Trail Of The Unexpected: Exploring Bermuda's Lyme Regis connection
Saturday 18 March 2006
Five minutes: that's about how long you can expect to be in the Town of St George before someone tells you that it is the oldest continuously occupied British settlement in the New World. The locals are justifiably proud of their community, which has recently enjoyed a double honour: first, its listing as a World Heritage Site; second, and a much rarer distinction, becoming twinned with Lyme Regis.
What's the connection with the port at the far west of Dorset? Each is a dainty town with old dwellings clustering down a hill to a picturesque harbour. Both are crowded with visitors in summer. And a singular man was born in one, then colonised and died in the other. Admiral Sir George Somers was born in 1554 in Lyme (before it acquired the regal suffix) and grew up to become a distinguished mariner. With decades of experience, he was a natural choice for the Virginia Company to lead a 1609 mission to replenish England's first North American colony at Jamestown.
The Sea Venture was hit by a terrible storm. The moment when Somers saw land and realised they could be saved is captured by a rather camp statue on Ordnance Island, facing the main square in St George's. The crew salvaged enough tools to build another vessel, and in 1610 sailed on to the beleaguered settlement at Jamestown.
Disease and disharmony jeopardised the Virginia colony, so in desperation, Somers took a party back to Bermuda to gather more supplies in 1611. There, he died. His heart is buried somewhere in the garden that bears his name, just along York Street from St Peter's Church - created when the town was founded the following year. Outside, it is painted sea-mist grey with green shutters; inside, you enter a study in ecclesiastical delicacy, containing memorials in weary script, old box pews carved from cedar and elegant chandeliers.
Grand enough for such an illustrious town? The Anglican congregation did not think so. In 1874 work began on cathedral, high above the town. But a schism interrupted work, when many of the worshippers went of to build a Reformed Episcopal Church nearby. A decade later, the cathedral in Hamilton burned down, and cash intended for St George's was diverted to the capital. Nevertheless, by 1899, the basic structure had been finished.
Congregations can move in mysterious ways. Shortly after the roof had been built, the new generation of elders voted to refurbish St Peter's instead. The unfinished cathedral was abandoned. The hurricane of 1926 took the roof off, and the rest has eroded in the past 80 years. Today, you can freely wander through what remains.
Sir George Somers, meanwhile, completed his journey home. As he lay dying he had asked to be buried in Jamestown. Instead, he was carried back to England as a hero, and buried in Lyme Regis.
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