From stunning countryside to fossil rich cliffs, through a tangle of streets to the 13th century Cobb, Lyme Regis on Devon’s border offers a wealth of attractions for families and couples.
Nine men standing on plant-pots will not normally draw a crowd but in Lyme Regis, with the added excitement of an enormous, swinging eel, it has become a spectator sport. Conger cuddling, as it is known, is a last-man-standing contest, vaguely akin to a game of skittles, and raises funds for the RNLI.
This was Lifeboat Week (generally the last week of July; 23rd – 31st July 2011), which wins joint first place with the Regatta and Carnival week (usually the second week of August; 6th – 14th August 2011) as the best time to visit Lyme Regis.
Both are family orientated with competitions including pavement art and sand-modelling, treasure hunts, balloon races, mural painting, a ghost-tour and much more. After dark, the ultimate late night treat for younger children is the open air cinema on steep, grass banks in the beautifully re-planted Langmoor Gardens above the beach.
Of course, a regatta must have sailing races and the flotillas of small boats will give your holiday snaps an idyllic, seaside flavour. Meanwhile, less serious competition can be found at the bathtub and pram races - the latter conveniently passes all the town’s pubs.
A highlight of Lifeboat Week is the Red Arrows’ display. The Reds’ world renowned dare-devil antics include thunderous low-level aerobatics, thrilling cross-over manoeuvres and, of course, painting red, white and blue smoke-trail patterns in the sky.
Countryside and coast
Lyme Regis nestles in an area of outstanding natural beauty at the centre of Lyme Bay. From the beach, there are awe-inspiring views along the coast, past Charmouth, over the towering peak of Golden Cap to Chesil Beach and the distant peninsula of Portland Bill. At sunset, the cliffs catch the last lingering sunlight before dusk settles and the Portland Bill Lighthouse becomes visible, flashing its warning through the gathering darkness.
The Jurassic Coast around Lyme is famed for its fossil hunting. While the serious palaeontologists chip away with hammers, grab a hard rock and bash away at the darker, softer rocks around any of the many landslides between Lyme Regis and Charmouth. They split open easily and it’s thrilling to find your first fossil, however small. But beware of the tides, which cut off that stretch of beach every few hours!
Another low-tide activity is fishing around in Lyme’s excellent rock-pools. You’ll find tiny fish, limpets, barnacles, anemones and, of course, the ever popular crabs! There are starfish too, although you’re unlikely to find one unless you’re either very lucky or extremely patient.
Alternatively, head for the cliff-tops where there are tough but rewarding walks along the South West Coast Path. The best walking starts at Stonebarrow, just beyond Charmouth, and will take you past old smugglers’ hideouts to Golden Cap, the south coast’s highest point. If you’re watchful, you’ll probably spot a circling peregrine as you cross the gorse and heather strewn heath.
For a gentler amble, try a historic tour of Lyme. The town is steeped in history and one of the best trips into the past is at The Town Mill (01297 443579), a fully restored working watermill just a gentle stroll from the town centre. They conduct regular demonstrations of milling and there’s also an art gallery, pottery, café and 17th century walled garden.
Beyond the mill, we followed the river all the way to Uplyme on a leisurely half-hour walk past two other mills, across a paddock and through a delightful stretch of woodland filled with the gentle hue of bluebells. In Uplyme you could visit the 14th century church, support a local match at the cricket ground or just stop for a pint at The Talbot Arms (see more below), before strolling back home along the river.
Lyme Regis off-season
Restaurants that bustle in summer are almost deserted in winter and, on a stormy night, there’s nowhere quite as cosy as a low-beamed tavern with an open fire. The Royal Lion Hotel, a 400 year old coaching inn, is a front-runner in this department and has been extensively, but thoughtfully, renovated to provide 30 en-suite rooms.
The view across a deserted, windswept beach to the Cobb, brightly lit by a shaft of sunlight striking through menacing storm clouds, is unforgettable. So too is an invigorating walk along the seafront the day after a storm, when waves crash over the harbour wall long after the winds that whipped them up have subsided.
Lyme Regis was built around tough, sea-faring traditions with narrow streets meandering through prehistoric fossil records. It has retained its gentle, historic charm to hold its own as a top destination for a family holiday or romantic short-break at any time of year.
My favourite restaurants
Numerous cosy restaurants cater for a wide range of tastes and budgets - gourmets could idle away a mouth-watering day menu-spotting around town before making their choice.
Mark Hix is quite possibly Lyme’s best know chef and Hix Oyster and Fish House (01297 446910), perched dramatically above the Cobb, should be on any foodie’s list. Hix is a champion of local, in-season produce, indeed, if he’s in town, you may even spot him picking seakale on the beach. It’s small and immensely popular and you’ll understand why once you’ve tasted the grilled razor clams served with seashore vegetables or house speciality De Beauvoir smoked salmon, cured by Hix himself. Book a table in advance and take at least £50 / person, unless you intend to skip dessert or coffee.
For a hearty meal washed down by a local pint, for a very reasonable £12 - 15 / head, try one of these great pub-restaurants; in high-season book ahead or arrive early. Naturally, the local delicacy is sea-food landed that day in Lyme harbour.
The Pilot Boat Inn (01297 443157) is beside Cobb Gate right at the heart of town and will almost certainly be within walking distance of your accommodation. Their pub menu is excellent and they have a wide range of draught beers.
For sea views, head for By the Bay (01297 442668) on Marine Parade. They justifiably boast: "Great value locally sourced food, freshly prepared for you in our relaxed and friendly sea front restaurant."
A mile up the road in Uplyme is The Talbot Arms (01297 443136), a traditional country inn. If the weather is good, alfresco dining in the tranquillity of their beer garden is a charming way to end the day. With a babbling brook, birdsong from the enveloping tangle of greenery and church bells ringing nearby... the quintessentially English setting to savour a pint while your dinner is cooked. There’s a playground just across the road too – perfect if you have children who aren’t quite tired enough after dinner.
Ye Olde Poppe Inn (01460 220063, on the A358 about five miles north of Axminster), is an enjoyable pit-stop after leaving Lyme Regis. It’s another traditional pub with all the trappings: open fire, low beams and even a ghost! The food is cooked to perfection with generous portions and reasonable prices. There’s a beer garden and the landlord maintains a selection of well kept local beers and ales.
Where to stay
Out of Lyme Regis' hotels, the Alexandra arguably enjoys the best location. It is perched high above the beach amidst beautiful private gardens and most rooms boast breathtaking coastal views. The restaurant has an excellent and well deserved reputation for delicious meals superbly prepared from local produce.
My favourite b&b is Ocean View in Silver Street. (Double, en suite rooms from £66 a night, including breakfast). It’s a steep climb up from the beach but the sea and coastal views from the bedrooms are fantastic.
More recently we have opted for self-catering holiday cottages on our frequent visits. There are plenty available, many with off-street parking (a real asset in Lyme’s narrow streets). Two bedroom cottages start at around £550 / week in high-season.
If you need to trim the cost a little, stay just down the road in Charmouth. Day trips to Lyme Regis couldn’t be easier with a park-and-ride above the town and a very reasonable (£2 all day) long-stay car park ten minutes' walk from the beach.
Nuts and bolts of your visit
There is a Tesco Express and Co-op on the high street. If you need bigger shops, head into the charmingly rustic market town of Axminster five miles away.