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.

The Australian - Wish Magazine - - MOTORING - MARIA SHOL­LEN­BARGER

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

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