Fossil-strewn beaches, amazing drives, endless countryside and a foodie culture to whet your appetite - welcome to West Dorset, second home to Masterchef winner and New Zealander Mat Follas
Strangely, the thing I like most about West Dorset is that it has an awful lot of what is good about my own country.
As a New Zealander, I love the endless countryside, the fact there’s little traffic on the roads, there are fantastic roads on which to ride my bike and there is much more of an outdoors lifestyle than is possible in many other parts of the UK. The things I miss about New Zealand are all here.
I’m originally from Auckland but left 20 years ago. There are many other kiwis here in Dorset. It is like New Zealand, but it’s all done with an English twist. The house I live in is 400 years old and my restaurant (www.thewildgarlic.co.uk) is in a building of a similar age. The history in this country is incredible for most overseas visitors.
Where to go
People here are definitely a bit more “outdoorsy” than in other parts of the UK. We’ll have barbecues in the summer on the beach and every Christmas we go and take a dip in the sea. There are some typically “picture postcard England” spots to visit like Beaminster and Leominster. Bridport is a bigger town with amazing food and great markets. The town used to be famous for making ropes and cables for ships; the streets are really wide because they would stretch the rope up and down the streets. Now, when the Saturday and Wednesday markets line the streets it’s truly a spectacular site.
West Bay is worth a visit and Lyme Regis is stunningly beautiful. It can be a little touristy in summer but for nine months of the year it’s an incredible place to visit.
Dorchester is the county seat and full of history with some great shopping opportunities. Weymouth has a fantastic harbour-side with ten or 15 restaurants to sample. I attend the annual food festival and I can honestly say it is one of the best food festivals in the UK. The people in Weymouth are, naturally, really into their seafood and they demand great produce, which they always get locally.
What I love about West Dorset is the authenticity. The fishing boats are actually working, they’re not just for show.
There’s an amazing road along the Jurassic Coast. If you drive from West Bay to Weymouth you will see some of the best views in the world. You tend to think of England as being small but here you can see 20 or 30 miles in different directions. It’s tremendous and absolutely breathtaking.
Swing in to Chesil Beach, it’s the most beautiful beach, and carry on along to Portland Bill; it’s a bunch of great memories waiting to happen. Without any exaggeration it is right up there with some of the best drives in the world, yet hardly anyone knows about it. I don’t think many people are aware of the stunning scenery here actually. People know about Durdle Door - the arch of rock in the sea – but there are many incredible sights worth seeing here.
Where to eat
There’s a huge foodie culture in West Dorset. It is a little more modern than your average cream tea. There’s a great café culture, many fabulous restaurants and the pubs do brilliant food. The locals are spoiled for choice so they don’t put up with a bad place. If it’s not good enough it won’t survive.
I can recommend the Fox and Hounds (Duck Street, Cattistock; +44 1300 320444; www.foxandhoundsinn.com). It’s situated in a wonderfully picturesque village and they’ve just won the award for Best Local Pub in Dorset. I’m one of the locals there and you walk in and always get a friendly welcome. They serve good, honest food with real ale on tap and the owners just run the business really, really well.
I also enjoy the Lord Poulett Arms just over the border in the Somerset Village of Hinton St George (High Street; +44 1460 73149; www.lordpoulettarms.com). It’s more of a gastro pub, and beautifully decorated inside, and it has high quality food. I always go for one of the seafood specials as you’re guaranteed a great meal.
Fresh seafood is also a treat at the Hive Beach Café (Beach Road, Burton Bradstock; +44 1308 897 070; www.hivebeachcafe.co.uk). Sit there looking over the water and enjoy a fantastic dinner. It’s a great place just for a coffee too, but for rustic, decent, honest food it’s perfect. It’s almost wrong to have anything but seafood when you’re sitting somewhere like that.
Of course my own restaurant, The Wild Garlic (The Square, Beaminster; +44 01308 861446; www.thewildgarlic.co.uk), is well worth a visit! We only opened in the summer of 2009 but we’ve been getting rave reviews, which I’m just so proud about it. It’s nice that people haven’t just assumed I’m the bloke off the telly who won Masterchef. It’s great to be recognised for what I’m doing now. We use local produce and we write our menu half an hour before service. We have a bunch of local people who supply us with the freshest stuff. In Beaminster alone there are two butchers, a deli and a French patisserie. There’s a woman, with a PhD in woodland ecology, who brings us wild mushrooms and we have a local lady who makes our cakes to be served with morning coffees.
Dorset is absolutely perfect for foraging and it’s a part of the local culture. I’ll go to the pub and they’ll be talking about the mushroom or the berries they found that day. Foraging is an amazing culture that still exists and for foreigners like me, and a lot of city people, it is amazing to realise it’s still a thriving part of everyday life. For me foraging is a fun way to source things for my restaurant that I can’t get my hands on in the commercial world. It’s partly why “wild” is in the name of my restaurant. I do actually forage for wild garlic and our salads are full of edible flowers.
The famous River Cottage is in Dorset and some information about foraging can be found on the website (www.rivercottage.net). There are books available and the best way to learn is just get your hands on a guide and get out there! Chesil Beach is probably a good place to start.
Where to stay
We recommend quite a few local places to stay on our website but a couple of my favourites are the BridgeHouse Hotel and The Walnuts.
The BridgeHouse Hotel in Prout Bridge in Beaminster is a lovely hotel with really nice rooms. It’s got a nice little bistro too, which uses a lot of nice local produce. The hotel is a little more upmarket but the rooms are quite stunning and you most definitely get what you pay for.
The Walnuts (also Prout Bridge, Beaminster) is more of a bed and breakfast style place and a bit easier on the pocket. It’s the sort of place you’d want to come and stay for the weekend and a great place to base yourself to see the best Dorset has to offer.
A holiday to remember
We found this lovely little part of England quite by accident. We were holidaying here a few years ago and we immediately fell in love with the area. We loved the atmosphere and the scenery and made the move permanent six years ago. We’ve got great groups of friends and our favourite little local pubs; we wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.
Despite all this, I still consider myself a foreigner. I find myself continually charmed by the quaint pubs and friendly people of West Dorset. I’m sure you will too.