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

The Daily Telegraph - Property - - West country -

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)

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