Welcome to Bridport, or Notting Hill on Sea
A once sleepy corner of Dorset has found itself under the spotlight – and not all the locals are happy. Adam Edwards discovers a medieval town that’s becoming almost modern
For a moment earlier this year a spotlight was turned on to one of the sleepier corners of Britain – Dorset. The container ship Napoli broke up and shed much of its cargo on to the county’s most westerly beaches.
The locals didn’t like it one little bit. It wasn’t so much the flotsam, jetsam and BMW motorbikes washing ashore on the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site. It was the publicity.
The world suddenly woke up to West Dorset and, in particular, to the small medieval town of Bridport. It was described in the media as “Notting Hill on Sea”.
The town, it was noted, was like Ludlow in Shropshire and Padstow in Cornwall in the sense that it is a metropolitan bolt-hole where estate agents could not keep up with demand. In particular, what had inspired this comparison with the fashionable West London suburb was the revival of the new Electric Palace Cinema, which re-opens this month. It is a listed neo-classicalstyle 1920s theatre, originally built as an opera house. Notting Hill, it was noted, also has an Electric Cinema.
The foyer of the Bridport Electric Palace, with its murals of formal gardens, is also a Parisian-style brasserie, where the menu boasts pan-fried boudin and mushroom tortellini.
Its art deco bar contains huge murals by respected contemporary artists – no driftwood sculptures here. The murals include a 30ft illustration by Ralph Steadman, who is a patron of the cinema.
Peter Hitchen, who owns the Electric Palace, ran an art school for many years and has strong connections with both Bridport and London. Among the cinema’s other patrons are theatre director Sir Richard Eyre, writer and actor Julian Fellowes, film director Mike Leigh, singers Billy Bragg and PJ Harvey and Astrid Proll, the former Baader-Meinhof terrorist.
“All of them have strong connections with the area,” says Hitchen.
Celebrity chef Hugh FearnleyWhittingstall recently brought Bridport and its immediate surrounds to national attention with his River Cottage television shows romanticising Wessex and West Dorset.
“The Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall effect has been huge,” said Mark Banham, the manager of the local Palmer’s Wine Store. “Our range and turnover has increased three-fold in the past five years – major wine shippers are visiting us. The town now has a farmers’ market, the food shops are brilliant and the restaurants are improving. Padstow was nicknamed ‘Padstein’ after the influence of Rick Stein. Bridport should be called ‘Hughville’.”
Much of the town, which for centuries was famous for ropemaking, remains gently retro. It is the sort of place in which gentlemen’s outfitters, toasted teacakes and Indian restaurants with flock wallpaper still thrive.
But Bridport and its immediate surrounds also has something of the bohemian about it. Locals have historically included the French impressionist painter Lucien Pissarro, the mystical writer Adela Curtis, playwright Ann Jellicoe, who wrote the seminal swinging Sixties movie The Knack, and the author Tom Sharpe.
It has a thriving arts centre, which was formerly a Wesleyan Methodist Chapel. There, workshops for reiki and drumming are advertised. And there is evidence of something called a “treewise co-operative”. Nearby are a dozen studios belonging to professional artists. The Bull, which was formerly an old market-townstyle hotel, now describes itself as “boutique”, serves Parmesan shavings and boasts ownership of a “cool comfort zone”.
New restaurants are opening and the local butcher, RJ Balson & Son, which claims to be Britain’s oldest family butcher, with records dating back to 1535, sells faggots and Bath chaps – smoked pig’s cheek.
“Ten years ago, Bridport was full of traditional tearooms,” said estate agent Martin Bowen-Ashwin. “Now it is a town of delicatessens, coffee shops and wine bars. A lot of second-home owners have moved here – 50 per cent of my sales in the past year have been to Londoners.”
Most of the urban arrivals want to live in Thomas Hardy country and gravitate to nearby villages. Burton Bradstock at the westerly end of Chesil Beach is unspoilt and a 17th-century thatched cottage will cost about £500,000. At the marginally less-chic Powerstock, a tiny three-bedroom cottage will set you back around £400,000 — but only if you can still find one.
“There are still a lot of artists living in and around Bridport,” said Bowen-Ashwin. “But recently the prices have been drawing in wealthy Londoners. West Dorset has seen one of the biggest price-rises in the country in the past decade. There are a lot of pretty villages within a 10-mile radius of Bridport.”
Its popularity is likely to increase as the 2012 Olympics draws near because Weymouth, 17 miles to the east, is hosting the sailing for the Games.
Meanwhile, the locals are furious about the interest in their unspoilt corner of England.
“Do you think Champagne socialist Billy Bragg and other celebrity incomers are any good for the area?” asked the community-led website Bridport Radio. One of its angry correspondents wrote that “the town doesn’t give a frothy coffee for celebrity”.
Local hero: Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (left), and Bridport’s harbour atWest Bay (top)