Dorset trip — July 2021
We visited Dorset for four days in July 2021 to celebrate our Silver Wedding Anniversary.
We stayed at Mallinson’s Woodland Retreat, north of Axminster. We visited Forde Abbey, Bridport on Market Day, then the beaches at Burton Bradstock, Eype and Charmouth, and we also had a pint at the Anchor Inn in Seatown. Heading back home via Dorchester, we stopped at Maiden Castle, an iron age hillfort that is the most extensive in Europe.
Dorset is known for narrow winding country lanes and remote hillforts, tiny villages and medieval fields, ancient woodlands and a homespun warmth. My partner has visited Dorset every year for more than two decades. Below are some notes from our latest trip.
Mallinson’s Woodland Retreat
The woodland retreat was brilliant. It’s located deep in the country north of Axminster, near a village called Holditch. We stayed in Poppet, a spacious yurt with a wood burner, very comfy bed and a nice sofa and chair, and outside a kitchen area with hob, more or less protected from the rain, with a pizza oven and a small barbecue, both cast-iron.
The pizza oven resisted our early attempts to thaw it out, and it took about an hour to reach the stage where the flames were fully warming the pizza stone. Finally, when we pushed the embers to the side and put in the pizza using the special paddle-shaped tool, it seemed to burn the base to a frazzle while leaving the pizza topping virtually uncooked. We had been advised that the first effort at pizza-making was not always the most successful, but that things would get better after that. Unfortunately, this turned out to be over-optimistic. We ended up with three mildly disastrous calzone with half-cooked ingredients and the bases charred to a black crisp.
This left plenty of room for breakfast the next day. Bacon and eggs, and farmhouse bread, and I also reheated the barbecued potatoes, so life seemed very good! I also had the joy of having an outdoor shower underneath the oak tree; the water takes a while to come through, but absolutely piping hot and one of those memorable bathing experiences that will probably end up in one of my books some day.
We drove to nearby Forde Abbey. This had been a Cistercian monastery from the 1100s and is now family-owned. We took a look around the vegetable gardens at the front, then had a superb cream tea from the cafeteria, delicious scones with loads of cream and jam and delicious lattes.
We also looked around the country house, as it became after the abbey was gifted by Henry VIII after the Dissolution. A fabulous library, wonderful leather-bound tomes on all sorts of interesting topics, so I felt quite envious. The heavy furniture and beds always leave me with a sense of gloom, and the décor gave me a sense of the ennui of the wealthy aristocracy, their boredom amid all this splendour, and even the paintings that hung on the walls made me feel heavy with a sense of their boredom.
It felt a relief to get back into the gardens, which are extensive, very pretty although I prefer wilder and more forest-like gardens, whereas this was quite formal, and set around a large rectangular lake. There are only four gardeners which seemed almost nothing for such an extensive area.
After cream tea at Forde Abbey, I had a look around the pottery exhibition by the Eeles family, and chatted with someone who must have been Simon Eeles. He does all the firings at a wood-fired kiln in Mosterton, a village about eight miles away, and he uses local clays, including the black clay from Charmouth. He spoke knowledgeably about the different chemicals in the wood and the effects that they have on the clay in the firing.
Bridport was quite busy on market day, but it felt brilliant to go around some bookshops, live music playing in the square near the bookshop, and nice to have some sunshine as we looked around. Because the main car park was full, we had to use the car park down by the police station, at the other end of the town.
We found a wonderful wine shop, lots of organic and natural wines, and we ended up spending about 50 quid on natural wines. The chap who runs this shop was head gardener at the River Cottage, and a real enthusiast about natural wines.
Bridport has many good food shops. Leaker’s Bakery seems to popular.
Dorset has many fabulous beaches, some of which get very crowded in the summer holiday season. The Jurassic clay cliffs run along much of the coast, and these are rich in fossils and even dinosaur bones have been found here.
The beach at Eype was unexpectedly stunning, possibly in my top 10 beaches in the world, although it was too rough to swim when we visited. Beautiful black-sand Jurassic cliffs stretching all the way down, and the variegated clays were interesting to explore. The beach was virtually deserted, and a couple of birds of prey hung over it, maybe kestrels or harriers, making a tight metallic shriek every few seconds, really amazing to see.
Charmouth was rather busier, but with similar black clay cliffs that stretch for miles, and heavier seas. I really enjoyed the atmosphere here, lots of families, relaxed, couples wielding hammers to try to open up the rocks and find fossils, and all a bit picture postcard. Not much else to say, but a nice feeling of the hoi polloi having fun, and I count myself in that. Somehow it gave me a good feeling about our common humanity after the trauma of the Covid pandemic.
Seatown is also beautiful We ended the day having a pint at the Anchor Inn at Sealand, near Golden Cap, another beautiful stretch of coast. The pub is struggling to find staff as so many people are still on furlough.
Burton Bradstock beach was crowded, with absolutely fantastic weather. The hilltop opposite has amazing views, and there is a wildness that is enjoyable. There was a sign warning of the presence of adders, and I was a bit sad not to find any. We went to The Hive for Fish and Chips. This consisted of a nice crisp piece of hake, and perfect golden chips. We had intended to have them for lunch but arrived after they had stopped serving, but it made a very nice end to the day at the beach.
Dorchester is the main town in the region. We went through it briefly on the way to Maiden Castle, as we were heading back on our final day. Dorchester is a historic market town on the banks of the River Frome. With a population of 20,000 people, there’s plenty of places to visit, some good pubs and restaurants, and the town has recently put in place ceramic exhibits that draw attention to its history. The town started as a Roman settlement called Durnovaria, after the Romans defeated the local hillfort tribes (see Maiden Castle below).
The hill fort at Maiden Castle was amazing. The site is run by English Heritage, free to enter, and with excellent signposting that explains its historic importance. It is very extensive, maybe a mile across, and you walk in a long loop from the car park through the west entrance, then around the ramparts of the fort, a high grassy bank overlooking a series of steep ditches, round to the east gate, and then back via a Roman temple built after the site was taken from the early settlers.
It was very atmospheric to walk around and imagine the lifestyle 2000 years ago. The signs showed a photo of a sling-shot store – round stones that would be lobbed down on any invaders – and it gave a real feeling of how basic and precarious life would have been.