When the West Bay chapel reopens to the public on Wednesday 1 August as a visitor centre, it marks the latest stage in the life of a modest but remarkable building.
‘It was built in 1849 as a simple place of worship for shipbuilders, fishermen and their families,’ said architect and historic buildings consultant Kim Sankey of Angel Architecture in Charmouth.
John Cox, of Messrs Cox and Son, Shipbuilders, was leader of the West Bay Wesleyan Society. Under his direction, the congregation laid the chapel floor joists direct on the sand of the beach next to the harbour. They used materials to hand to build the church – timbers salvaged from boats, Forest Marble stone quarried locally at Bothenhampton and carted to West Bay, where it was hammer dressed into rough blocks.
It was a utilitarian design, just a single-storey, double-height, one-room box with a pitched slate roof and two round-headed, Gothic windows north, east and west to let the light in. The most elaborate part was the porch with its twin pilasters and tent-shaped roof with a finial on top. It cost £200 to build and became known as the Chapel on the Beach.
Conversion to visitor centre
In 2007, after nearly 150 years, the West Bay chapel ceased to be a place of worship. It stood empty and unused until July 2012 when West Dorset District Council transferred it to Bridport Area Development Trust (BADT) for £1 on condition that the building should be converted into a visitor centre. By then it was in dire need of repair and renovation. BADT appointed Kim Sankey as architect. She explained the extent of the work needed:
‘There were problems with damp caused by the addition of tanking and cementacious render on the walls inside and out. Salt-laden moisture in the air had penetrated the walls and had no way of escaping. We had to remove all the later fibreboard lining and softwood panelling to provide a robust insulated wall finish suitable for exhibition material. The suspended boarded floor was taken up insulated and relaid. The sash windows were repaired and an unsightly asbestos-clad store removed.
‘To adapt the chapel for its new use, we put in a small mezzanine floor to provide an office space and a downstairs disabled WC. The original screen was replaced with a new panelled one incorporating glass doors to bring more light into the space.’
Listed building consent
Funding was a challenge – it takes time to raise money for conservation projects like this and with every winter, the cost of repairs went up. Kim submitted the application for listed building consent to West Dorset District Council in July 2015, but it wasn’t until April 2017 that BADT was awarded a grant of £240,000 from the government’s Coastal Communities Fund. In the autumn, craftsman builder Cristian Icoara of R&C Building Conservation started work.
‘It was quite straightforward really. The biggest problem was the floor. Lots of the joists were rotten and had to be replaced as well as the bearers for the floor joists. To get at the joists, we had to take up the floorboards, numbering them all so that they went back in exactly the same place.
‘I’m really pleased with how it’s turned out, the changes work really well with the age of the building,’ said Christy.
The new visitor centre will tell the story of West Bay’s history, particularly shipbuilding. At one point Bridport Harbour was the country’s second largest ship construction site – 19 men-of-war were built here during the Napoleonic Wars. The centre will also explain West Bay’s geology and place on the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site. Normal opening hours from 1 August are Tuesday-Sunday 11am to 4pm. Entry is free.