Dorset is one of England’s most beautiful counties. Often referred to as “Hardy’s Country” the rich, rolling farmland and bustling seaside towns provided the inspiration for novelists such as, Thomas Hardy to John Fowles, Ian McEwan and even Jane Austen. But it was not the French Lieutenants Woman that brought me to Dorset, it was food. Today the rich and fertile farm lands of the Dorset countryside and the fishing grounds of the English Channel have attracted a hub of outstanding artisanal producers, farmers and fisherman. Their produce has, in turn, attracted some of Britain’s finest chefs, like Dorset born chefs, Mark Hix and Cass Titcombe and River Cottage founder Hugh Fearnleigh Whittingstall.
Trains run every hour from Waterloo train station in London, to Axminter in Dorset. The train journey is 2 hours and 40 minutes. Upon arrival in Axminster, you’ll spot a small billboard with a list of local taxis. The taxi drive from Axminster to Lyme Regis is 10 minutes.
Where should I stay?
HIX TOWNHOUSE, LYME REGIS
As the main purpose of my visit was to eat at Hix Oyster and Fish House I decided to go all in and stay at the quirky Hix Townhouse. The Georgian Townhouse has been converted into an eight room boutique B&B. Each of the rooms has a hunting, fishing, sailing or shooting theme, designed by Mark himself. There is a comfortable kitchen for guests to make coffee, tea and snacks and a roof terrace where you can sit with a bottle of wine and watch the sun set. In the morning a breakfast hamper arrived, delivered from the Hix Fishouse restaurant about five minutes away. It was well stocked with cereal, fresh milk, a delicious salmon quiche, muffins and fresh orange juice – a nice touch! Importantly the mattress was great, the coffee was great and they had lovely soaps and gels in the bathroom. A stay at the Hix Townhouse also entitles you to a 10% discount at The Hix Oyster and Fish House.
THE PIG ON THE BEACH, STUDLAND
If you have travelled around England before then you will definitely be aware of The Pig and their various boutique hotels around the country. If you’re visiting Dorset then this is another place you should have on your radar, whether you stay there or just go for a meal. The menu in their restaurant features uncomplicated British food that is influenced by the seasons and nearby coast. They are proud to grow as much ingredients as possible in their very own Kitchen Garden and anything else is sourced locally from within a 25 mile radius.
Where should I eat?
MARK HIX’S KITCHEN TABLE
If you are organised and can plan ahead I really do recommend you book for Mark Hix’s Kitchen Table. Once a month Mark welcomes 8 guests into his own home in Lyme Regis and cooks seasonal, local food with them in his kitchen. It is a real treat for anyone serious about food; either eating it or cooking it.
BRASSICA RESTAURANT, BEAMINSTER
Just up the road from Lime Regis is Beaminster where another local born chef, Cass Titcombe, has returned to his Dorset roots to open his restaurant, Brassica. In London, Cass Titcombe made a name for himself with The Canteen. Brassica is more straightforward, modern European dining. Like a lot of the restaurants I visited it has a light, airy feel, with clean lines and simple furniture. The food is sourced locally and changes daily, depending on what’s available. There are sharing boards of charcuterie are served with piquant pickles and my friend had a really delicious fish soup, of which I was a little envious. I recommend the hogget (mature lamb) which is fast becoming the restaurant’s signature dish. Brassica has been getting rave reviews and is popular with locals so make sure you book to avoid disappointment.
SEASIDE BOARDING HOUSE, BRIDPORT
Just along the coast in Burton Bradstock just outside of Bridport is the Seaside Boarding House. This also has eight rooms, all en-suite and with wonderful views over Lyme Bay and Chesil Beach. They even have their own literary glamour provided by Ian McEwan’s novel, On Chesil Beach. If I had to sum up The Seaside Boarding House in one word it would be luxurious. They are rightly proud of their deep, claw feet baths and natural Devon mattresses, which are incredibly comfortable. There is an excellent restaurant on the premises, sourcing local, hand reared produce and fresh fish. There is also a popular bar offering local ales and very good cocktails.
HIX OYSTER AND FISH HOUSE
It makes perfect sense for a chef like Mark Hix, committed to traditional, local and sustainable ingredients to return to his roots and open a restaurant in an area, which is like opening the door of a well-stocked larder. The wooden shack-style restaurant is perched on a hill overlooking The Cobb and Lyme bay. The interior is contemporary; simple, white furniture allowing the seagull and neon art installation hanging from the wooden beams by artist Shezad Dawood to really sine, and floor to ceiling windows allowing stunning views of the sea, from which your meal was probably fished the very same day. I ordered the seafood platter, made up of oysters, crab, clams and mussels, the Portland oysters were incredibly creamy and the whole platter was akin to a sensational bite of the freshest shellfish the sea could have offered. Followed by the Grilled Lyme Bay lobster with chips and garlic butter – it was sweet, tender, perfectly cooked, and utterly fresh. The garlic butter glided over the lobster, tastefully subtle, allowing the lobster itself to take centre stage. I thought I was too full for dessert but polished off every mouthful of the delicious Peruvian Gold chocolate mousse with crumbled chocolate flakes, Try the local wine, it is seriously good. I had a bottle of the Furleigh Estate Bacchus, white wine. It was stunning; crisp, with aromas of elderflower, lychees and citrus fruits.
What about the culture?
Lyme Regis has something for everyone. If, like me, you have eaten your way around the town and need to work off a few calories then take a walk along the Jurassic coast and look for fossils or a seaweed forage. Or take a more robust walk up to The Golden Cap cliff where the views, all the way to Dartmoor, are breath taking. I spent a very happy couple of hours in the Lyme Regis Old Water Mill. Over 700 years old, this ancient watermill, was rescued and restored by local volunteers. Today it is still a working mill, manned by volunteer millers who demonstrate how the flour is produced. Best of all, at the end you get to leave with a little bag of their flour. In the Mill’s outbuildings, there are a number of excellent artisanal businesses, including a microbrewery, a cheesemonger and a mouth wateringly good bakery. Perfect for putting together an impromptu picnic. And there is only one place to eat it; yes, I retraced Meryl Streep’s footsteps and walked the ½ kilometre along the Cobb to the very end of the dramatic, stone Pier and for a few seconds I gazed out to sea. But I am no romantic heroine, all it took for me to tear my gaze away from the English Channel was a very good, creamy Dorset Blue Vinny cheese which I ate with Dorset Knobbs. These are small bread rolls, baked twice so that they keep. I also had a completely delicious courgette and cheese Danish from the Mill Bakery and washed it down with a bottle of pale ale from The Mill Micro Brewery.
When I was back in Dorset recently I ventured to the small seaside town of Beer, which is actually in Devon, for a swim. It’s a really tiny little town but the beach is absolutely beautiful and the perfect place for an invigorating for a sea swim. There’s also a great Fish & Chip shop on the beach (it’s the only one there), which is exactly what you need after a freezing cold dip.
Where should I shop?
As soon as I disembarked the train from London to Axeminster I headed straight for The River Cottage Deli and Canteen. A lovely relaxed, airy, restaurant serving gorgeous locally and ethically produced, food. I didn’t get to visit the River Cottage this time but it is a short drive from Lyme Regis and if you can get into the restaurant, do! I have heard the River Cottage courses are excellent and glancing through the brochure over lunch I was really tempted by the Foraging Courses focussing on mushroom, hedgerow or beach foraging. The River Cottage Deli really set the tone for my visit to Dorset.