Anyone who has watched ITV’s crime drama Broadchurch has an idea of what Dorset’s Jurassic Coast looks like: sunset-golden beaches under honeyed sandstone cliffs. But, beyond the sandy selfies and caravan sites, there are hidden walks on sunken paths between banks of hart’s-tongue ferns. There are wading birds and wild swans on the shores of a long pebbly lagoon, spectacular paths and bus rides over sea-view hills, and seriously good cafes.
I make regular trips to West Bay, Bridport’s harbour area, to visit family. This time, I’m also there to join my brother and friends – in a few days’ time – for a hike along the coast path. I start with a swim near the famous cliffs. Afterwards, it’s time for a Baboo gelato from the purple kiosk by the harbour. The ice-cream is made a few miles up the road in Salway Ash with seasonal fruit (like Forde Abbey strawberries) and local organic milk. Flavours range from a creamy maple with pralined walnuts to a tangy passion fruit sorbet. This time I have caramel-chewy honeycomb paired with sharp gooseberry on one enormous cone (£4).
Sandwiched between rolling farmland and the teeming sea, it’s no surprise that the Dorset coast produces great things to eat and drink. The countryside is peppered with farm shops and vineyards and the roadside with honesty boxes. One of my favourite local restaurants is Dorshi, where I’m meeting friends tonight. Down a narrow alley off Bridport’s East Street, a 10-minute ride from West Bay on bus X53, it serves a mind-expanding blend of Asian tastes and local produce in steamed or crisp-fried dumplings and noodle bowls. We head upstairs to the colourful bar and order onion fries with kimchi sauce (£3) and pea green cocktails made from Stolichnaya and sugar snaps (£8.50).
Bridport, with its regular markets and indie shops, is an ideal place for grazing and browsing. You can buy fruity Bridport buns (£4.25 for six) from Leakers’ Bakery or drink locally brewed pints in the Ropemakers Arms, where mellow lighting gleams off copper jugs and lobster pots are lurking in the rafters.
Next day, I walk a mile along the River Brit, past willows, purple loosestrife, and the turquoise flash of a kingfisher, to Palmers, Bridport’s thatched 18th-century brewery. A friendly two-hour tour (£16) of the old-school copper mash tuns and peaceful riverside yard ends with tasters that include sprightly Dorset Gold and mellow-but-lemony Copper Ale.
With two huge cheese straws from Leakers (£3.95) to eat on the way, I hike a hazy couple of miles cross-country for tea with family at Downhouse Farm. This barn-style cafe, with wide views of the coast from a moss-walled south-facing garden, uses homegrown herbs and veg and the farm’s organic meat to serve breakfasts and curries, scones with jam, or homemade Dorset apple cake.
Places to stay in the West Bay area include the George Inn (doubles from £127 B&B, two night minimum), next to the harbour bus stop and off-grid shepherd’s huts on Downhouse Farm (for two, £75 a night). After tea, a 20-minute walk over rolling fields brings us to the beach at Eype with its crumbling cliffs. The views from Thorncombe Beacon stretch along the coast west to Lyme Regis and south-east all the way to Portland, where we’re heading on foot tomorrow. For now, it is less than a mile along the coast path back to West Bay.
Sitting outside the Watch House Café as the sun sinks on West Bay’s East Beach, I can see several Broadchurch locations. There’s the glass-walled Folly on the quay that doubled as the police station, the fictional Sea Brigade Hall (AKA the West Bay Discovery Centre in an old Methodist Church and the waterside cabin where David Tennant’s character lived in series two and where, in real life, you can hire rowing boats for a trip up the river (£15 an hour westbayriverboats.co.uk).
The X53 from Axminster to Weymouth, via West Bay, is one of the UK’s top scenic bus rides, cruising over rollercoaster Dorset hills with ocean views and squeezing through the gold-stoned streets of Abbotsbury, meeting point for our hike. This year, from Bridport to Bovington, there is also a new open-topped X52. Friends from York are staying in postcard-ready Burton Bradstock. They join me on the open upper deck from outside the Anchor pub. Up here we are level with patches of lichen and straw animals on thatched cottage roofs and can see into gardens full of Spanish daisies and lobelia. About 20 minutes later, the bus rolls over a headland to reveal hilltop St Catherine’s chapel, backed by the long Fleet lagoon and sea.
Medieval monks, from the same abbey that built St Catherine’s, first farmed swans in Abbotsbury to supply monastic feasts. One spring, I took my son and his friend to the Swannery, a colony of 600 nesting mute swans on the edge of the Fleet, half a mile on footpaths from a bus stop (£10/£5 for adults/children). In April, it was full of giant nests with dragon-like eggs, soon to be fluffy grey cygnets. Anna Pavlova danced at the Swannery in the 1920s to prepare for Swan Lake and there’s a photo of her with other ballerinas, all in tutus, posing on the straw-covered edge of the creek behind a gaggle of bemused-looking swans. The reed beds nearby were also a Harry Potter film location (for a tense scene in Half-Blood Prince with a chase through the marshes outside the Weasley’s house). Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens, with their ginger lilies, agapanthus and Burmese-style rope bridge under Japanese maples, are also an easy walk down a pampas-fringed path from a bus stop (£10/£5 for adults/children).
We can see the Swannery from the coast path as we set off today. We’re walking a dozen miles, from Abbotsbury to the Portland peninsula. There’s an iodine-rich sea breeze and a smell of pineapple from crushed mayweed under our boots. We stop at Moonfleet Manor to sit on a terrace with fig trees and have tea from huge silver pots. The nearest bus stop to Moonfleet, called Knights in the Bottom, is a mile or so inland, making a shorter (roughly seven-mile) hike from Abbotsbury with a direct bus back. Today we ramble on and end up round a table outside the Cove House Inn by shingly Chesil Beach in Chiswell with fish pie (£10.95) and pints of Atlantic and evening light shining on the water. Bus 1 heads from within staggering distance of the pub into Weymouth to connect with the last bus of the evening, well after 8pm, back to West Bay.
Next day, I’m on the X52 again, heading home. It’s a route I never get bored of, which is lucky since I take this bus several times a year. I get off in Weymouth, not far from a tapas bar that once starred as a night club in Broadchurch. I have time for a swim from the soft, level sands before heading 10 minutes round the corner to the station. There are fleetingly beautiful views from the train to Waterloo: sunlit marshes with egrets and tilted rowing boats waiting for the tide. Around Poole, there is water on both sides of the train, and later the green and purple miles of the New Forest with birch trees, bracken and wild ponies.