The Portland Association spoke to Dr. Keith Holdaway, current chair of the Weymouth Civic Society. Keith obtained his doctorate from Kings College London, studying the distribution of fossils on the margins of the Chalk sea — much of the fieldwork for this study was carried out in Dorset. After early spells as an ecologist and in civil engineering he spent most of his career in the health service before setting up his own training company. He has just completed an art degree at Plymouth University, studying on the Weymouth College site.
When we first moved to Weymouth, we came looking for a small flat by the harbour. But we ended up buying an old wreck, a listed farmhouse, quite a long way from the harbour. The house needed a new roof and we wanted some advice on the best way to go about it, so we consulted the Civic Society. A couple of years after that they gave us a commendation for the work, and we joined the society at that point. I went on the board 3 years ago and became chairman in April.
A major part of our work is our planning and environment committee, now chaired by Pauline Crump. This committee devises responses to planning applications on behalf of the Civic Society, and it also runs the annual awards scheme where we identify the best contribution to the built environment. It’s quite a well regarded scheme, and I was dead chuffed to get a commendation!
Of course, the committee doesn’t always agree. For example, I’m a fan of the old council offices in Weymouth, by the harbour. But I was in a minority of one on the planning committee. I think it’s quite a fine building. Very much of its time — late ‘70s — it’s Portland Stone clad, and it’s well built apparently.
The problem, as far as I see it, is the way that it hits the ground: some heathen has bricked it in, instead of leaving it floating above the ground. I think it needs glass round the bottom. If you got rid of that horrible funny looking tower, and restored the old roof garden, I think it would make a fantastic hotel.
I’ve seen pictures of that fantastic old art deco Woolworths in Weymouth, which was demolished in the 1980s, and I think Weymouth can’t afford to lose more buildings like that.
To the right of the old council offices there’s the Harbour Lights development — the McCarthy & Stone retirement flats. It won an award from the Civic Society in the year that my house was granted a commendation. I don’t much like it. I suppose it looks ok, it’s got an element of pastiche, but I drove past it this morning thinking: it’s not ageing very well. It’s been in scaffolding pretty much ever since it went up.
The society’s purview is south of the Ridgeway, so that’s primarily Weymouth, Portland and Chickerell. Many of our recent awards have been on Portland: last year it was the old Naval Canteen, Beresford House. We’ve also given awards to The Windmill Estate up near Tesco’s and Crabbers’ Wharf in Castletown. In fact, we’re seriously considering changing the name of the society to the Weymouth and Portland Civic Society to reflect our many Portland members.
The Civic Society has got two museums: Tudor House and Nothe Forte. The Tudor House is actually owned by us, it was bequeathed in the estate of the architect Wamsley Lewis — he rescued it when it was due to be demolished, preserved it, and then left it to the society in his will in 1977.
Nothe Fort is leased from Dorset Council for the princely sum of one peppercorn a year, if requested — although they’ve never actually requested it! We have a committeee that runs the Fort, — in the past it was a purely volunteer-run attraction. But it gradually took on more and more staff. We now have about 20 employees. We also run the Fort Artillery — they go around setting off cannons. They used to greet the cruise ships when they came. It’s great fun but it’s a high risk operation.
At the moment, Nothe Fort is closed, due to Covid-19, but we plan to re-open the fort on July 11th. We had some fairly healthy financial reserves, but,it’s been quite a challenge. We’ve been focused on protecting the jobs, and we have to keep the maintenance going. It would be disastrous if we let it fall behind in its repairs. Not to mention the Fort has a £20,000 a year electricity bill.
It’s very hard to tell what the impact of Covid-19 is going to be on the town. Weymouth is highly dependent on the tourist trade: it could be that people will take more holidays in the UK, but without restaurants and pubs and visitor attractions being open, and with all the socially distanced queueing for shops, it’s not a particularly attractive prospect.
As for the future, I think what we’re looking at is changing some of the tourist emphasis away from the beach and towards arts, culture and particularly heritage — the natural heritage and the built heritage.
Things like the Jurassic Coast, the geography and geology, and the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the coastal walks, the views, the beauty of the place. And the fact that Weymouth is a good spot to base yourself to go to the Jurassic Coast and Portland.
And of course there’s the wildlife, which is easy to take for granted when you’re living here. My wife has just come back from Curtis Fields, it’s on the top of the Corallian Limestone ridge that runs through Weymouth — she says it was awash with butterflies.
I would also emphasise the breadth of history that’s here: from the Iron Age, through the battle of Weymouth and the Civil War, and the area’s industrial heritage: in particular the harbour and Portland.
And there’s the hidden beauty of Portland: once you get off the main streets there are some beautiful, beautiful places. Although of course, there’s the traffic issue: everybody leaves the island in the morning, and drives back in the evening. There’s an enormous flow of traffic for a relatively small population.
That’s one reason I’m strongly negative about the proposed Portland incinerator: all the extra lorry traffic. In the longer term, I don’t think it’s a sustainable solution to the waste problem. The sustainable approach is to reduce the use of plastic, rather than treat it as a fuel. I think it’s also troublesome that they’re claiming the wind always blows from the south west, so it won’t be blowing over Portland. The wind blows from the east blows plenty often! And there’s plenty of houses at the level of the chimney. I just don’t think it’s a step forward.
The other thing the Civic Society does is hold a series of public meetings on subjects fairly loosely defined as ‘building civic pride’. The last talk we had was from Steve Etches, about his collection of fossils at Kimmeridge. I was particularly interested in this because my first career was as a geologist. I did a lot of field work for my PhD research in this area, which is how we came to end up living in Weymouth. I was working on the chalk along the coast, up to Bere, all round the Anglo-Paris basin. Happy days! You can always spot a geologist because they’re normally walking around with a bent neck, looking down at the pebbles on the beach, or carrying unreasonably heavy rucksacks.
When I’m not helping out with the Civic Society, I do bookbinding: printing and binding short-run art pieces: small edition books, hopefully in collaboration with artists and printers. The bindery uses hand tools and equipment like presses that have changed little since the middle ages although I do have a modern electric guillotine.
I think of my books as three-dimensional artworks, in fact I’d probably call myself a sculptor. I’m actually opening an art studio in Fortuneswell, called ArtSpace82. It’s in the old antique shop; the old shop space has been turned into a gallery which can also be used for small group workshops if there is demand.
ArtSpace82 is a not for profit venture. It has three studios upstairs which are available to emerging artists in return for a share of the running costs of the building. Artists have use of the downstairs space, kitchen, conservatory and small garden. We have a kiln and potters wheel downstairs for people to use. If anyone has an unwanted etching press or a large, shallow sink, we would really like to hear from them!
If you’re interested in renting a studio at ArtSpace82, you can contact Keith here. The cost is between £25 and £35 a week depending on the size of the room.