Bridport is one of those places where the locals appear to have metamorphosed into one, strident personality. We glimpsed them a few years back when they expressed outrage at their pretty medieval town being dubbed ‘Notting Hill on Sea’ by the media. They were outraged again earlier this year when famous resident Billy Bragg received hate mail for his communist views. He might be a communist, they said, but he’s ‘our communist.’
Bridport has so many different layers of history, culture and tradition, that there is something indefinable about it. Obviously there’s the whole seaside thing going on - this, after all, is the world famous Jurassic coastline - but the town is also steeped in history and home to some serious artists.
In medieval times it was the centre of the rope and netting industry – its pavements are much wider than normal so that the nets could be spread out on them and all the cottages, even the smallest ones, have extraordinarily long gardens where whole families would work all day on the nets. It also made the hangman’s ropes - back in the day to be hung was known as being ‘killed with a Bridport dagger.’
These days Bridport is perhaps best known as a bohemian, cultural haven – it even has its very own Parisian Left Bank – the artist’s quarter in the South West Quadrant in St Michael’s Lane. PJ Harvey writes songs and poetry there and in November the town is host to the Bridport Literary Festival. Then there’s the foodie scene – brilliant artisan producers everywhere, an annual food festival and Bridport’s very own TV chef, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingshall , who lives close by.
And, let’s face it, there’s a healthy smattering of Notting Hill Billies too, who come down at weekends to swim at Burton Bradstock and drink vats of Bloody Mary at the Bull.
The Electric Palace We have to kick off with the Electric Palace – a fabulous 1920s building straight out of the romantic days of cinema. A few years ago it was bought and beautifully restored by local family, the Hitchens, and has since become one of the most important live venues in the South West. It holds regular comedy nights, gigs, plays, ballets and, of course, film viewings.
The Bull Hotel The fact that it describes itself as a ‘boutique coaching inn’ tells you everything you need to know, in other words a hip hotel with down to earth sensibilities. The Bull was converted by a couple of ex-Londoners a few years back and it shows. Kids are welcome, the food is fabulous and the rooms are ultra luxey. Definitely the place to stay if your wallet can stretch to it - and if it can't head there for a cocktail or two instead.
Fairly new in town is the Vintage Market held on the last Sunday of each month. The market has proved a huge hit – people come from all over the West Country to snap up antiques, vintage clothes and jewellery, flowers and fabulous artisan food. While we're on the subject, Bridport has a serious vintage scene with shops in the Old Rope Yards of St Michaels’ (the artist’s quarter) - so good in fact that Alice Temperley has been known to come for a rummage.
Check out Cornucopia for clothes, Ruby in the Dust for furniture and linens and all kinds of weird and wonderful things from tea cups to toy dogs at Old Albion. The town also has a market every Wednesday and Saturday selling everything from books to plants to pet food.
If you’re looking for coffee after all that retail therapy residents say the go to place is The Red Brick Café where the fried egg sandwiches are legendary.
Leaker’s Bakery is an institution in Bridport. Bread quickly sells out at this jewel of a baker’s which uses old artisan tradtions to bake such fabulous concoctions as chilli, cheese and beer bread.
Art lovers mustn't bypass the Bridport Arts Centre which has cutting edge exhibitions and an inhouse theatre showing both local and national plays. It also runs the Bridport Prize –an important annual fiction competition which has been going since the 70s.
Treat yourself to dinner at The Riverside Restaurant in West Bay for killer seafood – Lyme Bay crab linguine with parmesan shavings anyone? Locals swear it's better than any 'London' restaurant.
The Hive Café at Hive Beach Country Calling's personal recommendation goes to The Hive Cafe - the place to make bucket and spaders jealous by tucking into lobster and ice-cold rose while they build their umpteenth sand car and pretend to enjoy it. Luxury on the beach.
The Washingpool Farm Shop is so much more than a farm shop. It sells its own garden produce – literally everything, vegetables, soft fruits, salads – and the animals provide beef, pork and eggs. You can also stroll through the farm and check out the wildlife – expect moorhens, coots, herons, swans, geese, buzzards and kingfisher depending on the time of year.
Davy’s Locker Take away meltingly fresh and thrillingly cheap lobster, prawns and oysters from this shack on an industrial estate on the outskirts of town. A little out of town walk up Eggerton Hill to see an old fort with stunning views of Dorset.
Look out for the Bridport Hat Festival September 16-18 http://www.bridporthatfest.org– sounds weird, is weird and that’s what the locals love about it. For three days the town is full of people wearing hats - a bit like an urban Glastonbury.
Photos from Graham Shackleton