Notting Hill by the Sea

It’s bucolic and charming, and everyone interesting seems to live there. Almost. Dorset native Sophy Roberts reports on the heat and the hyperbole in Britain’s newest fashionable seaside spot.

I was sorry the vicar heard me swear. We’d been walking on Lewesdon Hill, a woodland in West Dorset that looks out toward the English Channel. In spring the fields turn into an extravagant show of bluebells; on this autumn day I was practically knee-deep in honey- and amber-colored leaves. Both of us had our heads down, searching for the bunlike tops of porcini mushrooms growing on banks held together by the roots of oak and beech. We knew each other from the Dorset church where I was married, where my father grazed his sheep among the gravestones.

The Norman church of St. Mary’s is in Stoke Abbott, concealed within a deep cut of Dorset hills. The church had recently made headlines over the ringing of the bells, 100 times at seven each morning, upsetting Londoners who make the three-hour drive west for a weekend break. They want to have a Sunday lie-in, but in a rural community where milking herds spread muck down the hamlet’s single street, it’s a strange complaint. West Dorset lies at the heart of Thomas Hardy country. Tradition is what preserves it.

My mother appeared from behind a clump of trees. She showed the vicar some chanterelles she’d come across—proud of their orange trumpets, gilled underbellies, and sweet, apricot perfume. I, on the other hand, had found only stumps abandoned by those who’d got there before us, the fat white stalks tossed to one side and the spongy flesh turned to black. Even the small cache of mushrooms in my mother’s hat would be barely enough for a mean little omelet, and nothing like harvests of previous years.

And so the three of us gossiped about church bells and the paucity of fungi. I was quick to blame the weekenders and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, the cook, author, and television host whose popular River Cottage show about living off the land has created a fashion for foraging, specifically along this bit of rural coast, where he’s made his home.

That’s when I let loose with the profanities.

I’d moved back here from London four years ago to raise my kids, and we live in a solitary cottage with possibly the best views in all of England, looking down from an Iron Age hill fort to the sea. While I occasionally resent the changes Dorset’s popularity has brought, I can hardly deny the region’s appeals, which have attracted an impressive community of writers, artists, craftsmen, and garden designers. Indeed, the genesis of this article happened over breakfast at New York’s Royalton Hotel, where this magazine’s editor in chief recounted how every time he seemed to get excited about someone British, the answer came back like a boomerang: That person lives in Dorset. He suspected something was up. It was a nuance I’d taken for granted, but he could see clear as day. “Dorset’s the new Malibu,” he exclaimed, only half in jest.

It seems to happen to all of England’s coastal counties: At some point they become fashionable. A decade ago Cornwall was riding a similar wave. By 2001 it was North Norfolk’s turn. Most recently the hullabaloo has been about Dorset, which stretches from the western fringes of the Salisbury Plain—chalk-stream country patchworked with watercress meadows, crop circles, and treeless hills—down to the semi-industrial coastal towns of Bournemouth and Poole. But it’s the western parts that are the most compelling, from Dorchester (named Casterbridge in Hardy’s novels) out along the sea cliffs to Lyme Regis. This small Regency-era resort is where Dorset abuts Devon, the candy-colored beach huts lined up like toys along a pink, blue, and white shorefront with cheap arcades, bucket-and-spade holidaymakers, and the whiff of fish and chips. The town has a safe harbor where small fishing boats bob, its slippery rocks made famous by the fossils concealed within its Jurassic cliffs, by Jane Austen’s Persuasion, and by a woman (played by Meryl Streep in the 1981 film) staring out to sea in John Fowles’s French Lieutenant’s Woman.

Lyme’s neighbor, midway along this bit of coast, is the market town of Bridport—less touristic and hardly quaint. This hasn’t stopped British papers from dubbing it Notting-Hill-on-Sea, thanks to a smattering of London families who decamp here on Friday evenings. But it’s a bold exaggeration, implying a kind of glamour the place is frankly without. Yes, there is a new contemporary “boutique” hotel—The Bull, on Bridport’s main drag—and a hip cinema-bistro, the Electric Palace, which could have been styled after an Edward Hopper painting circa 1942. And there’s also the buzz surrounding the Bridport Prize, the world’s biggest open competition for creative writing in English. (Notably, novelist Ian McEwan named his latest book, On Chesil Beach, after the stretch of pebbles that runs from Bridport eastward.)

Locals would attribute the relative tumult to various things, chief among them Fearnley-Whittingstall’s food-focused antics. He’s now on the cusp of going global, his River Cottage fiefdom outside Lyme and River Cottage Meat Book appearing in a recent New Yorker piece by Bill Buford. The man makes a very good story. He looks feral with wild curly hair, eats roadkill, flambés human placenta on national TV, stuffs an 18-pound turkey for Christmas with nine types of bird (goose, duck, mallard, guinea fowl, chicken, pheasant, partridge, pigeon, and woodcock), and publicly rails against the sorry lives of battery-farmed chickens, which chimes nicely with England’s all-organic obsession. He is certainly surprising. When I dined at his new River Cottage HQ, I was served gray squirrel on a bed of nettle pasta. While interesting, it’s not a rodent I’d recommend. It tastes like rabbit and has lots of tiny bones. When I was told the venison had been fried in bat fat, I lost the will to live. My neighbor set me right: “Back fat,” he politely explained.

It’s no surprise that Gloucestershire native Fearnley-Whittingstall ended up in these parts. Like Ludlow, the previous region of Britain to fall into gastronomic fashion, West Dorset has a bubbling gourmet tradition. The area has produced important cooks (such as Mark Hix, former chef director of Le Caprice and The Ivy in London) who celebrate Dorset’s local foods: Blue Vinney cheese, Eldridge Pope ales, Portland lamb, spider crabs from the rockpools at Lyme, and the abundant apples, blackberries, rowans, and sloes. So what if the waterfront restaurants are dated (The Riverside) or slapdash (The Hive Beach Café, the Crab House Café)? They serve some of England’s best seafood, from butter-soft scallops to hour-old mackerel, Dover sole, and meaty crabs.

If the populist draw of Dorset is its food, a more knowing few come for the artists and artisans who open their premises on occasion or by special appointment. Some of Britain’s most celebrated furnituremakers are here, notably the master of them all, John Makepeace, whose work can be found in major international museums. Others who take on private commissions include Petter Southall, known for steam-bending oak, and James Verner, who works with Dorset’s naturally felled trees. He emphasizes the burrs in timber caused by burrowing insects; when the scars are exposed in planked wood, you want to trace your fingers along the surfaces of his chairs and tables.

Tim Hurn, a popular studio potter working in the village of Bettiscombe, likens West Dorset to St. Ives in the forties: “It’s as strong a community as ever there was in Cornwall.” If that’s the case—and I’m not quite sure it is—then you will surely find a bargain or two; the prices right now don’t compare with those commanded by the works of Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, or Alfred Wallis, all of whom turned the fishing village of St. Ives, now with its own Tate, into a hotbed of creativity.

Dorset also boasts exceptional gardens in unusually high numbers. Grand examples are Mapperton, a beautiful manor that dates back to the Elizabethan era, with elegant topiary and 17th-century fishponds, and Forde Abbey, a 12th-century Cistercian monastery that is now a private house. In summer the walled kitchen garden brims with rhubarb, artichokes, and row upon row of cutting flowers bustling with bees.

Less familiar to outsiders are the high-profile horticultural writers and designers living within Dorset’s folds. They include Anna Pavord, best-selling author of The Tulip, and Penelope Hobhouse, the doyenne of English-garden writing, history, and design. She lives in the coach house adjacent to Bettiscombe Manor, known as one of the most haunted houses in England, courtesy of a skull that’s said to scream if moved. The garden, worth planning an entire trip around, is open once a year (usually the first Sunday in July). An area of lawn, steel, beech hedge, and narrow pond sits to the front; the rear is planted with small trees weighed down by clematis, with lollipop-clipped shrubs, nepeta, acid-green euphorbia, and delicate purple-headed geranium cascading over paths.

There’s also Dilly Hobson’s wild yet intricate two-acre garden near Halstock. Once owned by Thomas Hollis, an important early benefactor of Harvard University, the estate doubles as a canvas for her son, the topiary artist Jake Hobson. And there’s Chideock Manor, designed by Deirdre Coates. It features a subtropical woodland gully dense with tree ferns, palms, and towering prehistoric gunnera; more formal elements include a box and santolina parterre. The rear garden is flanked by a Romanesque-style church—among the county’s most attractive—with an entrance of branched arches positioned between two tall Irish yews. After Henry VIII split from the Papacy in 1534, Chideock became a hideout for Roman Catholic priests, five of whom were executed. There’s a stone cross on the church grounds erected as a memorial to them.

None of these gardens are easily found. West Dorset’s densely packed hills, high hedges, and sunken lanes conceal so much more than what first appears, a quality that can provide a kind of salve. “Dorset gives me sanctuary and the things I crave most—civility and privacy,” says Jon Lee Anderson, the New Yorker war reporter and award-winning Che biographer. (“From Baghdad to Bridport,” jokes a taxi driver who shuttles him to Heathrow.) “I spend a lot of time in difficult places like Afghanistan, Iraq,” Anderson says. “To hear my wife tell me about the seagulls is what I want and need. There’s something unchanging about Dorset—the way nature invades, the wild and untamed coast, the elemental weather, the light after it rains, and the English Channel right in front of me, roaring past.”

Ben Elliot, founder of the concierge company Quintessentially, talks of his family home near Blandford in similar terms. Even though he’s dressed head-to-toe in Dunhill and owns a Manhattan apartment overlooking the Empire State Building, he likes to refer to himself as a rural boy from Dorset. It’s a place he returns to in order to feed his soul. The same goes for peripatetic writer and adventurer Mark Shand, as well as for Elliot’s brother-in-law, Luke Irwin, whose fashionable bespoke carpet business operates out of a simple Dorset studio.

But does this make Dorset the new Malibu? John Hubbard, the eminent American-born landscape painter who has been living in West Dorset since 1961, scoffs at the suggestion. His private gallery and studio, in the honey-stoned hamlet of Chilcombe, occupy a converted barn with a paint-splashed floor. Chickens peck at the lane below. On one side lies the local church; on the other, his 16th-century house and garden. Here, pebbled walkways meander between clipped hedges. Blushes of color break out from the borders: iron-reds, sprays of yellow rudbeckia, and the dying tea-stained whites of late-summer roses.

Hubbard delights in nature, and his garden is among the most beautiful private domains in Britain. The organic energy of his paintings conveys the experience of actually being in a place. For Hubbard, the soul of Dorset is its ancient landscape—the fields and fens, ridges and ribs, hollows and “holloways.” Once used as drove paths, these holloways, or sunken lanes, are overgrown with trees to form vaulted ceilings, like cathedrals, blocking out light. They are secret places brilliantly evoked by the author Robert Macfarlane in his latest book, The Wild Places, published by Granta. “They are landmarks that speak of habit rather than suddenness,” Macfarlane writes. “Trodden by innumerable feet, cut by innumerable wheels, they are the records of journeys to market, to worship, to sea. Like creases in the hand, or the wear on the stone sill of a doorstep or stair, they are the consequence of tradition.”

Jim Webber is from Stoke Abbott. Born in 1902, he was a cowman at the age of 11. He used to help my father clear the farm’s briar-covered banks, and he tells stories about working the fields with a horse-drawn plow. He stopped gardening this past summer, at 104.

The news of his late retirement reminded me of how good Dorset makes you feel, and of its immutable, solid, unpretentious core. Nothing much alters, for all the Notting Hill comparisons. And if by writing about it, I’m somehow contributing to the froth, I have a small riposte: Dorset’s only commendable top-rated hotel, Summer Lodge at Evershot, has a mere 26 rooms—which, along with the squirrel pasta and labyrinthine holloways, should keep the crowds at a remove. At least for now.

Studio Sessions

Dorset is home to a remarkable concentration of artists and artisans, most of whom take on private commissions. They can be visited at their workshops and studios by special appointment.

Marzia Colonna and Fiamma Colonna Montagu

Sculptor Marzia Colonna’s large-scale bronzes, rich with organic curves, treat the body as land-scape. Her forms are often rendered as relationships (as in her Mother and Child and Earth and Sea). Represented by the Hart Gallery in London, she has numerous international collectors, and her work ($1,700–$43,800) can be found in England’s most prestigious sculpture parks. Her daughter, Fiamma, a rising star among contemporary British ceramic sculptors, has been described by Glenn Lowry, director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, as a combination of Brancusi and Tony Cragg. Monumental, theatrical, and imaginatively symbolic, Fiamma’s pieces are unusually large and only occasionally viewable at her family’s Dorset home. Nethergrove House, Portesham; marziacolonna@aol.com; fiammamontagu@gmail.com

John Hubbard

To visit the Connecticut-born landscape painter at his private gallery and studio is a privilege—and one best reserved for serious buyers (prices range from $1,000 to $39,800). Occupying a spacious barn opposite his home, the studio features racks of canvases dating from 1970 to the present. Working in charcoal, watercolor, and oil, Hubbard has created numerous landscapes inspired by Dorset— as well as other places he returns to regularly, such as Cornwall, Scotland, and the Atlas Mountains in Morocco. He shows with Marlborough Fine Art in London. Chilcombe House, Chilcombe; 44-130/ 848-2234; john@johnhubbard.com

Tim Hurn

Formerly apprenticed to John Leach (grandson of the great potter Bernard Leach), Hurn belongs to the same ceramics tradition. Working with a Japanese anagama-style (hole-in-the-ground) wood-fired kiln, he applies slip, salt, and local ash-wood glazes to his jugs ($50–$250) and popular chicken brick casserole ($120), which is used to oven-roast poultry. His aesthetic combines modern volumes with a warm autumnal palette. Home Farm House, Bettiscombe; 44-130/ 886-8171; tj.hurn@tiscali.co.uk

John Makepeace

The 68-year-old Makepeace is regarded as the master of British furniture making. You can visit him at his home, which doubles as a gallery space, in the town of Beaminster. Highlights include Flow ($249,000), an extraordinary chest of drawers with an exterior grain of wheaten ripple-ash that runs horizontally around the entire piece. Interiors are hollywood and cedar, and the writing surface is a bluish-purple suede. Low tables start at $20,000. Farrs, Beaminster; 44-130/886-2204; info@johnmakepeacefurniture.com

Malcolm Seal

Using English willow, partly sourced from his own fields in the Bride Valley near Bridport, Seal makes basketry with a contemporary edge. Pieces range from simple baskets (from $90) to bespoke log holders ($160–$900) to eel traps ($600) that resemble sculptures. Larger examples are elegant cribs ($300) and garden seats and benches ($1,500). Brown’s Farm Yard, Nettlecombe; 44-130/848-5515; malcolm@malcolmseal.co.uk

James Verner

A member of the younger generation of Dorset furnituremakers, Verner uses traditional techniques but works with contemporary forms, allowing the natural aesthetics and textures of his materials to speak. He is also one of the leading proponents of sustainable furniture making in Britain. Prices run from $3,200 for a chair to $39,800 for a dining table. Visit him at his house, Tempest, where he keeps pieces on display. Tempest, Hawkchurch; 44-129/ 767-8699; james@jamesverner.co.uk

Where to Stay, Eat in Dorset

Conveniently located in the thatch-and-hamstone village of Evershot, the Summer Lodge Country House Hotel, Restaurant, and Spa is 40 minutes or less by car from Dorchester, Bridport, Lyme Regis, Sherborne, and Weymouth. The style is classic English country, with cozy fireplaces, chintz, and tapestries. In warmer months the lawns are decked out with croquet equipment and cast-iron furniture. There’s a spa with a small indoor pool, a bar, and an excellent restaurant. But it’s the service that places Summer Lodge among the best small country-house hotels in England. From $225 to $515; dinner, $200. At 9 Fore St., Evershot; 44-193/548-2000; summerlodgehotel.co.uk.

Food celebrity Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage HQ offers eclectic cooking courses that emphasize local, seasonal produce ($299–$448; book well in advance). A perennial favorite is Pig in a Day, during which participants learn to butcher an organic swine. River Cottage’s four-course dinners held on Friday and Saturday nights are strongly recommended for an alternative gastronomic experience served at communal tables ($120–$180 a person; Park Farm, Axminster; 44-129/763-0302; rivercottage.net). There’s also Fearnley-Whittingstall’s recently opened restaurant Canteen, attached to his Local Produce Store in the town of Axminster, which offers simple all-day menus with such specialties as a seafood stew with Portland crab and Weymouth squid, and a Dorset apple cake (dinner, $100; Trinity Sq., Axminster, Devon; 44-129/ 763-1862; dinner served Thursday to Saturday).

A Dorset institution, the Riverside Restaurant, behind West Bay harbor, near Bridport, features classic English seafood in strict deference to local catch (dinner, $200; 44-130/ 842-2011; thefishrestaurant-westbay.co.uk; closed January to mid-February). The Dover sole is always impeccable, and if you’re here in samphire season (mid-April to mid-June), take advantage of anything cooked with this juicy, salty sea asparagus.

Saturday is market day in Bridport, when the streets are bristling with stalls packed with bric-a-brac, and the Electric Palace is an ideal spot to stop for brunch. The locally sourced salads, savory tarts, and steaks are cheap and excellent. Two-course lunch, $50; 35 South St.; 44-130/842-8354.

For a perfect summer lunch, try the spicy crab or the oysters from the Fleet lagoon at the Crab House Café. Note: Unless it’s really warm, request a table indoors as it can get quite blustery (two-course lunch, $60; the Fleet Oyster Farm, Portland Rd., Wyke Regis; 44-130/578-8867; crabhousecafe.co.uk; closed from Christmas until early February). Although it’s impossibly busy in the summer with beachgoing families and the service is thin, the Hive Beach Café is great for easy, well-priced seafood such as grilled sardines and crab sandwiches (two-course lunch, $34; Beach Rd., Burton Bradstock, Bridport; 44-130/889-7070; hivebeachcafe.co.uk).