Perth in Australia! Chesil pebbles were collected by the defenders of Maiden Castle, to use as sling-stones against the Roman army when it attacked that hill fort in 43 CE.

The shingle has a distinct gradation along the beach’s length from west to east, with fine creamy-white oolitic limestone pebbles at the west end, known as pea gravel, to large grey cobbles of Portland limestone at the east end. This indicates that the Chesil originated as an east-to-west deposition of long shore drift and could not therefore have been created as a spontaneous storm deposit as folklore implies. It is this gradation of size and texture that gives the shingle bar such a distinctive sound and feel to the soles of the feet. Many have been proud to be able to complete the end-to-end energy-sapping slog that deadens rhythm and makes ankle injury an ever-present risk. 

Fishermen and smugglers have long been able to tell upon which part of the beach they landed after nightfall by the size and feel of the pebbles in their hands. From early times Abbotsbury fishermen have trawled for mackerel off the beach, catching them in seine nets. Daniel Defore writes of these mackerel catches as being so abundant in his day that the fish could be sold onshore at one hundred for just a penny.

No less awesome than the Chesil’s curious facts is its history of notorious savagery towards ships and seamen. Immediately offshore for example, there exists an immensely powerful undertow that can drown even a strong swimmer in only three feet of water five feet from the waterline, and rough seas can throw up fresh shingle banks that can persist for years. During storms the undertow can generate a sucking noise that, it has been said, can be heard in Dorchester. Author Meade Falkner in Moonfleet described how this current caused two fictitious smugglers to fight for their lives in water only three feet deep.

During the age of sail the beach was especially feared. Eastbound ships were in serious difficulties if a storm blew them north-eastwards towards Portland, and there is a sharp shallow water reef that can rip the keels off deep-draughted ships. The combination of the beach’s steep seaward gradient and the underwater current often resulted in shipwrecked passengers and crew being drowned almost in reach of rescuers.

But in 1752 it was said that all of Abbotsbury – including the vicar – were ‘thieves, smugglers and plunderers of wrecks’. In 1822 a Swyre man, Richard Bishop, was jailed for “unlawfully making a light on the sea coast” suggesting that he was signalling to smugglers.

In 1795 seven ships of Admiral Christian’s fleet were lost with two hundred crewmen dead. Then in 1824, during a great storm known locally thereafter as “The Outrage” four ships were lost with all hands (but amazingly the sloop Ebenezer was thrown bodily onto the ridge by a wave, from where it could be re-floated on the Fleet and towed to Portland for a refit). This same gale blew the sea half a mile inland, destroying Fleet village and church before leaving in its wake a hundred bloated corpses on the Chesil shingle. Another storm in 1838 cast five ships onto the shingle bank where they were dashed to pieces, their crews drowned to the last man. A French trawler was wrecked on the shingle bar in 1963.

But the beach has also been the setting for two other non-tragic curiosities. There is a story that  in 1757 a mermaid was washed ashore. It is recorded that many people saw her remains, but they generated little excitement as she was supposed to have been no beauty. Then on May 21st, 1802 the crew of the trawler Greyhound landed a huge fish over 26 feet long, 15 feet in girth and weighing 15 tons; it required fourteen horses to drag it ashore. As this monster was positively not a basking shark, it was more likely a whale shark – as this is the largest fish in the sea – while the “mermaid” may have been a manatee or “sea cow” an animal which certainly could be mistaken for an ‘ugly mermaid’ by people who had never before seen one.

The Fleet is eight miles long, though only seven-and-a-half to fifteen feet deep. At its widest it is 900 yards and just 70 yards at its narrowest point and connected to the sea by a channel less that a hundred yards long known as Small Mouth. The lagoon can be walked beside on the seaward side by the fit and dedicated who can then return along the north side on the Dorset Coast Path. Plants typical of shingle beds grow along the margins such as sea holly, sea campion, yellow horned poppy and sea kale, together with beds of reeds and eelgrass. The Small Mouth has the effect of restricting the flow of seawater, making the Fleet brackish, though towards Abbotsbury the salinity is reduced still further by the input of fresh water from streams draining into the lagoon.

Ecologically the result has been the creation of a richly diverse habitat, making the lagoon a premier nature reserve and SSSI encompassed within the World Heritage Jurassic Coast. A hundred species of plants have so far been identified, and many of these, particularly the eelgrass, provide food for a hundred and fifty species of birds, particularly wildfowl, waders, ducks and geese. The water supports a population of twenty species of fish.

All in all it is not just the shingle that can impress the visitor to Chesil Beach, but the bombardment of the senses from stimuli ranging from the smell of seaweed to the cry of gulls.  And there is also that stark contrast between each side of the walker’s field of perception: to one side the open sea; to the other a marshland thicket. Truly, this must make Chesil Beach a very peculiar and special place.

Fleet – Holy Trinity Church

Holy Trinity Church at Fleet

Holy Trinity Church at Fleet

Chesil Beach and the Fleet Lagoon

The Chapel of St. Catherine overlooking the Chesil Beach and the Fleet Lagoon.

The Chapel of St. Catherine overlooking the Chesil Beach and the Fleet Lagoon.