Childhood weekends revisited: rediscovering Dorset’s West Bay

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It might have first drawn national attention in 2013 with ITV’s “Broadchurch” and David Tennant, but for me, it’s always been there.  Growing up nearby in south Somerset, Sunday afternoons often involved a drive down to West Bay on the Dorset coast.  As a small child, my focus was the flashing lights of the amusement arcade and bouncing up and down on the trampolines that were parked permanently on the green as you entered the town. 

Of less interest were the long blustery walks down the promenade (a winter’s day wasn’t going to deter my parents from this family outing) and the obligatory purchase of a cup of vinegary cockles in a non-descript polystyrene cup. If I said that I never really relished yet another trip here, that would be a bit of an understatement.

However, a return trip as an adult has made me appreciate it in a new way.  West Bay sits on the stunning Jurassic Coast, a UNESCO World Heritage site that runs through Devon and Dorset and covers 95 miles.  It’s a perfect place for a healthy hiking weekend away with the opportunity to experience spectacular views out to sea (if this is your thing, you’ll find plenty of information on suggested walking routes, both short and long).

However, if a coastal hike sounds far too challenging or you don’t have time to walk the path, you can still experience the wonderful sights in West Bay: step out onto the stony East beach for a closer look at the undeniably amazing steep craggy cliff (anyone who did watch Broadchurch can’t fail to recognise it).  

Formed of Bridport Sands rock, the cliffs rise almost vertically up, with great patterns formed by the striations on the rock. Over the years, the cliffs have weathered such that there are fossils galore to be found on the beaches should you have the time to search for them: it’s a geologist’s dream and you’ll often see people rummaging around on the beach hoping for a lucky find. 

You can also climb to the top of this cliff – it is a steep, but short climb, but is worth it for the incredible views you get out to sea and back over the town.

Alternatively, you can take the slightly gentler path up the cliffs by the West Beach – there are benches at regular intervals where you can stop and look out at the sea, back over the town and to the cliffs both right and left.  Close your eyes and listen to the waves lapping below – it’s wonderfully relaxing.

West Bay is also ideally located for short hops to other places on the coast: for me, Lyme Regis is a must with its 14th century Cobb wall snaking out into the sea and its Victorian promenade overlooking the small sandy beach (great for children and their buckets and spades).  

There are some interesting shops on its steep main street selling a range of local wares, including pictures painted by local artists and fossils collected from the local beaches.  I would recommend stopping off at one of the tea shops for the traditional Dorset cream tea and scones.

Burton Bradstock is also worth a visit, again to look at the wonderful cliffs and perhaps to stop off for food in the Hive restaurant on the beach (note however, that this is a very popular spot, with lots of fresh seafood and shellfish, so arriving early is recommended).  

Other places on the coast to consider are Charmouth, Eype, and Seatown, all of which are small but attractive spots to unwind. As somewhere with more to do, consider Seaton, where you can catch an old-fashioned tourist tram to Colyton (this is a short, but fun 25-30 minute journey, another childhood memory). Chesil Beach is also about a half an hour drive away.

As for the town of West Bay itself, it is a small fishing town centred around a compact marina where boats bob up and down when they are not out on fishing trips to net the ubiquitous – and absolutely delicious – seafood sourced locally (think Lyme Bay scallops and local crab; it’s not all about cockles and mussels!).  

Much of it remains as it was several decades ago – the long promenade that takes you along the seafront and where seats are provided to look out into the glittering sea (as it was the day we went); the small huts lining the harbour and promenade and where you can buy ice cream, seafood, fish and chips and doughnuts; even the amusement arcade and the caravan park remain: all of these things make West Bay a great place for a family weekend away.

However, there have, inevitably been changes – reflecting the town’s modernisation and presumably the “Broadchurch effect”. There are glitzy flats now overlooking the harbour with balconies that have stunning views out to sea and there are now more eateries to try out – including a great café sitting right on the East Beach, another located in the middle of the river that runs into town, and one in a converted train carriage and waiting room at the long defunct railway station (see below for more ideas for eating out in West Bay).

I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about the place on a return trip, but West Bay is now on my list of short trips to take in England. The town might not be for everyone, but the coastline is gorgeous and there’s plenty here to do for everyone, including coastal walks, fossil searching and sailing, as well as trips to other resorts or using it as a base for a foodie’s weekend away.  

My only regret is that as a child, I definitely didn’t take enough time to appreciate what a great place I grew up around; but I hope to put that right from now on!   

Further information

Getting to West Bay

West Bay itself doesn’t have a train station but is near to stations on the South West train line and is around a three-hour drive from London. Exeter airport is 36 miles away.

If you do plan to reach it via train, the easiest way is to alight at Axminster and then catch the X53 bus to West Bay (you could also choose to take the train to Dorchester South station and catch the X51 bus to the neighbouring town of Bridport, a charming market town, itself worth a visit).

However, if you do plan to explore this coastal area more generally, I would recommend either driving down to Dorset or hiring a car once you are there.  

Places to stay and eat 

West Bay has a number of different places you can stay or eat in.  For all, I’d recommend booking early as most places only have a few rooms and we found that all the restaurants got booked up really quickly for evening meals.

Accommodation

There are several pubs in the town which have a small number of rooms for rent:

  • The West Bay Hotel: set in an 18th century inn, this is a stone’s throw from the beach and has four rooms
  • The George: this is on one side of the square, nearer the river than the beach and has seven rooms (two of which are family rooms)

There is also a large holiday park with plenty of caravans for family holidays, as well apartments for hire (for example, Westpoint Apartments and West Bay Sea View).

Eateries

All the pubs mentioned above serve food; menus can be found on their websites. 

However, if you fancy something other than a pub there is Seagulls restaurant, a lovely little bistro not far from the West Bay hotel. There is also Rise, a modern café bar/restaurant with a varied menu and that sits on a causeway across the River Brit.  It has a lovely outdoor seating area looking across the water back to the harbour.

The Station Kitchen is a quirky restaurant in a converted train carriage/waiting room on the disused train platform.  It’s open from Wednesday to Sunday.

For more snack type food or informal eating, there is the Watch House Cafe, a café actually on the beach, as well as a number of stalls lining the harbour (serving different types of food in each, ranging from fish and chips, jacket potatoes, doughnuts and ice cream to seafood and shellfish).

For more information on this part of South West England, there are a range of guide books available (click links for more information):

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