The Bridport Area Development Trust has taken over the freehold of the former Methodist Church in West Bay, known as “the Chapel on the Beach”, and plans to convert it to use as a visitor/interpretation centre.
The Chapel has been empty and unused since it ceased use as a place of worship in 2006. The Grade II Listed building reverted to the landowner, West Dorset District Council, which sought an alternative use, since no religious denomination could be found to take it on. The freehold of the building was transferred to the BADT in July 2012, together with a financial contribution towards the cost of converting the building.
The current proposals revive earlier ideas for a visitor centre considered as part of the abortive regeneration plans for the Mound area of West Bay, which were thwarted by Environment Agency concerns in 2005-6.
West Bay is relatively well served with restaurants, cafes and pubs. But the resort has suffered from a shortage of all-weather attractions. The Project is for the Chapel to become a visitor attraction for West Bay, with display and interpretation material about one of Britain’s smallest harbours, its place on the Dorset and East Devon (“Jurassic”) Coast, and its importance as a microcosm of contemporary environmental themes (local and global).
In the autumn of 2012 the BADT commissioned freelance Arts and Heritage consultant Crystal Johnson to develop an existing project proposal into an option appraisal and business plan, with financial support from West Dorset District Council’s Bridport Area Community Fund, from the Dorset Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty through its Sustainable Development Fund, and from the Architectural Heritage Fund. The Plan was completed in early 2013 and discussions about the interpretation themes and content of the Centre are taking place with a number of potential partners.
During the rebuilding of the harbour in the early 2000s, temporary exhibitions and displays at the nearby Salt House attracted enormous and sustained interest from both residents and visitors and in doing so provided clear evidence of the potential appeal of a more permanent attraction. The proposal has the support of the Bridport Museum Trust, which because of limited space for exhibition and interpretation, cannot adequately represent the history of West Bay and its place in the story of Bridport, its maritime links with the local rope and net industries. A new centre at West Bay would complement the exhibitions at the Bridport Museum, would fill a notable gap in provision in the area and would strengthen the overall interpretation “offer” along the Dorset coast.
The History of the former Methodist Church
Methodism became established in Bridport and the surrounding area after Dr Giles Roberts and Mr William Tutcher began open-air preaching on the quayside in West Bay and aboard the vessels anchored in the harbour in 1817. A Wesleyan Society was formed in 1828 and when the congregation outgrew its existing meeting house, it was decided to build a small chapel on land made available by the Harbour Commissioners. Some £200 was raised and the work was undertaken by Messrs Cox and Son, shipbuilders. The Foundation Stone was laid by Mrs Elias Cox in 1849 and the Chapel was opened on the 4th December of that year. A Sunday School was later started by Mrs Cox. The Chapel became known as the Chapel on the Beach.
The Chapel, which was closed from 1939 to 1945 due to wartime conditions and restrictions, was damaged in 1942 during Exercise Yukon, the military rehearsals for the Dieppe raid in 1942. It was reopened on Easter Day, 6th April 1947 under the Leadership of the Rev. C.O. Hunwick.
The Chapel ceased use as a place of worship in 2007, following several years of declining activity and dwindling congregations. The Methodist authorities opted to surrender the lease to the landowner, West Dorset District Council, which then sought to identify a future for the building. The council first investigated the interest from other religious denominations in maintaining its use as a place of worship, but found no takers. It then proceeded to initiate a search for an alternative community use, setting up an advisory group consisting of local residents, town, district and county councillors and officers and community groups.
The advisory group identified an interest in establishing the Chapel as a visitor centre for West Bay, to provide both a local attraction and a source of information about West Bay, its history, geology, flora and fauna. The group noted the absence of any such facility in West Bay, and the lack of any facility in the Bridport and West Bay area reflecting its status as a Gateway to the Jurassic Coast World Heritage site.
In 2012 the freehold of the Chapel was transferred to the Bridport Area Development Trust for £1, on condition that the building should be converted into a visitor centre for West Bay.