Lyme Regis: a real taste of the Dorset coast with an exciting new food scene

<span>Reflected glory: Small boats in Lyme Regis harbour.</span><span>Photograph: Julian Elliott/Getty Images</span>
Reflected glory: Small boats in Lyme Regis harbour.Photograph: Julian Elliott/Getty Images

Lyme Regis’s charms have always been resolutely genteel and old-fashioned, from its sedate regency seafront to its fondness for fossil shops and all things antique and literary.

It is a seaside town that has never felt the need to play to the hipster crowd, thanks partly to such distinguished and familiar history: home to 19th-century palaeontologist Mary Anning; John Fowles lived here, immortalising the Cobb breakwater in The French Lieutenant’s Woman; Jane Austen loved the place, giving it a starring role in one of Persuasion’s most memorable scenes; and Turner and Whistler both painted here.

But maybe that’s changing. Visiting for the first time in eight years, Lyme Regis feels different somehow; less quaint, more youthful.

On our first morning, we stroll down one of its prettiest streets, Sherborne Lane. Too narrow for cars, it is the old packhorse route that dates back to Saxon times. It’s lined with pretty thatched cottages and Georgian houses that lead down to the river. At the bottom is the Water Mill, an attractive cobbled area surrounded by restored mill buildings that today forms the creative heart of Lyme Regis. Rescued from disrepair by volunteers, it took 10 years to restore it to its former working glory. Now it’s a thriving artisan quarter with an art gallery, the Town Mill pottery full of contemporary pieces, a local brewery and mill shop selling its own flour. Everything arty and crafty is covered here – they even have their own sewing school.

Visiting for the first time in eight years, Lyme Regis feels different somehow; less quaint, more youthful

We stop for brunch at the Town Mill Bakery, more east London than west Dorset, and sit out at one of its long trestle tables as we bask in the bright morning sunshine. There are tasty dishes of Turkish eggs with chilli butter, avocado and zaatar, and courgette, sweetcorn and halloumi fritters. The coffee and sourdough pancakes are highly recommended, too.

We spend a happy hour browsing the boutiques and shops close by, full of tempting local jams, fudge and craft gins.

With time on our side, we head for neighbouring Charmouth via the beach – be sure to check times so you don’t get caught out by an incoming tide. A small, unspoilt village, Charmouth, like Lyme, is world-famous for its fossils. It’s a delightful walk along the shingle that takes just under an hour, long enough to work up an appetite for a locally made ice-cream at the beach cafe – well worth the queue. We eat them on the beach to a soundtrack that is more quarry than crashing waves; an urgent echo of hammering all around us as enthusiasts chip away at the limestone in search of belemnites and ammonites.

Back in Lyme Regis, we detour through the town’s lush Langmoor and Lister Gardens above the promenade with sweeping views across Lyme Bay. There’s also a sculpture trail you can follow, showcasing contemporary pieces by local artists. Just below the gardens, the Antiques & Craft Centre is always worth a visit, an Aladdin’s cave of vintage jewellery, glassware, books, vinyl and so much more.

A steep stroll back up Sherborne Lane takes us to 2 Woodville, our base for the weekend; an open-plan, two-bed apartment at the top of the hill with pretty views across the rooftops to the sea and white cliffs beyond. It feels like the perfect boho garret to hole away and write a novel. Full of paintings, objets d’art and vintage pieces, it’s high above the town with no distraction except the sound of circling seagulls. The bedrooms, decked out with pretty antique touches, are in restful shades of soft grey.

In the evening, we’re drawn back again to the Water Mill quarter, this time to the Strawberry Tree, a tapas restaurant that caught our eye earlier. Specialising in recipes from southern Spain and the Atlas Mountains, chef Giselle Benrimoj offers cookery classes and tutored tastings, too. We stop for a fino with olives and pickled fresh anchovies and then it’s on to the Lilac restaurant and wine bar, a cosy cellar space tucked away on Broad Street. While Mark Hix has reigned supreme in Lyme Regis with his Oyster & Fish House, it’s chef and restaurateur Harriet Mansell who is now creating a buzz. Originally from Devon, she opened Lilac three years ago, showcasing small dishes that are packed with fresh, seasonal West Country ingredients, often foraged by her local team.

Each plate explodes with flavour. As do the cocktails, in particular the Botanical Blush with lovage syrup, Campari, vodka, vermouth, orange and lemon. Stand out dishes include roast cauliflower with garlic yoghurt, and the panfried hake with grilled little gem and lovage aioli and trout with lime crème fraîche. For dessert, the rose panna cotta, scattered with petals, looks too exquisite to eat. Somehow we manage, along with a rhubarb sorbet and a woodruff caramel affogato. Mansell’s latest venture, Garden Table, opens in June. It will be an intimate woodland-like setting close to the seafront, and is already taking bookings. Expect plenty of larch and pine, as well as fresh summer flowers.

Our only regret during our Lyme Regis stay was not booking seats at the Shave Cross Under the Stars Cinema, also on Broad Street, a small screen in the basement of a craft beer bar with comfy sofas. “When red lights are glowin’, movies are showing,” reads a chalk sign outside – maybe next time.

Instead, we stroll back along the Cobb and past Belmont, the stunning pink 18th-century villa that was once home to John Fowles. You can’t beat Lyme Regis for its literary haunts, but it’s good to know there are exciting new things on the horizon, too.

2 Woodville can be booked through Sykes Holiday Cottages, starting at £699 for seven nights