Did you see Saturday’s Telegraph article about how West Dorset has become a modern gastronomic capital no less? Read it here if you are lucky enough to be in the area and looking for a special meal. The focus is understandably on the more top-end restaurants but it mentions West Bay’s Watch House Café and Seatown’s The Anchor Inn so they’re not all very pricy. The picture above, pinched from the article, is of Dorshi in Bridport, open since 2016. It’s Asian style cooking, so lots of small dishes, dumplings, noodles, using local Dorset produce. Cocktails too. It’s getting great reviews on Tripadvisor. I read about it a little while ago and filed it away in my head as somewhere to try to go to when next in Bridport, then promptly forgot about it when I was actually there. D’oh
Fancy a girls-only weekend away? A chance to get together, to chat, laugh, catch up, relax, reminisce and recharge your batteries. A getaway to our cottage is great for just that. I speak from experience as, at least once a year, I’m lucky enough to spend a weekend there with three of my oldest friends (in every sense of the word oldest, ha ha!).
Eating Out – The Blow-Out
There’s not much actual cooking in the cottage these weekends. Nuh-uh. The fridge is full of bottles and nibbles. With so many places to eat out we are spoilt for choice. Decisions, decisions. We treat ourselves to one blow-out meal each trip. It’s been The Station Kitchen for the last two years. Having sat in the train carriage last year we really had to go back to try the waiting room too. I went very retro with prawn cocktail followed by a great steak. My friends were very happy with their scallops and lamb dishes. Sadly we were too full this time for puddings. One year we made the very short walk to The Riverside for a special treat (we did have “significant” birthdays to celebrate). Another time we took a trip to Lyme where we had a lovely lunch at Mark Hix’s place with the views over the bay. We’ve also over the years had great Saturday evening meals and Sunday lunches at The West Bay Hotel. I’ll gloss over the not-so-good Sunday roast we had a few years ago at another local hotel!
More Eating – Lighter Bites
We need to fit a visit to a cafe or two into the weekend. A few weeks ago we had a yummy lunch (crab sandwich, mussels and two moroccan chicken salads in case you’re wondering) at the Soulshine Café in Bridport. We were lucky enough to stay dry in their little garden out the back. Last year we raved about Rachel’s (one of the wooden huts at The Mound) for Sunday lunch (sadly not possible this year as you do need the weather to behave). We recommend The Seasider too if you fancy fish and chips back at the cottage, Friday evening perhaps.
The Watch House Café fits the bill for a nice breakfast, lunch or brunch on the beach. Or indeed a slice of cake in the afternoon, including Dorset apple cake.
This year we added pasties to our repertoire, with the new kid on the block, The Cornish Bakery, a couple of minutes walk away in the old Harbour Stores building. A pasty and a Portuguese tart provided a cheap and tasty lunch eaten back at the cottage. I really did have to go back the next day, home alone now, for another one.
Another pull to the area is shopping. A wander around the Customs House one time made Kate’s day when she found a vintage book about Richard Burton (she’s his biggest fan). One Sunday we ambled around the Car Boot Sale (Mel is still using her salt pig bargain!). Or Bridport for some proper retail therapy with the Saturday Market and mix of independent galleries, books shops, boutiques and chain stores too.
Things To See
Each year there is something different to visit. A food festival at Hive Beach one year. This year the Open Studios event was being held so we spent an enjoyable hour or two wandering around several of the St Michael’s studios in Bridport as well as the ones in West Bay. It was a Dorset heritage weekend too. We braved climbing to the top of St Mary’s Church with rather a small opening at the top to clamber though, best for Kim the climbing wall enthusiast! It gave us a 360 degree bird’s eye view of the town, down to West Bay and across to Colmers Hill too. Next year the Hat Festival maybe?
It’s not all eating and drinking. We walk, a little anyway. Up to Bridport or around West Bay. The stroll along the pier to breathe in that sea air and get that view of the honeyed cliffs. If we are feeling energetic (or to walk off all the food we’ve been eating) we take a quick hike up East Cliff. We’ve walked the other way too, to Eype with the glorious view of the Golden Cap and Lyme Bay in the distance.
With the Electric Palace and Bridport Arts Centre up the road you might think I’d mention the shows we’ve been to, the variety of film, theatre, music and comedy evenings we’ve packed into our weekends. Nope, we like to spend time relaxing in the cottage, time just to chill. Open a bottle, watch some DVDs. We did have an eclectic mix of them this year, the Good (The Birds), the Bad (Sharknado) and the Ugly (Machete). Don’t worry, we didn’t leave the DVDs behind!
Sound like your sort of a weekend? Well then, book a short break at the cottage, one for just the girls, and start planning now. Take a look inside the cottage, or head to our Book With Us page for availability, the rates and how to book.
I was lucky enough to spend a West Bay weekend during the Bridport Open Studios event this September. Every year over 75 of West Dorset’s artists, designers and makers open their galleries, studios and homes for people to explore, view and have a chat about their work.
There were three Open Studios in West Bay. I’d never realised before that The Old Timberyard, the big old warehouse you can see as you look out of the front bedroom window, houses two artist’s studios on the top and middle floors. It was a pleasure to visit them and see their work inspired by the sea and rocks of the coast here, with the added bonus I could see our cottage out of their windows from a viewpoint I’d never had before!
On the middle floor is the huge studio of abstract artist Jon Adam. His pictures were big and stunning but I couldn’t help being sidetracked by his… floorboards! Not something I usually get distracted by but they were the same as the ones upstairs in the cottage, dark and unusually wide. In the studio some of them were very, very long too. I’d always though we had these wide boards due to the ship building history of West Bay, with the same planks used for ship decking too. Jon told me that actually the tree trunks our floorboards are made from were shipped back from America in the eighteenth-century. West Bay, then known as Bridport Harbour, was a busy port with ships setting sail laden with rope and nets to trade. For the return journey large American logs were used as ballast in the ships’ holds in order to remain upright and stable at sea. Upon arrival in England, those same timber cargoes were made into, amongst other things, our floorboards.
On the top floor is Amanda Wallwork. Her work is concerned with the archeology and geology of the South West landscape. Her richly coloured and rocky paintings are constructed from layers of plaster and oil paint. She’s also created charts of the barrows of the Dorset landscape, reimagining them as constellation maps. Most recently she has produced a Field Guide and two maps (more to come) exploring the landscape of the South Dorset Ridgeway. The concept behind these is to highlight how the rocks below the surface influences the landscape we see today. The Field Guide gives an introduction to the landscape and some of the things to look out for, with the two maps show walking routes in the Abbotsbury and Portesham area. There’s now a set in the cottage cupboard.
Unfortunately my budget wouldn’t stretch to an original painting but I did treat the cottage to a print of the harbour. Very appropriate I think. The artist is Chris Neaves and he has a little gallery in Bridport on Gundry Lane called Cloud 9 Studio. I’ve given it a frame and it’s now waiting to return home to West Bay.
Maybe you are a Thomas Hardy enthusiast, keen to see where he lived and visit the areas which inspired him? You’ll find that West Dorset makes an ideal base for doing just that.
To be honest I wouldn’t say Thomas Hardy is a favourite writer of mine. Perhaps the result of having his book The Trumpet Major drilled into me at school. A frustration with his characters when they don’t communicate, don’t say the one sentence that would sort everything out. Oh my, what miserable storylines! Did you see that depressing film Jude, made about twenty years ago?
Should I give him another chance? His life and work is so tied up with West Dorset. He is undoubtably Dorset’s most famous author and considered one of the greatest ever English novelists and poets. He created some of the strongest leading female characters in 19th century literature. So that’s a yes then. In the meantime I’ve been reading about him. Just google his name and you’re spoilt for choice, although you do come across the actor Tom Hardy a lot too. I’ve written a little here on the writer, an outline of his life with a focus on the links between it, West Dorset, and the “Wessex” of his novels. Some links are included to help with the planning of a visit to Hardy Country.
Thomas Hardy’s Life
Thomas Hardy was born in 1840 in a tiny Dorset hamlet called Upper Bockhampton (now Higher Bockhampton) near Dorchester. The cottage where he was born and brought up had been built of cob and thatch by his great-grandfather in 1800. Initially Hardy’s mother educated him at home where she introduced him to the classics. Aged eight he went to his first school at Bockhampton before attending the Academy for Young Gentlemen in Dorchester. Hardy’s family couldn’t afford to send him to university so, aged sixteen, he started training as an architect in Dorchester. After moving to London in 1862 he began to write in his spare time.
After Thomas Hardy’s first novel was rejected by publishers in 1867 he turned to the “pastoral” for his subject matter. His intimate, first-hand knowledge of the countryside where he grew up was to be a major factor in his subsequent success.
Hardy lived in Weymouth in 1869 and between 1871 – 1872, working as an architect’s assistant. Here he wrote part of Under the Greenwood Tree.
In 1874 he wrote his fourth novel, Far from the Madding Crowd, at his parent’s cottage. He was so excited at times writing it that while out walking he had to grab a leaf or a stone on which to scribble phrases. In this book he introduced the idea of calling the region where his novels are set in the west of England “Wessex”.
Married in 1874, the Hardys moved from London to Yeovil, and then to Sturminster Newton in Dorset. Far from the Madding Crowd was successful enough for Hardy to give up architecture and pursue writing full-time. Over the next twenty-five years Thomas wrote ten more novels.
In 1885 Thomas and his wife moved into Max Gate on the outskirts of Dorchester, a house he designed and built by his brother. Hardy’s wife died there in 1912. Although they were estranged for the last twenty years, during which she lived up in the attic, her death had a traumatic effect on him. His eulogies to her written after her death are considered his peak poetic achievement. In 1914, aged 74, Hardy married his secretary who was 39 years his junior.
By 1928 when he died, aged 87, he was a celebrated grand old man of letters. He was buried in Westminster Abbey in Poet’s Corner. He had requested to be buried in Stinsford (his Mellstock) churchyard in the family plot. His heart was buried there with his first wife, later joined by his second wife after her death in 1937.
Thomas Hardy’s Works
Thomas Hardy is now regarded as one of the greatest of English novelists and poets. His complicated tales of thwarted desire and human failing, his memorable characters and evocative descriptions of recognisable places, have become classics.
Alongside Far from the Madding Crowd his fourteen published novels include Under the Greenwood Tree (1872), The Return of the Native (1878), The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), The Woodlanders (1887 and Hardy’s favourite), Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891) and his final novel, Jude the Obscure (1895). His Complete Poems has been continuously in print since the 1920s.
Visit Hardy’s Homes
You can visit Hardy’s Cottage, the cottage where he was born and grew up. It is now owned by the National Trust. It sits next to Thorncombe Woods, an ancient woodland. This opens out onto heathland, the beginning of Hardy’s “Egdon Heath”. Tripadvisor reviews are very positive. They note that the National Trust volunteers in the cottage are very helpful and interesting, the cottage is fascinating and the garden is beautiful. The cafe by the car park is recommended too.
Max Gate is also a National Trust property, only fully opened to the public in 2010 with work still in progress. It is another “must see” for those interested in Thomas Hardy and giving an insight into his later life (only negative comments I can find are about the lack of a car park or tea room).
Explore Hardy’s Wessex
West Bay is an ideal base from which to explore some of the sites of the thinly disguised Wessex made famous in his stories and poems. Many of the features of Hardy’s descriptions still remain. A long distance (actually very long, 220 miles) footpath, the Hardy Way, links many of his favourite sites.
Bridport (Port Bredy) is a location which makes numerous appearances in Hardy’s works. It is the place the Squire retires to after the momentous events in Hardy’s witch story The Withered Arm. It also receives mentions in the short story The Fellow Townsmen and The Mayor of Casterbridge.
Weymouth’s Esplanade, the Gloucester Lodge Hotel and Old Rooms are featured in The Trumpet-Major (1880), renamed Budmouth in the 1895 edition. Budmouth Regis makes an appearance in several other of his novels too.
The town of Beaminster (Emminster) is home of the Clare family in Tess of the D’Urbervilles and the place the destitute Tess walks to in order to seek help from her estranged in-laws. Going east from there on the Wessex Ridgeway, hidden in the verge, is the Cross-in-Hand stone pillar. Tess swears on it to Alex that she will never tempt him. The Acorn Inn (The Sow and Acorn) is in Evershot, where Tess eats her breakfast. Lovely views of Blackmoor Vale can be seen along the route.
Speculation about the location of Gabriel Oak’s original home has led some to suggest that nearby Eggardon Hill may have have been the model. Maiden Castle has strong connections with the Mayor of Casterbridge.
Hardy’s home town of Dorchester is called Casterbridge in his books. Along with Hardy’s Cottage and Max Gate it is definitely worth a visit if you are interested in Hardy. A collection of Hardy relics is held in Dorchester’s museum, which includes a re-creation of his study. On a walk around Dorchester you will find buildings, geographical features and monuments connected with the great author. His statue is not far from County Hall.
What a treat if you are a Hardy fan, to visit West Dorset and explore some of the most beautiful literary heritage sights in England. If you’ve read all this and haven’t yet booked accommodation for your trip to the area, we’d love to welcome you to West Bay Cottage. Take a look inside the cottage if you wish, or head to our Book With Us page for availability, the rates and how to book.
Here’s a photo of West Bay Harbour and East Beach taken from the air. Swains Row is almost hidden behind Harbour House but I’ve added an arrow to show where it is. Can’t miss it!
Incidentally, I got the still photo from a YouTube video. Please have a look if you’d like to see the drone footage over West Bay and the nearby Jurassic Coast. It gets much sharper after the first 15 seconds or so.