West Bay Discovery Centre

Methodist Chapel

The West Bay Discovery Centre was officially opened last week. It’s in the old Methodist chapel, situated on the left as you walk towards the Watch House cafe on East beach. The photo above shows it before all the exciting plans came to fruition. The aim of the centre is to bring West Bay and the Jurassic Coast to life with stories that tell of it’s history, hidden heritage and natural environment.

Here’s a link to a local lady’s blog post about all the hard work required to get to the opening.

Earlier this year I spent a while reading about West Bay and wrote a brief (ish) post myself about the history so I’m really looking forward to visiting the centre next time I’m there. I hope that the information in my post bears a resemblance to that in the centre! I’m sure I’ll find out a lot of new things too.

The centre is free to enter but it is a charity and relies on donations to keep it going. It will be open this year until October, every Tuesday to Sunday between 11am and 4pm.

If you want to visit the West Bay Discovery Centre but haven’t yet booked accommodation, then we’d love to welcome you to West Bay Cottage. Take a look inside the cottage here if you wish. Head to our Book With Us page for availability, the rates and how to book.

Dorset Dialect Words

Dorset Dialect - a dumbledore

Do you know what the word for bumblebee is in the Dorset dialect? If you’ve read the Harry Potter books it will be familiar to you. It’s dumbledore. Author J K Rowling chose Dumbledore for her Hogwarts headmaster because of his love of music. She imagined him bumbling about his study “humming to himself a lot”. Incidentally, the old Dorset word for wasp is wopsy. It comes from a Dorset habit of transposing the “s” sound.

Here is some more West Country dialect words. One of the rivers running through Bridport is the River Asker, but an asker is also a West Dorset word for a newt. Emmet means an ant. Cornish people may use this word for tourists or “incomers”. In the rest of the West Country you are more likely to hear holidaymakers called grockles, usually in a slightly derogatory way. For example, in the summer a local might complain, with a roll of the eyes, that the grockles are clogging up the roads.

Understandably, the name for a bat is an airmouse. However I can’t figure out why anyone would call a ladybird God Almighty’s cow. How peculiar!

Did you recently see tinklebobs (icicles) in the snowy weather? Do you ever ballyrag your noggerhead kiddie (scold your blockhead man)? And a bite before breakfast? It’s a dewbit. That’s the badger. (That’s exactly what I was looking for / exactly what I meant.)

Now I’m a little joppety-joppety (nervous) you’ve not enjoyed reading this. But if you have and want to read more here’s a link to a list of more Dorset dialect words.

Dorset Knobs

Dorset Knobs Close Up

With a name guaranteed to invoke much hilarity among children, Dorset knobs are a local speciality. Read on if you are interested in finding out more about them:

  • Originally Dorset knobs were made from leftover bread dough with added butter and sugar, hand-rolled and left to dry in the dying heat of the oven.
  • These days they are still made from bread dough which contains extra sugar and butter. They are rolled and shaped by hand and baked three times. Once cooked, they are roughly the size of a golf ball, very crumbly and rather like a dry, hard breadstick. They keep crisp and tasty in a tin for months. Don’t be fooled by the picture, they are much crispier than a bread roll.
  • It is thought their name comes from the hand-sewn Dorset knob buttons that were also made locally. They have also been compared, in size, to door knobs.
  • In the past there were a number of producers of Dorset knobs. Today the only firm to produce them commercially is Moores Biscuits of Morcombelake, four miles west of Bridport. They have been making them for more than 130 years.
  • The company makes roughly two million knobs a year but only during January and February. The 8 – 10 hour process means they are not economically viable to produce for longer. By the start of March the demand for sweet biscuits has increased again after the New Year lull and the company returns to its profitable and less labour-intensive biscuits.
  • The knobs are now baked in Moores factory in Bridport. Moores still has a Craft Bakery Shop in Morcombelake. Visitors can buy biscuits and knobs there and also look around their art gallery of West Country paintings and bakery bygones.
  • They can be eaten with cheese (traditionally Blue Vinny), dipped in tea or cider, or taken with honey and cream. This is known locally as thunder and lightning.
  • Dorset knobs were a favourite food of local author Thomas Hardy. He liked them with stilton cheese.
  • The Dorset Knob Throwing Festival has been held the first Sunday in May since 2008. As well as throwing them, other knob-related activities at the food festival include guess the weight of the knob, the knob and spoon race, knob darts and knob painting. Earlier this year the organisers announced that Moores thought that the festival had “run its course”. After the subsequent outcry they relented and said that the festival would be coming back as a biennial event in 2019, bigger and better.

Bag of Dorset knobs

  • Dorset knobs are normally sold in a bag or tin in Dorset delicatessens, farm shops and independent food stores. I think our nearest stockist is Groves Nursery. They would make a nice little present to say thank you to someone who has been watering your garden / feeding your goldfish / looking after your hamster (etc) while you holiday in West Dorset. But be warned, supplies are limited. When they’re gone, they’re gone, until next year anyway.

The History Of West Bay

View from high on West Cliff

Are you interested in finding out about West Bay’s history? Then please read on. Best make yourself a hot drink and find a comfy chair before you begin, you have a lot of years to get through…

Thanks to the author of the westbay.co.uk website. Much of the information was gathered from it, as well as a couple of the vintage photos. If this post leaves you wanting more then just go to that website where you will definitely find a lot more. A labour of love I think.

I have highlighted all the buildings which are still around in BOLD so that next time you wander about the harbour with other people you can make yourself look extremely knowledgable and clever by pointing out the landmarks whilst you impart a little bit of their history!

Are you sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin. Just click here:  The history of West Bay

The Greatest Fossil Hunter Ever

Mary Anning Painting

Mary Anning’s story is fascinating. Born in Lyme Regis in 1799, she lived her whole life there hunting, collecting and selling fossils. The Natural History Museum proclaimed her the greatest fossil hunter ever. Yet the scientific community didn’t completely accept her during her lifetime or give her as much credit as she deserved. Why? Because she was female, poor and working class. If you’d like to know more please read on. Are you lucky enough to be visiting Lyme soon? Find out about the town’s most remarkable person before you go.

Her Early Life

Copy of Ichthyosaur skull displayed in Lyme Regis museumAt fifteen months old Mary Anning survived a lightening strike which killed the three other people sheltering under the tree. Unlikely as it sounds her family maintained that the sickly baby girl became much smarter and livelier as a result.

As a young child she would often go out on the beaches of Lyme fossil hunting with her older brother Joseph and her father, a carpenter and an amateur fossil collector. The family was poor and selling the fossils was a necessity to bring in money. It was dangerous work particularly during the winter months, out in storms and after landslides. Her father died when she was only eleven, leaving the family in debt. Mary, along with her mother and brother, continued collecting and selling fossils to tourists from a table outside their house.

In 1811 Mary’s brother discovered a four foot long skull. With its long snout and prominent teeth it might have been a crocodile except that it had huge, bulbous eyes. A creature never seen alive. A few months later Mary found the rest of the skeleton. It became quite a sensation, rocking the scientific world.

Her Fossil Expertise


Sketch made by Mary Anning
Mary eked out a living by finding, painstakingly recovering and selling fossils throughout her life. As she continued to make important fossil discoveries her reputation grew. Scientists and collectors from around Europe and America visited her in Lyme. However the majority of her finds ended up in museums and personal collections without giving her any credit.

Mary read scientific papers and dissected animals to gain a better understanding of anatomy. She became an expert in the delicate work of removing fossilised bones from the rocks, then reconstructing skeletons. She knew more about fossils and geology than most of the gentlemen geologists and stayed in frequent contact with them. They published information she gave them, but often neglected to mention her name.

Despite her incredible understanding of fossils and skeletons she was not eligible to join the Geological Society of London. Not surprisingly she grew resentful of the scientists who failed to acknowledge her work, remaining an outsider barred from full participation because of her sex and social class.

The dangers of her occupation was highlighted in October 1833 when her dog was killed by a landslide that nearly killed Mary too.

The Huge Importance Of Her Discoveries

Mary Anning’s fossil discoveries caused major controversy as they challenged the belief that the world had been created as described in the Bible. If God’s creation was perfection, how come these creatures no longer existed, so must have been imperfect? Those who had faith in Genesis as literal history required every species ever created to be alive still. They also believed that everything had been made within a week. Why were different types of fossils found in different layers of rocks, evidence that the animals had existed during different eras?

The spectacular marine reptiles that she unearthed provided the evidence for extinction, shaking the scientific community into looking at different explanations for changes in the natural world. This indirectly lead Darwin into his insights which culminated in his publication The Origin of Species in 1859.

Her Death

In the last few years of her life, Mary became increasingly sick, suffering from breast cancer. She began taking laudanum for the pain and local people mistook the effects of the drug for drunkenness. When the Geological Society’s members learned of her plight, they started a fund that paid for her treatment. In 1846 they made her an honorary member of the society. She died in 1847. A eulogy was read at a society meeting and they published her obituary.

After her death her story attracted increasing general interest. In 1865 an article in a magazine edited by Charles Dickens celebrated her life and achievements.

Mary was probably the inspiration for the 1908 tongue twister, “She sells seashells by the seashore.”

In 2010 the Royal Society included Mary in a list of the ten British women who have most influenced the history of science.

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

Remarkable Creatures Book CoverIf you enjoy reading historical novels then Remarkable Creatures by Tracey Chevalier is a great way of finding out more. Like her most famous book, Girl with a Pearl Earring, Chevalier takes real historical events and people and winds a fictional tale around them.

In Remarkable Creatures two alternating voices tell Mary’s story. One is Mary, the other is Elizabeth Philpot, a middle-class spinster sent by a married brother from London to live more cheaply in Lyme. Elizabeth begins searching the beaches for fossils and meets Mary, then a child. Despite their differences in class and age a loyal friendship develops, founded on their shared passion for fossil hunting. As well as an absorbing story it is also a revealing portrait of female friendship. They, as much as the fossils, are the remarkable creatures of the title.

A production company optioned the book earlier this year and so, who knows, maybe a movie beckons.

Visiting Lyme

When you are visiting Lyme the Lyme Regis Museum, on the site of Mary’s birthplace, has a Mary Anning wing which tells the story of Mary and Lyme’s fantastic fossils. They also offer guided Mary Anning and fossil walks. Click here to see if there are any scheduled conveniently for you. Incidentally the museum, built in 1901, was commissioned by Thomas Philpot, a relative of Elizabeth Philpot.

Mary Anning’s grave is in the churchyard of St Michael’s Parish Church. A stained glass window there, paid for by the Geological Society, commemorates her life.

Getting to Lyme Regis from the cottage is an easy drive down the A35. Alternatively you can take the Jurassic Coaster bus which goes from outside The George. You can even get a water taxi there from the harbour. Even if you aren’t interested in Lyme’s fossil history you’ll find plenty to see and amble around, and lots of places to have a bite to eat. If you are interested I hope this potted history of Mary Anning’s life helps to enrich your visit a little. If you want to know more, Remarkable Creatures is well worth reading and particularly suited to a holiday on the Jurassic Coast!

Holiday In Thomas Hardy Country

Thomas Hardy

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

Hardy's Cottage NTThomas 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.

Max Gate NTIn 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.

Mayor of Casterbridge HouseHardy’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.

Incidentally, if you are interested in finding out where the locations were for the 1960’s and the recent film versions of Far from the Madding Crowd check out this post,  this post and this one!