War of the Lyme lifeboat ends in artist's retreat

'Get rid of the French' said the nicer poison pen letters. Decca Aitkenhead hears hard words on the Cobb
Click to follow
The Cobb at Lyme Regis hasbeen the scene of literary dramas from Jane Austen's Persuasion to The French Lieutenant's Woman. But an ugly row over its future has provoked a summer of racist abuse, hate mail, and the surreal spectacle of a couple videoing residents in a bid to prove they have been driven out of town.

A French artist and his girlfriend's dispute with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, over plans to build a new lifeboat house at the foot of the Cobb, reveals, they claim, the sway the body holds over this small community. "The lifeboat rules this town," the fleeing couple claimed last week. "Take them on, and you've had it." Their critics point up to their balcony, emblazoned with banners declaring "Racism in Lyme", and say they are impossible, care little for saving lives, and, with their video camera and wild paranoia, have brought most of the problems on themselves.

The couple's campaign against the new boat house has certainly roused passions. Poison pen letters have instructed the artist to "F--- off back to France, you f------ frog. No one likes you here. Make the Cobb a nicer place - get rid of the French." The couple's video tapes show youths gathered beneath their balcony at night. "I'm a racist and I don't give a shit," bellows one lad. "If you were black, we would've beaten the f--- out of you. You'd better not stay here - everyone's ready to chuck petrol over you." As Lifeboat Week began yesterday, they were moving out.

Regis de Bouvier de Cachard, a French artist, moved to Lyme two years ago with his English girlfriend, Charlotte Jack. They rented a studio above the harbour overlooking the Cobb, and he set about painting. But Lyme - for all its artistic renown - is no Brighton, nor even St Ives. It is easy to see how his Neptune locks and regal robes, and herSeventies film star looks, might cause a stir among the boatmen of the Cobb Arms. De Cachard's belief in his own mystical powers can have built few bridges.

"I could have done so much for Lyme artistically," De Cachard, 66, mourns. "I wanted to bring a bit of fantasy, of spirit, to the harbour." Since falling out with the town, he has been informed very bluntly that "Lyme doesn't give a shit about art". But initially it seems the town was happy to indulge him. He painted mermaids on the boat of the RNLI helmsman, the couple befriended a few local boys who showed some artistic promise, and all was well - until the pair learned of proposals for a new boat house.

Among the bohemian clutter of their studio, a file records every detail of their opposition. The building, they say, is unnecessarily big, will destroy their view, and will damage the Cobb. Meetings were held, letters were written, opinions were voiced in the local press. By Easter, a two- storey boat house looked set to be built at the foot of the Cobb, and on Palm Sunday De Cachard and Jack staged a somewhat forlorn but well- publicised protest on the Cobb.

"We had to beg the police to attend," says Ms Jack, 31. "There was a whole gang of men from the Power Boat Club - they're the bodyguards of the RNLI - taunting us." The protest ended in anti-French jibes, and a scuffle on the steps of their flat.

"None of the RNLI crew members were involved in the demo," stresses the institute's honorary secretary in Lyme, Tim Zair. "I have asked the crew in all cases to exercise restraint - and that's precisely what they have done. You have to remember, every time they go down to the lifeboat station, they and their families are being filmed. I don't wish to sound petty, but look at the exchanges on the tapes - who starts them first? The couple's behaviour has been, to say the least, extremely provocative."

"We've become the target of every hoodlum in town," protests Ms Jack.

Permission has been granted for the new boat house, and work will begin soon. It has been a sorry chapter for Lyme. Few will lament the passing of the sad spectacle, captured for ever on video, of an elderly French artist screaming "You have no respect for art!" at a gang of Dorset youths chanting "Enger-land . . ."