It’s a sunny spring day in the tiny west Dorset village of Burton Bradstock, and I’m drinking tea with Steve Attrill in his seaside café. What sort of clientele does he get, I wonder? He leans back in his chair and thinks for a moment.
“Well, we’ve had AA Gill in here,” he says. “And Billy Bragg’s a regular – he lives in that house just up there.”
Graham Wiffien, Attrill’s manager, chips in: “What about him from Primeval?”
“Primal Scream,” corrects Attrill. “Yes, he lives just over the hill.”
“Bobby Gillespie?” I ask.
“That’s him,” says Attrill. “He’s often in here for a pot of tea and a bottle of Bollinger.”
The Hive Beach Café seems to have the starriest customers of any café west of Notting Hill, although you’re just as likely to see retirees as rock stars tucking into plates of West Bay crab and Weymouth lobster. Its simple decor – two marquee-style areas adjoining a wooden hut – is more functional than fancy.
Location and food are the big draws here. Daily changing menus burst with freshly landed seafood from this stretch of the Jurassic Coast. On the day I visit, the glass counter in front of the kitchen is piled high with a selection of sole from Lyme Regis, mackerel from Brixham, sea bass from Portland and crabs from West Bay. “Someone asked me recently about food miles,” Attrill tells me. “I just pointed to where I’d picked up their lobster that morning.”
I eat a fillet of hake in a tempura batter, served in a leek and pancetta sauce, while looking out at lead-grey breakers hammering on to plaster-coloured sand. Each forkful of white flesh glistens as though it’s just been lifted from the waves before me. Afterwards, I walk along cliffs that hang over the churning water, and wonder whether I’ll bump into Billy or Bobby – or maybe even PJ Harvey, who lives a couple of miles along the coast in Bridport.
Dorset hasn’t half got trendy recently. Only a few years ago, it was perceived as a bit of a backwater – a county of strong cider and straw-chewing yokels, which only entered people’s consciousness when they read Tess of the D’Urbervilles. But then A-listers started moving in, galleries and studios sprang up, boutique hotels began laying out the Neal’s Yard toiletries and the county’s restaurant scene became the envy of the south-west. It’s reminiscent of what happened further down the coast more than a decade ago. Dorset, it seems, has become the new Cornwall.
Travelling west from London, I stop for my first night in Poole, east Dorset, where 2008 saw the arrival of Hotel du Vin – a sure indication of an upwardly mobile area. All 14 of the British chain’s boutique hotels have been established where there’s an affluent and food-savvy clientele, and all follow a very similar (and very agreeable) formula. Rooms are stylish, the bistro-style food is excellent and the wine list, as befits the name, is as exhaustive as they come.
Beyond the hotel though, Poole has little to hold you for long, and the next day I continue to west Dorset. This is the sylvan area evoked by Thomas Hardy – a place of green, velvet-textured hills and fossil-strewn beaches. I am staying at Bridport’s Bull Hotel, a former coaching inn that has occupied a prominent position in the town since the civil war. Former music-industry workers Richard and Nikki Cooper bought the place in 2006 and, thanks to their reinvention, the Bull is now a Farrow & Ball-painted haven in which interiors, food and service have been pushed right to the fore.
My Indian-inspired Nandi suite – one of the Bull’s 19 decadent designer dens – features a caned sofa, jewelled shrine and custom-made stained-glass window alongside such hip-hotel staples as Philippe Starck lamps, a Louis XV-style bed and a roll-top bath. Most striking of all is the optical-illusion wallpaper that lines the back wall. Resembling a weathered sheet of corrugated iron, it invites disbelieving strokes every time I enter the room.
The upmarket urban feel continues in the Venner cocktail bar and hotel restaurant, where Marco Pierre White protégé Marc Montgomery serves up seasonal dishes made with local ingredients, but it’s the new Stable restaurant that I’m most impressed by. Its Dorset pizzas-and-pies menu and promise of more than 30 regional draught ciders might not sound glamorous but my straight-from-the-oven pizza of smoked Denhay Farm bacon and Bridport field mushrooms, washed down with a pint of still farmhouse cider, is delicious. The communal tables are packed with a mix of hotel guests and locals, and the atmosphere is relaxed and informal.
This seems to be the Dorset way. Life here unfolds at treacle-drip pace. On my first evening, I am surprised to discover all Bridport’s shops are closed by 4.30pm; when I set out for the Hive Beach Café at about 10 the next morning, most of them have yet to reopen. Later, I park on double-yellow lines for a moment to buy a paper. “Don’t worry about traffic wardens,” says the shopkeeper, who notices my nervous glances towards the window. “You’re on Dorset time now.”
After my meal at the Hive, I drive a couple of miles along the coast to Sladers Yard in West Bay, just outside Bridport. This artist-owned gallery, situated in an 18th-century warehouse near the harbour, has become a focal point for the county’s creatives since it opened in 2006. As well as a constantly changing round of exhibitions that showcase the work of West Country painters, sculptors and designers, it puts on the occasional musical performance and poetry reading. On the afternoon I visit, there are more people in the courtyard café than in the exhibition space. Being full of fish, though, I am more drawn to the art than the organic cakes, and I find myself returning again and again to John Hubbard’s nightmarish charcoal drawings of the Wessex landscape.
Afterwards, I head on to the north Dorset town of Shaftesbury, along single-track country lanes where green verges are studded with brilliant-yellow dandelions. As I skirt the coastline, over hills shrouded in sea mist, I pass through quiet villages where pipe-smoking pensioners laze outside thatched pubs and cats sleep in pools of sunlight. Through my open car window, I hear the constant trill of birdsong from hedgerows in which bees bounce between gorse, primrose and bluebell.
Shaftesbury’s Hotel Grosvenor, which received its boutique makeover in 2009, is a seriously cool place to stay. Occupying a Georgian building at the top of the town’s winding high street, it may look old-fashioned from the outside but indoors it’s a different story. A glass-fronted lobby leads to a sultry, low-lit bar area, in which the counter is overhung with glinting glass droplets and where the soundtrack is more Balearics than Borchester.
My enormous eaves room is equally impressive. Its muted grey and white colour scheme is enlivened with flashes of bright red and pink, and my bed sits beneath a striking Cecil Beaton-designed tartan headboard. A freestanding roll-top bath sits invitingly in one corner, and French doors open on to a decked balcony with views over the town’s 15th-century church and on to the hotel terrace. The weather is not clement enough for alfresco dining, so I head to the hotel’s contemporary-art-filled Greenhouse restaurant for Dexter beef pie made with meat from just across the border in Wiltshire, and a selection of creamy Cranborne Chase cheeses.
“People around here understand about eating,” chef Mat Follas tells me over dinner at his Wild Garlic restaurant in Beaminster the following day. “Even in the pubs, they’ll talk about food rather than football.” Thanks to his victory in the BBC’s 2009 MasterChef competition, Follas has become one of the area’s celebrity chefs – along with Mark Hix in Lyme Regis, Lesley Waters, who runs a cookery school in Minterne Magna, and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, who, until recently, had his River Cottage HQ just outside Bridport. “I moved here because of the food,” says Follas. “We used to holiday in Dorset and I loved it. I’d go diving for scallops in the morning and then use what I’d caught to barter with. The pub would give me a pint of Guinness in return for a couple, and I’d swap some with the butcher for meat. I used to eat fillet steak and fresh scallops every night.”
This help-yourself attitude to food is evident at the Wild Garlic, which has, in less than two years, become a true destination restaurant. Follas is a keen forager, and strives to incorporate what he gathers from hedgerows and shores into his dishes. My meal there of West Bay crab thermidor is laced with salty ribbons of seaweed, while the salad that accompanies it comes with nettle and wild cress. The tastes are dense and earthy, and zinging with freshness.
Afterwards, I head to the coastal village of Seatown, where I stretch out on the pebbly beach and gaze at the woodland-wrapped hills. With the sun on my face, I close my eyes for a minute and inhale the scent of saltwater and warm grass. Insects buzz around, birds twitter in the pale blue sky, and the sea tugs and rattles stones.
It’s an exquisite moment – and one that could have occurred at any point in the past few millennia. People were experiencing this long before Dorset got fashionable and will be after the hot-destination tag has moved on somewhere else. Whether Dorset is the new Cornwall or not doesn’t matter. The fact that it’s a place in which senses can be stimulated – whether through the beauty of its landscape, the flavours of its food or the design of its accommodation – really does.
Places to stay:
Double rooms at Hotel du Vin Poole (www.hotelduvin.com) cost from £170
Doubles at the Bull Hotel, Bridport (www.thebullhotel.co.uk) cost from £85
Doubles at Hotel Grosvenor, Shaftesbury (www.hotelgrosvenor.com) start at £125
Places to eat:
Hive Beach Café, Burton Bradstock (www.hivebeachcafe.co.uk)
The Wild Garlic, Beaminster (www.thewildgarlic.co.uk)
Hix Oyster and Fish House, Lyme Regis (www.hixoysterandfishhouse.co.uk)