Former Lyme Regis bookshop owner remembered

OBITUARY: CHRIS CHAPMAN (Dalwood, Lyme Regis, Ilminster)- 17th February 1926 - 7th December, 2010

CHRISTOPHER Ernest Harold Chapman was born on the 17th February 1926 in Matlock, Derbyshire, the youngest of five children, with two older brothers Geoffrey and Kenneth, and two sisters, Dora and Elsa.

His father was a headmaster, a doctor of science and a brilliant mathematician, building radios from scratch and designing the Aneroid Barometer (the round barometer). Ernest Chapman was also an accomplished meteorologist and served in the Royal Engineers, being mentioned in despatches in France during the First World War.

When Chris was seven, the family moved to Newton Abbot in Devon where his father had taken a post as headmaster, but he always remained deeply loyal to his county of birth, returning each year to visit relations. It was during these visits that the family would stay at a local farm and Chris would follow the farmer, (also called Chris) around on his daily duties - it was this that gave him his great love of farming and the countryside.

In Devon, Chris attended Wolborough Hill Prep School. He then went on to Exeter School and as soon as war broke out, he joined the Home Guard when he was 16 (he fibbed about his age to get in early). As soon as he could, he joined the Royal Artillery as a Commissioned Officer, spending six months at Exeter College, Oxford. He was sent for further Officer training at OCTU in Otterburn, then at Wrotham in Kent. It was here that one the favourite family stories occurred.

Chris had already learnt to ride a motorcycle on the local farm (much against his father’s wishes who remained terrified he’d hurt himself) and was most proficient in the skill. He spent a great deal of time tinkering and on one occasion completely dismantled one to its final bolts, rebuilding it to full working order. This knowledge used to drive his training officer nuts and he would try to unseat Chris by throwing thunder flashes at his wheels on the training grounds - he never fell off.

One day, the entire troop of young officers was taken on a road exercise through Wrotham. It was a very warm summer’s afternoon and one of the cadets was extremely nervous of his huge army motorbike and clearly had no control over the machine - Chris said you could see the whites of his knuckles as he gripped the handlebars, and his huge terrified eyes, giving him the appearance a petrified goldfish through the magnification of the army motorcycle goggles.

Most Read

In the main street of the town, the group was brought to a halt at an intersection, but the young officer lost control of his bike and, to everyone’s astonishment, he gently bounced up onto the pavement and disappeared slowly through the open entry doors of a Woolworths store that stood on the corner. Nothing could be heard for a few moments, and they all waited with baited breath for the inevitable crash - but a few minutes later, there was a squeal from a woman at the corresponding exit doors of the shop as she leapt to one side, and the same officer came trundling out of Woolworths, at exactly the same speed, unscathed, to join the waiting group as they all moved off again into the traffic - he never lost a beat…

Chris served in India and Sumatra with the Royal Artillery 43rd regiment. He would never speak of the combat and when pressed would only say vaguely ‘Oh well, yes, we had to put a few of the natives back in their place every now and then…’

Chris loved music and although he never received any formal lessons, he taught himself to play the piano. He would often be found in the Officers Mess crashing around on the ivory keys and one evening the Commanding Officer visited the Mess and was heard to exclaim: ‘Good God - what is that INFERNAL row?’ ‘That’s Chapman Sir’ announced one of the officers. ‘Well - why hasn’t anyone shot him yet?’ enquired the CO… ‘Because we haven’t been able to take our fingers out of ears long enough to do so Sir!’ was the reply….

Chris was de-mobbed from the army and went to Downing College, Cambridge where he studied Agriculture. He then returned home and the family moved to Dalwood, near Axminster, where he ran a smallholding, with pigs and poultry. He built his own pig houses, grew all his own feeding crops and kept the family in a rich supply of home grown potatoes, his favourite type being of course, Home Guard. If there were any surplus he used to bicycle into Axminster, six miles away, to sell them at the market. He also established a local reputation for fresh eggs, selling them by the dozen at the farm gates to passers by.

Chris married Marguerite in June 1960. He gave up practical farming and started work for the agricultural firm Levers, managing the area reps and gaining a prominent reputation as a renowned specialist in poultry farming. He used to travel across the South West and the West Midlands giving advice to farmers.

Chris and Marguerite moved to Wiltshire, where they lived first in Baydon, and then Marlborough. While Chris continued with his farming connections, Marguerite made extra money by starting a bric-a-brac stall out of the back of the car in Marlborough Market. Books were obviously a factor in the market stock and it was from these small beginnings that the long term family business began.

During their time in Marlborough, their two children, Mark and Sara were born and in 1968, Chris moved the family back to the South West to Lyme Regis, to be nearer to his ailing father. Having purchased a house at the top of the town, Serendip Fine Books made it’s presence first known in a small shop in Silver Street with second hand books, antiques and First Day Covers.

A few years later, the business moved to Bridge Street and it was here that new books made their initial appearance. With a smaller shop being run opposite with greeting cards and wrapping paper, it was clear that a larger premises was needed to house everything under one roof and when the old ‘Oakshots’ came up for sale, the family moved to 11, Broad Street to live above the new shop.

During his time at Serendip, the film ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ with Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons was made in Lyme Regis and the bottom of the main street was transformed into a typically Victorian market town. Being the bookshop in the town, there was obviously a great deal of interaction with the whole process and as John Fowles was a close family friend, Chris and his family were able to enjoy the excitement of the film in it’s making.

When filming was complete, the production team approached each business, offering them either the opportunity of a redecoration back to the present day frontages, or a payment. Everyone took the redecoration, except for Chris and Marguerite who opted to take the payment and use the money to solidify the beautiful Victorian frontage that the film crew had designed for the bookshop. It became a visitor attraction in itself and people from all over the world would come to visit it.

One such visitor was an American Senator from the Southern States who made much of his visit to Serendip, along with his armed bodyguards - and as a big John Fowles fan, he spent a long time selecting titles by the author. Unbeknownst to the Senator, John was actually in the shop at the same time, dressed in his traditional shabby raincoat and he was unaware until the last moment just who the American visitor was so interested in… He could be seen shrinking further and further into his collar in horrified embarrassment and when John was paying for his books, in a moment of devilment Chris said very loudly, ‘Don’t forget your change John!’ Chris recalls that he never saw the famous author move so fast as he shot out of the door and disappeared up the main street, ‘making smoke’, as Chris put it.

When the film company departed, they made a large financial contribution to Lyme Regis and Chris put forward the idea of re-starting the Lyme Regis Town Band. There were a plethora of other thoughts, but it was this one that was adopted and so it came to be. Chris took up the tuba - all the other instrument players of the town congregated and under the watchful eye of the late Pat Perry and Joe O’Donnell, history was in the making. The town band progressed brilliantly, obtaining national recognition and it still goes strong today.

In 1985 Chris moved to Ilminster, he loved the town, the people and he loved his bookshop. He was incredibly happy in, as he called it, ‘his little house’ and felt that it was pre-ordained he should live there. Paragon Books, latterly Ile Valley Bookshop, was a haven from the mad world for all his customers and he welcomed anyone who came within. In fact it was described by one customer as ‘the intellectual hub of Ilminster’.

Conversation would invariably start with, ’What star sign are you?’ - or ’Where are you from?’ and many of the customers recall their visits invariably turning out to be five times longer than they intended when Chris was in the shop.

One customer told how, having recently moved to Ilminster, Chris enquired if he was enjoying living in the town. He replied that he liked it well enough - but sometimes he felt it was too quiet and was tempted to stand in the main street and yell obscenities. ‘Good idea’ replied Chris, ‘Let’s do just that’ and they both went outside and yelled ‘OBSCENITIES!’ at the tops of their voices. Not another word was spoken, all that needed to be said had been said and the customer went on his way and Chris went back inside the shop.

Chris was a deeply kind man and a wonderful listener - he enjoyed nothing more than a good chin wag, whether it be about cricket (he was profoundly relieved to know that England has retained the Ashes the day he died), the state of farming, politics, local goings on, or just family news.

As a family man Chris was devoted. He had incredibly high morals, would never shirk from responsibility, always did what he felt was right, but at the same time hated to put anyone out. His sense of humour was legendary - he loved playing pranks - enjoyed a good joke and loved to laugh. One of his favourite sayings was: ‘It doesn’t matter and it’ll matter even less in 50 years time. Nothing matters - and everything is funny.’

In 1996 he suffered an aortic aneurism, characteristically baffling the doctors by determinedly surviving it. His daughter, Sara would visit him at Bristol every day and on one occasion commented on how pale he was and that a shot of brandy was in order. When she asked the doctor’s permission, he surprisingly gave it and so she went and bought a bottle of the best she could find and gave him a healthy drink. A week later when Chris was moved from the Intensive Care to the normal cardiac unit, she teased the doctor and said it was the brandy that had done the trick and it was only then that he admitted the only reason he had sanctioned it was because he was sure Chris wasn’t going to survive the ordeal and so didn’t think it would do any harm.

In later years, Chris’s health began once more to cause him problems, which was something he found incredibly frustrating given his customary mobility and energy. But he was always very clear about what should happen once he died, and according to his wishes, his family ensures his remains were donated to science - the day after he died on December 7th, 2010 his corneas helped another patient, he would have been thrilled to know that. His body was then taken to Bristol University where it has since been used to further aid science and to teach young doctors.

Chris’s legacy is widespread and deeply felt. He leaves behind a treasure of an independent bookshop in the town that he loved, as well as the thriving ’Serendip’ in Lyme Regis - which was taken over in the autumn of 2010 by the owners of The Archway Bookshop in Axminster.

Chris’s Memorial Service will take place at The Minster Church in Ilminster on 17th February 2011 at 2pm - it would have been his 85th birthday. The family would be delighted to welcome everyone who knew Chris.