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Dorset: Chesil Beach and beyond

Most sensible people lay on rugs reading: I counted at least four with Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach

May 11, 2011 | By:

Oliver Bennett meanders along the Jurassic Coast to see how ten years as a World Heritage Site has gentrified the area

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The Dorset coast: perfect for a staycation

It’s been ten years since the Dorset and east Devon coast was declared the Jurassic Coast, England’s first World Heritage Site. Since then, this part of the world has gained immeasurable self-esteem. No longer is it about caravans, Mr Whippy and grockles who would rather be in Torremolinos.

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Rather, the JC now exemplifies a wave of coastal gentrification that has turned this littoral into an urban nostalgic fantasy: gastro-pubs, eternal rock pools, hand-reared Old Spot, inner-child adventure. It’s Boden meets Blyton with a bucket and spade.

On a recent weekend, I started in Lyme Regis. The drive down into the old Regency resort was still a motorised slalom, and the town remains a cramped pleasure, but now blessed with a new imported beach. Lyme had never been much of a place to swim: a dishwater-coloured soup. Now, the water was almost drinkable. I wallowed, clocking the Regency flats overlooking the frontage, observing a tendency away from UPVC and towards Farrow & Ball.

‘An art directed town’

Lyme, always pretty, now looks as if has been designed by a BBC art director. I walked up into town, had a look in the Hix Oyster and Fish House restaurant that opened in 2008, then went into Lyme’s terrific museum, which has lots of detail about Mary Anning, the driven ‘fossilist’ and subject of a book by Tracy Chevalier.

Back outside, I browsed the mix of tearooms and craft shops, then walked The Cobb. From this fabulous harbour wall, constructed of oak-piles and boulders, I could see those Jurassic cliffs beckoning me eastwards.

In Charmouth, the muddy heights were full of parents introducing their offspring to ammonites, and were absurdly crowded. I walked on the velvety grass of the cliff tops, receiving a powerful blast of UV from the sea.

Charmouth’s killer walk is to the Anchor Inn at Seatown and back, but I didn’t have time for that. Instead, I drove past the hills and water meadows of south Dorset, past Moore’s Bakery in Morecombelake, which makes the bawdily iconic Dorset Knobs biscuits, and parked in Bridport, a few miles east.

Notting Hill-by-Sea?

Always a handsome town, with wide streets built for rope making, Bridport has become a magnet since the Daily Telegraph in 2007 dubbed it Notting Hill by Sea. True? To an extent. The Bull Hotel has been refurbished from a humdrum hotel and pub into an exemplar of how to revive a rural coaching inn. At West Bay, Bridport’s seaside adjunct, the Riverside Restaurant sells scallops with pea purée and mint dressing.

I opted for chips from one of West Bay’s vans, as unreconstructed as the steroidal gulls that swooped down to steal them. It’s a happy mix here, like social salt and vinegar.

From West Bay, the coastline stretches in a parabola through to the Isle of Purbeck, shimmering like Alcatraz in the distance. At Burton Bradstock, I parked in one of Dorset’s expensive coastal car parks and walked to the seashore.

The beach here is the westward tip of the great shingle arc and geographical oddity known as Chesil Beach. The pebbles are small at the western end and huge at the east, where they dig into the bather’s feet like Lego on the living room floor. (Your swim in the steeply shelving sea is a great respite.) Most sensible people lay on rugs reading: I counted at least four with Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach.

After my swim, I relaxed in one of the small hollows that the weather has carved in the sandstone cliffs, then climbed back up the path to the Hive, a restaurant that always elicits the plea, “Why can’t all beachfront restaurants be like this?” After grilled sardines and white wine, I lay down carefully on those ancient pebbles and thought: why do people go through the hell of Stansted Airport to get away from here?