In 1972, when I was 15, my family moved for a year to Lyme Regis, a picturesque harbor town at the extreme western edge of Dorset, on England's southwestern coast. Lyme, as the locals call it, was a genteel backwater that had had its heyday in Victorian times. Not much about Lyme, or the county of Dorset for that matter, was still in fashion, but Lyme remained a place favored by a certain type of Englishman for its sweeping views, fresh sea air, and bracing country walks. Lyme was also appealingly hidden away; the tiny roads connecting it with neighboring Dorset towns and villages—Charmouth, Chideock, Bridport, and Abbotsbury—and those in Devon immediately to the west—Seaton, Beer, and Branscombe—were often so narrow that two cars could not pass abreast, and the red double-decker bus that plied the route often scraped the branches of overgrown trees.
Lyme also enjoys a couple of quirky claims to historic significance. In 1811, a 12-year-old girl named Mary Anning and her brother, Joseph, found the world's first complete skeleton of an ichthyosaur, a prehistoric sea creature that once lived in the waters of Lyme Bay. There are fossils all along the bay, in fact, and new ones are constantly being discovered and carted off by fossil hunters, especially after rains, which occasionally bring down huge chunks of the cliffs that line the coast. Lyme was also where the Duke of Monmouth began his ill-fated rebellion against King James II in 1685, and the beach where he landed with his army of followers is still named after him.
A simple scree of rock lashed by the waves, the upper part of Monmouth Beach has been colonized by a line of quaint wooden beach huts where, on cool days, English families shelter to boil pots of tea, nibble on biscuits, sit in folding chairs, and stare silently out at the ocean. Jutting out from the beach is an ancient stone harbor called the Cobb. Within its ramparts, a cluster of dinghies and jaunty little fishing boats bob at anchor when the tide is in, and perch at odd angles on the muddy seabed when it is out.
On either side of Lyme, the coastline is punctuated by a dramatic row of cliffs that rises and falls above the beach for miles. A pyramid-like peak more than 600 feet high, Golden Cap is the centerpiece of this formation. Its grass-clad flanks are dotted with sheep, and its soaring sandstone peak is blanketed with heather and hardy trees that extend all the way down to the rocks massed at sea's edge.
When we moved to Lyme, the novelist John Fowles lived there, in an elegant Georgian house on a hill with a walled garden overlooking the Cobb. Fowles set his most famous novel, The French Lieutenant's Woman, in Lyme Regis, and portions of the movie adaptation starring Meryl Streep were filmed there, too. Fowles was a reclusive man; in the year we lived in Lyme, I often looked up from the Cobb at his large windows hoping to catch a glimpse of him, but never did.
My family came to this remarkable little corner of the world as the result of a spat between my parents. After dragging my mother, me, and my four brothers and sisters to a half dozen countries over the previous 15 years, my father finally decided to leave the U.S. foreign service, and our most recent base in Washington, D.C. He had also expressed a desire to immigrate to Australia. My mother, a writer of children's books and a woman of iron resolve, had fiercely opposed his damn-it-all urge to escape to the outback, and soon enough, having prevailed, she informed us that we were not moving to Australia, but to England. She went on ahead of us to find us our new home and, after a silence of several weeks, called to let us know that we were going to live in Lyme Regis, which, naturally enough, none of us had ever heard of.
My mother always claimed that she had discovered Lyme by accident, after beginning her reconnaissance in Dover and traveling westward along England's southern coast toward Cornwall. Whether there was more to it than that we never knew, but she was certainly entranced by West Dorset's beauty and liked the fact that it was known as Thomas Hardy country. Hardy lived in the county seat of Dorchester, about 25 miles east of Lyme, and wrote about the area, its people, and its towns and villages as they existed in Victorian times.
We lived in Lyme Regis for a year. As Americans, we were exotic additions to an otherwise uniformly English town. I don't recall any children of a different nationality or race at Woodroffe, the school we attended—a hilltop scattering of neo-Gothic buildings and postwar prefab huts. There wasn't even an Indian restaurant in the town. Nor were there many other restaurants to speak of, for that matter. In the 27 years that had passed since the end of World War II, Great Britain had lost its Empire, and the country was poor.
When it came to eating out, almost everything revolved around fish-and-chips served in newspaper cones, liberally doused with vinegar and salt. Meat was something reserved for Sundays, when families that could afford it dined on roast beef, or gammon (a cut of ham), or steak-and-kidney pie. Social life revolved around the town's clutch of pubs and teahouses, where customers drank gin or pints of bitter and ate things like baked beans on toast, tea cakes (toasted raisin buns), and hot tea with milk and sugar. Coffee was not really coffee, but a chicory tincture mixed into hot water, and juice was not really juice, but an artificial concoction known as cordial. In my memories of that time, everyone was skinny and had gray teeth.
Excitement on Saturday nights consisted of dances, called "discos," that were put on at various village halls, or expeditions with other underage lads to buy bottles of cheap alcoholic cider at the back door of the town's scruffiest pub. The local brew was called "scrumpy," and was very strong. We concealed our booty in the pockets of our army-surplus greatcoats and went to drink it in darkness along the Marine Parade, a promenade that runs along the seafront at the base of town.
Roaming around at night, we almost always found ourselves in conversation with a short, stout fisherman named Stewart. He was legendary because no one in Lyme could outdrink him. Three pints of scrumpy are enough to make most people pretty drunk, but Stewart could drink 15 in a single session and still walk in a fairly straight line. He worked on the trawlers that fished for cod in the waters off Iceland, and when he was onshore, he always came into town to get drunk. He had muttonchop whiskers and wore a cloth cap and a tightly buttoned three-piece suit. Pink-faced and swaying slightly, Stewart would regale us with tales of how he and his fellow fishermen had to be lashed to the deck of their vessel so the cold Arctic water that crashed over them did not wash them overboard.
At Woodroffe, we were obliged to wear navy blue uniforms and black shoes and school ties, and every day at morning "assembly," all the students and teachers gathered in a cold hall to recite the Lord's Prayer. There were two options for lunch: hot or cold. Cold consisted of a piece of cheese, a hunk of bread, and some chutney. Hot, as I recall, did not seem worth eating, and I never did. Dessert, or "pudding," however, was a piece of sponge cake bathed in hot yellow custard, and was always welcome because it was warm. Everything else about Woodroffe, including the thin school uniforms, the cold stone hallways, and under-heated classrooms, left me permanently chilled.
I didn't do well at Woodroffe, but I did meet a girl there: Erica, who became my sweetheart. We stayed in touch when my family and I moved away from Dorset, and, eventually, we married. As we raised our own family, we lived in many far-flung places, but Dorset remained a cherished place, and in the mid 1990s, when Erica's mother settled in Bridport, our return visits became more frequent.
In the old days, Bridport, a former rope-making and brewery town five miles east of Lyme, seemed scruffy and unappealing. Twenty years on, however, it had evolved into a place of raffish charm, with a lively arts scene and a popular street market adding luster to
its lovely Georgian architecture. Bisected by sparkling streams and bounded by green hills, the town is linked to the ocean by water meadows that extend to the little port of West Bay and its golden cliffs, where ravens and rooks and seagulls make their nests.
So in 2001 we moved to Bridport with our three children, then aged eight, 10, and 12. Our plan was to live there for a year to help smooth out their Spanglish after a decade in Cuba and Spain. We ended up staying on, and live today in a big old Georgian house on the high street, just as damp and chilly as Woodroffe ever was, but with plentiful fireplaces.
Amazingly, our part of Dorset—or "Dahrset" as it is pronounced by true locals—still looks much the way it did 40 years ago. One of the reasons for this is that there is still no highway linking the west of the county to the outside world, which means that, except for a couple of short stretches of "dual carriageway," the roads are as small and winding as ever, and it therefore takes patience and expertise to get from one place to another.
Environmental preservation was given another boost in 2001, when a 90-mile stretch of coastline— from Orcombe Point in Devon to Old Harry Rocks in Dorset—was declared by unesco to be a World Heritage site and catchily renamed the Jurassic Coast. The British conservancy, the National Trust, has also bought up a great deal of coastal land to prevent sprawl from towns and villages from blighting the landscape, and new housing and road projects continue to be fiercely fought over in town hall meetings.
There are some eyesores, in the form of a smattering of trailer parks often set, incongruously, in the most scenic seaside spots. These are leftovers from the postwar years, when such places provided an inexpensive holiday for working-class Brits and, in a way, have become as integral a part of the British seaside experience as bad weather and buckets and spades. No one ever criticizes them, because that would be snobbish, and in West Dorset, there is little worse than being labeled a "posho" by the locals.
What has changed dramatically is the food. Thankfully, there is now a great deal more on offer than backdoor scrumpy, tea, and fish-andchips. Over the past decade and a half, West Dorset has gradually become a destination for healthy, seasonal, organically produced food—thanks, largely, to chef Hugh FearnleyWhittingstall's River Cottage television series and spin-off recipe books. After several seasons of River Cottage, one of which was filmed in a rented dairy barn outside Bridport, in 2006 Fearnley-Whittingstall bought his own farm and opened it up to visitors. The property is set in a pretty wooded village called Axminster, just up the lane from Lyme Regis. There, well-heeled Londoners come to dine on ragoût of squirrel and drink mulled apple, whisky, and lime cocktails, while learning how to forage for mushrooms and butcher pigs.
The river cottage phenomenon paved the way for an influx of culinary and lifestyle entrepreneurs—one which shows no sign of abating. Hot on Fearnley-Whittingstall's heels came London chef Mark Hix, who opened his Lyme Regis restaurant in 2008. The Hix Oyster & Fish House is perched on the hillside just below the late John Fowles's home, with a view over the Cobb and out to Lyme Bay. The menu is one of the area's most high-end, stocked with imaginative, brine-infused concoctions like Burry Bay cockle popcorn and scrumpy-fried rock oysters. At the opposite end of the spectrum—but no less popular—is the Hive Beach Café, a rustic seafood restaurant with a terrace that looks out to sea, just outside the village of Burton Bradstock. Almost all the fish and seafood is caught locally, and everything is wonderfully fresh; characteristic offerings include West Bay turbot, Portland Bill wild sea bass, and Lyme Bay monkfish. On the yellow-sand beach out front, people picnic and fish for sprats and mackerel, and, from April to October, a few make it a habit to plunge into the clean, cold water for a swim after lunch.
On the cliffs above the beach at Burton Bradstock sits the Seaside Boarding House, a new boutique hotel and restaurant run by Mary-Lou Sturridge, former manager of London's storied Groucho Club, with the backing of investor and Groucho Club cofounder Tony Mackintosh. On a recent gray morning, as the sea stormed up and down along the beach and sent great white plumes of spray and mist high into the air, Sturridge and I looked out from the cozy warmth of the hotel bar. "A storm is perfect, isn't it?" she said. "It's gorgeous when you can wake up and see the sea and hear the stones moving on the sand. And that's what Dorset is really about."
Sturridge wore a satisfied look. It took her a lot of time, expense, and effort to restore this old Victorian mansion overlooking the sea. "Before, it was like the Addams Family meets the Crossroads Motel," she said, referencing a dreary 1970s British television series. "But I wanted it to be, well, the Addams Family meets an Edward Hopper beach painting. And I think we've done it." She smiled. Outside the window, a stretch of lawn furnished with an aquamarine-painted swing seat ended at cliff's edge.
Inside, the place exuded a sense of sanctuary. Next door to the bar, a woman sat in the well-curated library, quietly reading a book. Upstairs, the eight guest rooms all had large windows, expansive beds, deep bathtubs, and views that looked straight out to sea or onto the surrounding countryside—an undulating expanse of green interrupted by the occasional thatched cottage.
"I urge our guests to go have fish-and-chips down at the Hive," Sturridge said, pointing down the hill, "and over to Mark Hix's place in Lyme for dinner. I don't expect them or want them here for every single meal. I want them to get out and explore, and then come back."
There is plenty for Sturridge's guests to see and do. Though Bridport and its surrounding villages have a total population of about 12,000, its creative scene is thriving. The town has a great contemporary arts center, several fantastic secondhand bookstores, an artisans' quarter, and a vintage Art Deco cinema called the Electric Palace, which has become a regional hub for independent film and stand-up comedy.
Since 1973, the town has organized an annual short-story competition, which is judged by a panel of some of Britain's top writers, and also hosts a literary festival that attracts writers like Margaret Drabble, Alexander McCall Smith, and Michael Holroyd. There's a film festival, a cider festival, a food festival, a kite festival, a nettleeating festival, several music festivals held on local farms, the annual Melplash agricultural show, and, now in its seventh year, the Bridport Hat Festival—inspired by Roger Snook, proprietor of the family-owned T. Snook, Hatters & Formal Hire on Bridport's West Street, which has been in business since 1896. And the singer-songwriter P. J. Harvey—a local girl made good, known to everyone in the area as Polly—occasionally holds a free concert at the Arts Centre to test out her latest songs among friends.
For all of the West Country's newfound popularity, some things never really change. While it has become fairly common to see out-of-towners in Land Rover Defenders and brandnew Barbour jackets prowling around, fortunately for most locals, who abhor the idea that their "Dahrset" could end up as a playground for Londoners, it is simply too far from the great British megalopolis to become colonized by sleek weekenders.
I recently asked Bill, a Royal Navy veteran and a Scotsman, but a Dorset transplant of 45 years' standing, if he knew of Stewart, the cod fisherman. Bill knows everyone. "Scrumpy Stewart?" Bill exclaimed. "Sure! He's still alive and kicking." Bill named a tiny village west of Lyme where Stewart lives. His days at sea are long since over, apparently, but when it comes to drinking scrumpy, Bill says, no one has yet been able to beat Stewart's record.