BESIDE THE SEASIDE
THE POSTCARD-PERFECT ENGLISHNESS OF WEST DORSET IS JUST THE ICING ON A MANY-LAYERED CAKE. A GEOLOGIST’S, ARCHAEOLOGIST’S AND NOVELIST’S PARADISE, THE SOUTHERN COASTAL REGION IS FULL OF SEDATE AND WILD BEAUTY.
English Weather. It’s so fixed an idea in the greater consciousness as to be almost axiomatic: England, we tell ourselves and each other, is grey; it is drizzly; its skies are low, and its atmosphere can skew decidedly damp (sometimes in more than one sense). But equally axiomatic is the observation that on a sunny summer day, there is no place quite as achingly lovely as rural England. When daylight stretches to 11pm on a fine June evening, and the air is softly numinous, and the landscape is so vividly green it almost seems to be lit from within – it is nearly impossible to better it.
I will go out on a limb as an adoptive Brit and say I’ve found few places in which this is truer than in England’s West Country. I’m not entirely sure if the first time I saw the west of Dorset was one such singingly fine June day, but the moment has fixed itself irrevocably in my memory that way, whatever the reality was. As I exited the A354 from Salisbury at Dorchester and followed the smaller, two-lane A35 west along the sharp spine of a hill, a gentle patchwork of yellow and green fell away to my left, descending in swells southward toward the glittering silver sea. Lush plots of alfalfa and hay, rolling like bolts of silk in the breeze, alternated with pasture across which massive oak and yew trees marched. Inky green hedgerows carved everything into shapes as neat as stitched parcels; a couple of white chalk roads undulated amongst it all, meandering through tiny villages lined with thatched houses of whitewashed brick and warm limestone. It was something straight out of an Eric Ravilious painting, or the pages of Jane Austen or Thomas Hardy: a particular layering of tone and texture in a landscape that was serene, if not quite tamed. To me – California-born and raised – it was the acme of The English Countryside.
It’s no coincidence, of course, that West Dorset’s landscapes evoked thoughts of Hardy. He set all his novels across the southwest of England; Dorset was his Wessex, the name taken from the ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdom of which it and neighbouring Somerset were part, introduced in his first novel, Far From The Madding Crowd (the 2015, Thomas Vinterberg-directed film version of which, as it happens, was photographed in and around the very landscape I describe above). It was a later novelist, Ian McEwan, who instead immortalised Chesil Beach, the stony strip of Dorset seaside stretching from the Isle of Portland in the east to the village of West Bay, not far from the lovely Regency resort town of Lyme Regis – where yet another luminary of 20th-century British literature, John Fowles, memorably set his novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman. And that was some 150 years after Austen, for her part, sent Louisa Musgrove down to The Cobb, Lyme Regis’s waterfront, in Persuasion.
Clearly, then, many English harbour an abiding love for West Dorset. But to a foreigner it is perhaps even more evocative, for being a sort of England in miniature, an uncommon meeting of the country’s varied identities. Here, all the signifiers of twee rural life – small houses with warm fires in modest hearths; vicarages and parsonages; village fêtes; local dairies and really, truly local pubs – are layered over an ancient, primal landscape that took shape some 185 million years ago. The cliffs and bluffs of the Jurassic Coast, long a World Heritage site, tower against the sky with an elemental presence, from the border of Devon to the eastern end of Chesil Beach; every so often, a section of it collapses spectacularly into the sea, in a thundering reminder of the progression of time. History too, is a palimpsest here; for almost every patrician 18th and 19thcentury National Trust estate, there is, somewhere close by, the low, hulking mass of an Iron Age fort – primitive martial earthworks, redolent of another, less placid age.
Such a heady meeting of heritage and landscape was bound to keep West Dorset in the sights of the discerning, whatever the century. It’s not especially surprising that the market town of Bridport, set between the regional capital of Dorchester (Hardy’s Casterbridge) and Lyme Regis, is sometimes referred to as Notting Hill-on-Sea. The notable West Dorset catchment of today ranges widely, comprising artists and writers, chefs and gardeners, architects and antiquarians. It includes the likes of PJ Harvey and Mark Hix (both born and raised in these parts), Christie’s wine expert and Decanter columnist Steven Spurrier, and Mary-Lou Sturridge, who left her glamorous managing-director role at the Groucho Club in London to open a simple boarding house overlooking the sea. In Lyme Regis, Hix has a lo-fi oyster and fish restaurant and a stealth-chic B&B, Hix Townhouse, with eight whimsically designed rooms whose most appealing amenity has to be the delivery each morning of a sublime breakfast hamper, heavy with bacon-and-egg croissants, house-made mueslis and jams, and Hix’s signature salt-and-molasses cured salmon (alone worth the journey from Australia).
“It starts for me with the light and the sky – that bright-yet-soft light that comes reflected from the sea; then, the folds of the chalk hills and valleys, still grazed by sheep and cattle; or the small stone and thatch villages that are plain and ordinary in comparison to the better-known beauties of the Cotswolds, but feel so