Famed for its stunning stretches of Jurassic coast, Dorset is an idyll of rolling countryside, quintessential villages, towering cliffs and quiet coves. When our recent travels took us from a vineyard tucked into hills beyond Puddletown to an artists' co-op hidden in a side street of Shaftesbury and the independent shops of Bridport, we learned that it’s also a place where creative and spirited communities thrive.
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One of the most striking things about Dorset to the uninitiated, is the quality of the food. A wealth of specialist growers and producers fill the menus of cafés and restaurants all across the county. Drawn by the chance, perhaps even the delicious duty, of continuing to fight the stigma against English wine, we dropped in on one of them, the Langham Wine Estate.We timed our arrival to take advantage of their official tour hours, Wednesday to Sunday, 1000 - 1700, but sadly couldn’t find the time to visit the renowned on-site restaurant or join in with Fizz Fridays, when live music is paired perfectly with Langham Rosé and scallops wrapped in bacon.
We chatted to Calum, who had recently joined the team but had years in the industry behind him. He gave us a whirlwind tour of the estate’s wines and ethos, which centres around a drive to reduce chemical intervention wherever possible, alongside the importance of handpicking the grapes from their vines to ensure quality. “Growing vines is as delicate as growing roses” he told us, “It’s horticulture, not agriculture.” The care taken over every detail of production results in sparkling wines that Calum would confidently pit against the best in the world. No experts ourselves, we can only say that we wished we’d had time for more than a small sample.
We moved on in search of a different kind of nourishment, feeding our eyes and souls at Sculpture by the Lakes, about 15 minutes’ drive from the winery. It’s a strikingly serene place, with the hushed reverence of an art gallery in a pastoral setting. We paused a moment to swing on the hanging bed suspended from a tree and watched the reflections of the artworks ripple in the lakes. After marvelling at the gravity-defying balance of Carol Peace’s angels and the sweeping lines of Carl Longsworth’s owls, among many others, we retired to The Maker’s Yard for lunch of asparagus quiche and leaves from the kitchen garden, before taking a wander through the store, full of gorgeous homeware and hats.
Quick note – Ringstead Bay to Smugglers Inn
While we didn’t have time for the full walk on this trip, the hike along the stretch of National Trust coastline from Ringstead Bay to Smugglers Inn, is an old team favourite and we couldn’t pass up the chance to mention it. You get some beautiful views of the curve of the bay as you climb the cliffs, some optional boulder hopping on the rocky shore, and the reward of a good pint in a scenic setting at the end. What more could you ask for?
The peninsula jutting out southeast from Dorset’s coast, known locally as the Isle of Purbeck, feels like its own world. Even in a county not known for its crowds, it contains areas of striking peace. Sweeps of meadow and marshland hide quiet villages and run down to a coastline offering cliffs, caves and solitude, once you move on from the ever-popular Durdle Door. “There’s not many facilities round here, but that’s one of its charms. It’s quieter and attracts the people who like that.” explained Sarah Hodgson, of the Dorset Wildlife Trust. She told us about the Trust’s desire to simultaneously preserve and popularise the area’s stunning natural beauty.
At Kimmeridge Bay, wide ledges of flat, cracked rock stretch out into the sea, glistening in the sun and pushing ripples out into the water. They make for great snorkelling and a double low tide provides hours of perfect rockpooling, however this delicate environment is a designated Marine Conservation zone. The Trust have created a Seashore Code and snorkelling trail, raising awareness of the abundance of marine wildlife, while also encouraging people to think about how they interact with it. The result of this subtle stewardship is a place that feels wild and undiscovered. Where you trade beachside cafes and watersports centres, for the simple pleasures of fossil hunting and swimming along rocky ridges – covered in a rainbow of plant life and darting fish.
The village of Worth Matravers, a few miles west, is another Purbeck outpost that’s seen just enough gentle care to retain a sense of natural timelessness. An idyllic walk leads down the valley to the caves and mines around the long-abandoned Winspit Quarry, once a centre of superb stonemasonry. Although originally man-made, there are no ticket barriers and no coach car parks, leaving you alone in tunnels that echo with the sound of the sea and feel as if nature has reclaimed them. Like the masons that once worked there, you can end your day at The Square and Compass back up in the village, which busily serves pasties to hungry locals through a hatch in the wall, just as it’s done for hundreds of years. The pub also houses a fossil museum, but a lovely six-mile route over the cliffs to the deep bay of Chapman’s Pool gives you a great chance to spot your own, and get a firsthand feel for every layer of the area’s history.
Abbotsbury, set just back from the long strip of Chesil beach, is a picture of the quintessential English village, full of honey-coloured thatched cottages, tea rooms, pubs, and surrounded by rolling hills sloping down towards the sea. Angela Hillier, owner of Quintessential B&B, described it as a ‘stunning but simple place’ and, as we walked its pretty streets we had to agree. She might have been underselling it. We stopped by Bride Valley Farm Shop, with its picnic-perfect local cheeses, ham, butter, bread and local apple juice, making a note to return to The Old School House with its promised of daily baked quiches, cakes and scones.
Our meandering path eventually took us to the ruins of The Abbey house and Abbey Farm Flowers, a pick your own service, where we could happily have filled our car boot with bright blooms. There was delicious local honey and Baboo ice cream too, which perked us up for one more hill climb up to St Catherine’s Chapel, where we took in stunning views from Portland to Lyme Bay.
As we headed back towards the sea, we dropped into Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens, for a chat with Head Gardener Sean Boast, who opened our eyes to some of the rare and delicate tropical plants that he and his team have nurtured in the gentle climate of Abbotsbury.Set in 20 acres of woodland valley, there has been a garden on this site for 250 years. Originally it was a walled vegetable garden, before more exotic plants began to be introduced during the Victorian era. The gardens were opened to the public in the 1970s and the planting became more tropical, with towering, large-leafed gunnera from Brazil, brightly coloured rhododendron and a whole host of others. Sean and the team plant carefully to ensure colour throughout the year, even in the depths of winter. He told us about a fellow gardener who had sourced all the flowers for the bouquet and buttonholesof his February wedding from Abbotsbury, choosing narcissi and daphnes that gave the day a fresh, natural beauty.
Bridport’s lively, youthful feel has earned it the nickname, “Notting Hill on Sea.” Among the red brick buildings, under the old belltower, buskers sing in Bucky Doo Square, whose name remains a mystery of competing theories. The RSC Arts Centre, boutique galleries and an art deco cinema have brought a cultural crowd, while delis and cafés like Soulshine have sprung up alongside a wealth of bookshops. South Street, the main road running through Bridport, is the unassuming hub of this heartening reversal of the trend towards declining market towns. Rosie Young of Bridport Old Books, despite her worry that chains were, “going to ruin Bridport”, pointed out to us how many of her South Street neighbours were also independents. Twice-weekly markets flood the town with bustling stalls of everything from local produce to antiques, showcasing the lives and livelihoods of the area and pushing back against the creep of mass-produced blandness.
The town of West Bay, just a few miles down the road from Bridport, is a classic snapshot of south coast seaside. Holiday makers flock down to eat fish & chips from local institution Rachel’s and take to the broad expanse of beach, with white houses clustered on the hills above. West Bay was once a busy port thanks to Bridport’s rope making industry, but that strong maritime history is now barely visible. Waterfront businesses like Sladers Yard cafe and gallery use the atmospheric surroundings of the old rope storehouses as beautiful premises, but Sarah West of the West Bay Discovery Centre wants the town’s heritage to play a larger part in people’s visits. She has established a treasure trove of stories, artifacts and activities as an independent tourist information centre in a small chapel in the town, to give people a picture of West Bay that’s more than ice cream and arcades.
If West Bay’s relative bustle makes you long for a bit of peace, an hour’s brisk walk over the cliffs to Seatown drops you into one of those tiny gems that Dorset does so well. With sweeps of dark rock framing a strip of pale sand, the little bay is a spectacular place to spend a day jumping in and out of the waves. The Anchor Inn, once voted England’s best pub, sits down by the beach where it has welcomed travellers for over two hundred years. After a pint of Palmers, one of the many local suppliers the pub uses, you can head back along the coastal path with the sea glittering and the feeling that you have the whole of Dorset to yourself.
West of Seatown, on the Devon border at the top of the long straight tick of Chesil beach, sits the perfect seaside town of Lyme Regis and, overlooking the sea, the Alexandra Hotel. The terraced garden, with its pagoda draped in wisteria, is the perfect place to toast the sunset with a G&T, but also an amazing spot to watch from as the day began. At dawn, fishing boats chugged out of the harbour, on the hunt for bream and bass. Later, but still before breakfast, paddle boarders drifted across the still waters, and the quiet was broken only by the yelps of wild swimmers making chilly first contact. Next up were the yogis and at this point we joined in, led by Pip Scammell of Maitri Yoga with Pip. Pip’s sessions take place on the beach (Thursday 0800, Saturday 0700) and in the gardens of Alexandra Hotel (Friday 0900), welcoming visitors and locals alike. If the stunning surroundings are not enough to help you find a sense of peace, Pip’s air of warmth and calmness undoubtedly will.
When we finally began the day proper, we headed for Langmoor and Lister Gardens, a tranquil spot overlooking the Cobb, although it does get busy later in the day. We walked through gardens and woodland dotted with sculptures and spoke to Mayor and Deputy Mayor, Michaela Ellis and Cheryl Reynolds, who were planting an oak tree. Local students will be designing and building a bench to surround it, while a nearby community garden had grown pumpkins for local kids last year and was working on veg to support community groups like Talking Cafes. It felt like a place that was wonderful to visit, but even better to live in. We took a peek, but not a pew unfortunately, at Mark Hix’s Oyster and Fish House, on the edge of the gardens with spectacular sea views. If you watch for long enough, you’ll see the boats come back in, with the day’s catch that will decide the menu.
Walking up the higgledy–piggledy streets rising up from seafront, we found a refreshing coffee atThe Whole Hog (Food Reader Awards 2023, best cafe), poured over fishermen’s smocks and breathed in beeswax candles at Ryder and Hope, before heading to the Town Mill. This working watermill in Lyme Regis’ artisan quarter is home to studios, galleries and boutiques, as well as a brewery, cooking school and restaurant. The Malthouse, which produced malt up until 1830 and still bears the signs of a fire on its scorched beams, is now a gallery. It houses a changing programme of exhibitions and on our visit, we spoke to South West artist Pauline Lerry. Pauline showed us her paintings, inspired by rhythms and forces of nature. The constrained, high-frequency lines of her workcreated during confinements of Covid compare in a fascinating way her looser,more recent work.
The curve of Gold Hill, with cottages running down a cobbled street by the old abbey walls, is the enduring image of Shaftesbury. A walk up to the abbey and around the peak gives you views of Blackmore Vale reaching for miles into the distance, green fields dashed with lines of dark trees and curls of smoke hanging above tiled farmhouse roofs. In the centre you can see superb old architecture in the town hall and the famous Grosvenor Arms, but while some of Shaftesbury ancient history is carefully preserved, its current identity is the subject of a familiar struggle. “Fifteen years ago, Shaftesbury was full of independent shops, but then the prices of rent went up,” says Bundy Riley, of arts and crafts cooperative The Cygnet, perfectly capturing the town’s tricky balancing act. After years as a stopping point on journeys south and a hub for large-scale dairy farming, Shaftesbury saw a resurgence of independent producers and artisans at the turn of the millennium. Although some are now under threat from the very success from the corporate interest that rejuvenation has brought, there are many fighting to keep character and creativity alive. The resident art community swells every year thanks to an increasingly popular Fringe festival and the town has made itself a food hub once again, but with the produce of passionate artisans replacing the dairy industry.
Among these are James Smart of specialist charcuterie producers The Real Cure, who told us how positive the foodie boom has been for the area. “It’s great for Shaftesbury that a network of producers have popped up making sourdough, washed rind cheeses, charcuterie, beer, you name it. People can deal with each other face to face, do something they enjoy doing and stay in the countryside where they want to live.” Half an hour down the road is the Pythouse Kitchen Garden, a ‘walled oasis’ that grew from a farm shop and cafe into a restaurant dedicated to seasonal eating, healthy living and fostering a sense of community through a network of extremely local suppliers. That network has Shaftesbury at its centre, making the town a delightful, indulgent stop where you can track down fantastic local food with just a little digging beyond the high street. Every chance discovery and casual chat is a little gesture of support to those fighting for the town’s present as carefully as its past.
Chris is our in-house copywriter, with a flair for turning rough notes and travel tales into enticing articles. Raised in a tiny Wiltshire village, he was desperate to travel and has backpacked all over the world. Closer to home, he finds himself happiest in the most remote and rural places he can find, preferably with a host of animals to speak to, some waves to be smashed about in and the promise of a good pint somewhere in his future.