K & I had been curious to visit Chesil Beach ever since reading Ian McEwan's novel. Natalie, her husband, K & I had been lucky enough to meet said author and hear him give an after dinner speech at the top of the BT Tower last year - and that served to pique my interest even more. So on a whim the week before last, with K in need of some serious R&R, we hopped in a rental car and headed down to the Dorset coast for the night. 'Is there anything in particular you want to do?' K asked as we motored down the M3. My requests were simple: To eat a tasty fish supper; to enjoy a Dorset cream tea and ... to find a fossil.
Three hours later we arrived in Abbotsbury, a little village nestled amongst rolling hills overlooking the eastern end of Chesil beach. I absolutely love London, but isn't it nice, once in a while, to rest your eyes upon an endless blanket of green? We had booked a night in The Abbey House, a beautiful B&B set on the site of a 16th-century monastery. It was off-season and so we were the only couple there but I can imagine how popular it must be in the summer months. Before I had even seen the room I was already planning to come back.
We were already losing daylight quite fast and so after a quick cup of tea we headed back out into the chilly dusk. It was still pretty early but we were both hungry so we drove west toward Weymouth to see the Portland Bill lighthouse and then onto an early dinner. It was blustery and cold when we got to Portland Bill and of course we could see nothing of the sea but it was strangely mesmerising to watch the red and white lighthouse cast its lengthy beam around the darkness.
Grateful to be back in the warmth of the car and a mere ten minutes later we were already seated and perusing the Crab House Cafe menu in anticipation of our fish supper. I'd heard good things about this place. An unpretentious little seaside shack which turned out wonderful, simply cooked fish - it was an apparent favorite of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and recommended by Rick Stein (though I was still peeved at having eaten a small but rather pricey portion of mediocre haddock & chips from Stein's Fish & Chips in Padstow a couple of years back). I'd also read a rather favorable review by Matthew Norman in the The Guardian last spring, and so I was pretty excited to be there.
After studying the concise menu and a quick mental check that there was indeed an 'r' in the month, I decided to start with a half dozen of the excellent Portland Royal oysters from the restaurant's own farm out front. Next we watched the open kitchen prepare two specials chosen off the blackboard: Whole roasted gurnard on mediterranean vegetables & steamed mussels with lemon, thyme and cream accompanied by homemade chunky chips. K declared he couldn't remember when he had eaten a fresher piece of fish, and the mussels were good but I did kick myself for not ordering the whole crab complete with bib and hammer instead.
To finish - a wedge of Dorset apple cake served with a hot baked apple stuffed with currants and a little pot of pouring cream. It was heavenly and I wondered why whenever I had a glut of apples it had never crossed my mind to just bake them. The staff were great, utterly attentive yet unobtrusive - better service I've not had in a long time. The interior was simplicity itself - wooden tables and chairs mingled with some seaside paraphernalia, but make no mistake we were paying London prices. That being said I would certainly go back.
Next morning, after a great night's sleep in a canopy bed, our lovely Abbey House hosts treated us to a delicious cooked breakfast, all sourced from local produce, and some of the best home-made museli I have ever tasted. Bellies full and in need of a walk, we headed up into the hills towards St Catherine's Chapel which afforded us a breathtaking vista of Chesil Beach and its surrounding areas (voted Britain's third best view by Country Life magazine). Then, with the beach within our sights, we ambled down towards the sea. We were greeted by the huge bank of shingles which makes up Chesil Beach, its shore dotted with anglers all after an early morning catch. It was nice to be so close to the sea and we spent some time just enjoying the crunch of the shingles underfoot and watching the foam and the waves crash onto the beach.
Next stop: fossil hunting. The Dorset coastline - also known as the Jurassic Coast - has revealed some of the most important fossil finds in the UK. We headed east towards Charmouth beach - a spot known for plentiful finds. Along with scores of other couples and families walking their dogs, we scoured the small beach and the peaty cliffs for even the tiniest of ammonites. Alas nothing - other than a few keepsake pebbles I had pocketed. K, thinking I was disappointed, suggested we raid the nearby fossil shop for a souvenir but funnily enough I felt nothing but contentment just being at the seaside.
Later we dropped by the resort of Lyme Regis - known as the Pearl of Dorset, though it seems to have lost a little of its lustre. Jane Austen is purported to have enjoyed spending time there and some think the setting inspired her final novel Persuasion. Besides wanting to retrace Austen's steps, we were there for lunch: fish and chips. Last year my sister bought me Valentine Warner's What To Eat Now, a great cookbook all about seasonal food and how to forage in the English countryside. So when I read he had proclaimed the fish & chips at Herbie's Dino Bar in Lyme Regis as his best 'cheap eat' in Britain I had to find it. It's located along Marine Parade, right down the very end of the seafront past the pastel beach huts. At one point we almost turned back thinking we had missed it. But we persevered and then there it was: a tiny white food van with an orange cartoon dinosaur as its logo. Admittedly, we exchanged quizzical looks.
Herbie's only offers one type of fish which is whatever happens to look good on the fishmonger's slab from The Old Watch House around the corner - on this particular day it was whiting. We happily waited fifteen minutes while they freshly cooked our fish and clutching a huge portion each sat on the sea wall looking onto the same harbour Meryl Streep was filmed gazing from in The French Lieutenant's Woman. Maybe it was all that sea air, but it was good. Light, golden, crispy beer batter twinned with the freshness of the whiting, crunchy yet floury chips, salt, vinegar... I have no idea if it's the best cheap eat in Britain but it was one of the best fish and chips I'd tasted.
We wandered back through the cobbled main street which runs through Lyme Regis, picked up some Dorset ginger biscuits and West Country clotted cream fudge, browsed in a few secondhand bookshop and rummaged in a few charity shops.
With a couple of hours still to spare we drove around admiring the countryside and stopped to see the huge chalked figure of the Cerne Abbas Giant etched in the hillside. It was getting dark and with the prospect of a three-hour drive home a Dorset cream tea was in order to keep the energy levels up. So it was off to The Old Teahouse in Dorchester (44 High West Street) dating from 1635, all dark wooden beams and red floral carpet.
I have been lucky enough to accompany my blog partner Natalie many a time on her eternal quest for superior tea & cake over at Afternoon Tea Total. I hope she will be pleased to know that other than just scoffing my face I have actually been paying attention to her words of tea wisdom. So as my eyes scanned the tea things laid out before us I ran through Natalie's little checklist of what constitutes a proper cream tea. Warm fruited scones? Check. Clotted cream? Check. Good jam with real fruit pieces? Check. A pot of hot water to top up your teapot? Check. A nice porcelain teacup & saucer - bonus point. A brown betty teapot - extra bonus points. We wandered back out into the coldness feeling happy, contented - and surprisingly well-rested. Even being somewhere as close to home as Dorset for just one night can make you feel like you've been away.