Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Going West (Temporarily) - Sun, Sand, Fossils, Food...

Note: some photos relevant to the following are up on my Flickr stream.

It must be about forty years since I last visited Lyme Regis, and Angela had never been there - and in those forty years, the place has gained a twist of enhanced fame thanks to John Fowles (assisted by Meryl Streep) and Jane Austen (assisted by the BBC drama department). So when we wanted to take a long weekend away, we decided that we ought to head down there and see how many flashbacks I might suffer.

But first we had to get there, and the drive down involved a stop for lunch. Fortuitously, Angela looked at the map and realised that a service area on the way, at Popham, happened to be the location we'd seen on TV when Heston Blumenthal attempted to kick-start the Little Chef chain towards higher quality in front of the cameras. It's not often we structure our itinerary around a Little Chef... Fortunately, Blumenthal's efforts at this place turned out still to be working. I don't think that I'd ever tried ox cheeks before, but the dish I ordered had the texture (literally) of a fine piece of slow cooking. Everything else there was competent at the very least, and often very good. I don't know if the chain have tried or are trying to extend this approach to other branches, but if they managed it, they could in theory accomplish a mind-boggling improvement in image.

Anyway, yes, we did eventually reach Lyme, checked into the hotel, and went out for a walk. And yes, bits of it trawled memories up from the depths of my brain - not often too bizarrely, although I'm pretty sure that a shop called "The Toby Jug" was there in the '60s, with the same sign, and the aquarium out on the Cobb definitely was. Mostly, though, and I suppose predictably, it was the smell of the seaweed cast up by the tide that felt so familiar, along with the beaches full of soft grey tide-smoothed pebbles.

Lyme itself is attractive enough, and the paeleontogical importance and the Jane Austen connection give it ways to draw in tourists. It doesn't half cash in on those options sometimes, though, especially the fossils - there's ammonite imagery everywhere, and multiple shops selling the things, (with stock drawn from all over the world if you look closely - the beaches near the town have been picked clean, absent any recent landslips). The town museum holds maybe more historical stuff - a dense clutter of local history, in fact - and that was where I discovered that Charmouth, the village along the coast where my family used to stay, was where Harriette Wilson stayed while working on her memoirs. That's rarely mentioned. Personally, I think that the tourist trade ought to make more of it.

Oh, and the seafood is good. By Sunday, though, we were ready to head further afield. We paused briefly at Charmouth, but my memories notwithstanding, I didn't see enough there to justify spending time and parking charges. In fact, we'd decided to take a look at the Royal Signals Museum, over at Blandford - which is a pretty good museum, especially if you can enjoy a fair-sized collection of vintage motorcycles and other vehicles, though there's plenty on military signals generally if you're enough of a tech-geek. Heading back from there, we took in quick looks at the Cerne Abbas Giant and Dorchester, and then stopped off at Maiden Castle nearby - another location I remembered from childhood holidays; a great wind-swept sheep-field surrounded by earthworks, the biggest Iron Age fortification in the UK. It's impossible to capture the scale of the place in a ground-level photo, but it was worth a stroll.

Anyway, we got back to Lyme in good time for the booking we'd made to treat ourselves at the Hix Oyster and Fish House. This is, well, a very good restaurant, and a part of what makes it is actually the location, overlooking the bay and the coast through floor-to-ceiling windows; eating while the marine horizon fades to darkness is definitely an experience. The cooking was good, too, if quite militantly rustic-local; my nettle soup was, I think, rendered pleasingly oleaginous by the snails, while Angela vouched for her deep-friend sand eels... My main course of hake seemed a bit salty, and the service seemed relaxed to the point of being off-hand at first, but overall, the treat was a treat. One local ingredient that was definitely used well was Somerset cider brandy, incidentally, especially in the "shipwreck tart" that I hit for dessert - a Hix creation of pastry and nuts where the warming glow of the brandy provided a definite twist on the standard walnut/pecan pie formula.

We headed home the next day - but by the scenic routine, taking in a few more sights, starting with Abbotsbury Swannery (a tourist attraction that knows what will attract tourists; the roads for miles around were dotted with signs saying "Baby Swans"), and then going onto Bennets Water Gardens (very pleasant to stroll around in the hot weather), and lastly reaching Portland Bill. This last was one more location I remembered from childhood; I think that it was the first lighthouse I ever visited. What I didn't remember was how windswept, almost bleak, it was; it's the last low slope of a lump of rock projecting south into the Channel, and was probably always pretty austere, but by the looks of things, the Victorians turned into into a quarry for Portland stone, and it's never quite recovered. Still, on a hot day, it has a sort of blasted charm - and the lighthouse looked much as I remembered.

Anyhow, we made it home. And I didn't suffer any catastrophic flashbacks.


Lucy said...

Got here at last.

I bet the staff at the Little Chef are well teed off with old Heston for obliging them to prepare ox cheek every day. Sounds like the kind of thing that used to make the kitchen smell unpleasant when Mum cooked it to feed the dogs on. And were there really snails in the nettle soup? I used to make it quite often but its laxative properties put us off a bit - so nothing else catastrophic happened on the way home then? (Sorry, must be suffering flashbacks myself, seem to have slipped into Nasty Little Sister mode...)

I had one of the first half bottles ever made of Somerset Cider Brandy; the first season with the Elizabeth Frink woodcut of a ram on it. If I'd managed to hang on to it it would probably be worth a bob or two now. But alas, it was just toooo good.

In fairness I think perhaps Jane Austen rather put Lyme on the map a bit before you were last there. I was always cautioned against too much reckless running around on the Cobb with the example of Louisa Musgrove.

Anyway, it was lovely to read about the trip having seen the pics, thanks a lot!

Phil Masters said...

Ox cheeks seems to be a pretty standard cut of beef - no great lumps of bone involved - which evidently slow-cooks into something lovely and tender.

And yes, the menu said clearly that there were snails in that soup. No terrible effects that I noticed, but it was a fairly modest (though perfectly adequate) bowl of soup. I didn't know that nettles were supposed to be laxative... I knew that dandelions were diuretic...