A short autumnal break? The English south coast in early October is not what obviously springs to mind, though for us Brits, its saving grace is of course proximity: no flight so no airport security, no queues, no uncomfortable hours squashed into planes, no bad food (we-ell, that needs to be qualified). But yes, you can actually drive there from London.
So there we were, tootling along the Dorset Coast, aka the Jurassic Coast, a neat branding of 185 million years of history and a dramatic sweep of chalky cliffs and pebbly beaches that swings along the English Channel. All of it is classed a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Immediately inland, classic green pastures roll over hill and dale, dotted with sheep and cattle and quintessential thatched cottages in the background. But it is the coastline that is special here, something about the fast-changing light, metallic reflections on the sea, sculptural rock formations, towering cliffs, wind whipped dune grasses, quaint slightly down-at-heel seaside resorts like Weymouth, and all of it pervaded in this out-of-season by a surreal kind of melancholy.
Above all there’s Portland, one of the weirdest places I’ve ever been to in the UK. In fact I’ve just discovered that last year its inhabitants produced a bumper sticker “Keep Portland Weird” – so at least they’re conscious of it – and my travel-nose is on the right track. This island attached by an isthmus to Weymouth is where the famous offwhite limestone comes from, as in this rather elegant staircase (above) at our posh bed & breakfast manor-house several miles inland. Chesil Beach (brought to fame a few years ago by Ian McEwan’s eponymous book), by the entrance to Portland, looked stunning on our return in the late afternoon light, curling westwards into a semi-mist and enclosing an inner lagoon. Gulls swooped above as the setting sun sank into the sea.
But the island itself exudes a desolate, end-of-the-world feel, between disused quarries, a prison for young offenders carved out of an old citadel in the headland, a style-less 1960s hotel and a cluster of three lighthouses at its wild southernmost tip, named Portland Bill.
Here, fishermen store their gear in a jumble of huts on the rock (see first pic above) but for access from this elevated platform have to be lowered by crane into the choppy seas below. A hairy enterprise.
Meanwhile day-trippers can lunch at The Lobster Pot, in this case an example of 1950s design at its worst, though with sea views to die for. It was closed when we got there, not that I would have been tempted. However Portland crab, lobster, scallops, clams and other crustaceans are highly rated due to the rough minerally waters – a bit like Spain’s Galicia in fact. If you want to know more, have a look at this website http://www.portlandshellfish.co.uk/. Lip-smacking.
Later I tucked into a fabulous Portland crabcake: velvety inside, crisp outside, served with a tartare sauce: just right. This was at the 400-year old Old Ship Inn, in Upwey, a welcoming pub with a good line in local produce though not strong on presentation. The Dorset rump of lamb lost itself in a slosh of ratatouille but if you closed your eyes, it tasted fine. A fireplace crackled while outside, a stage-set full moon glowed dramatically behind a phone-box. In the ‘events’ room next door, a local band played a full on rehearsal. All very Jurassic.
Keeping to the weirdness, we later came across the nature reserve of Studland (a phone-box there too), where sandy beaches, dunes and pine-trees fuse in an almost Mediterranean setting, apparently much loved by nudists and gays – in high contrast to the miles and miles of deserted heath land we had just driven across. This is used by the Army for manoeuvres so signs pop up ‘Beware – sudden gunfire!’. Rat -tat -tat.
And finally we discovered the brilliant chain ferry that operates across Poole Harbour from Studland to Sandbanks, loaded with cars. 10 minutes later you’re over the marine gap pulled by chains – brilliant engineering. Somehow it was hard to relate that to the millions of years embedded in this coastline, and the undeniable weirdness of Portland.