This historic West Dorset seaside town offers bustling streets, beaches, cliff walks, breathtaking views and a vibrant community. Words: Lesley Gillilan. Illustration: Tom Jay
One of the big attractions is its prehistoric geology (Lyme Regis is a gateway to the Jurassic Coast – a World Heritage site that encompasses a long stretch of cliff and shingle rich in fossils and ammonites). The beaches are another major draw. As are the pretty Georgian streets and narrow lanes which meander up and down the town’s deep Lym Valley.
On the seafront, the famous Cobb, a wall of 14th-century stone, wraps around a quaint fishing harbour. On the hilly summits above the town, there are wonderful views across Lyme Bay towards the National Trust’s Golden Cap – one of the highest points on the south coast. And since it sits right on the border where West Dorset meets East Devon, it has easy access to the seaside villages of both counties.
Clearly it has lots to offer the tourist, but what’s it like to live here? Mega-busy during the summer, says newcomer Will Reed, but the winters are sublime – ‘and it’s a brilliant place to bring up children’. Will first came to Lyme as a student of its famous Boat Building Academy (boatbuildingacademy.com). A furniture-maker from Buckinghamshire, he fell instantly in love with the Dorset town. ‘And I just kept coming back,’ he says.
After several stints as a visiting teacher, he was persuaded to join the Academy as a full-time instructor and, four years ago, he and his wife Bella, and their two young children, Monty and Edith, made the move. Will’s mother has since joined the family. And they have all slipped easily into Lyme life. ‘There’s a very strong underlying community,’ says Will.
He loves ‘the endless paths’ that meander into woods and down to the sea. ‘On the beach, every day is different – and the light is amazing, sometimes breathtaking.’ He also likes the quirky side of Lyme Regis – like the old-fashioned pubs, the fossil shops, and the low-tech Dinosaurland museum (housed in a converted Baptist church).
‘It’s getting a bit more trendy now,’ says Will, referring to the boutiques, delis and galleries on Lyme’s Pound Street, or the fashionable, fish restaurant-on-sea run by Mark Hix. ‘But it’s still got character and charm and a real sense of history.’
WHERE TO BUY
There are some very pretty houses in Lyme, and an eclectic mix of architecture: from thatched and half-timbered cottages and fine period villas to retro bungalows. The older houses tend to sit in the Coombe, a steep-sided valley which slopes down to the River Lym; or they line the town’s seaside streets, which are largely Georgian and Grade II-listed. The hilly roads heading west toward the Devon border (Sidmouth Road, Somers Road, Ware Lane) offer some of the best views and, as a general rule, the higher the house, the higher the price. A popular alternative is out-of-town Uplyme: further inland, but closer to the shops and amenities in the market town of Axminster.
On foot, explore the cliff-top paths of Dorset’s spectacular Jurassic Coast – a line of sand and shingle that reaches all the way from Lyme Bay to Chesil Beach, which you can also explore by boat. Lyme has its own lovely beaches (East Cliff, Church Cliff, Town and Monmouth) and neighbouring Charmouth is famous for fossil hunting. The arts are represented by the Marine Theatre or the community gallery at The Town Mill centre (complete with bakery and working mill). Nature thrives along the path of the Undercliff, one of the first nature reserves in Britain. And for foodies, this is heaven: Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage is in Axminster (rivercottage.net), and in Lyme, Mark Hix’s famous Oyster & Fish House (hixrestaurants.co.uk), serves fresh seafood and spectacular coastal views in a glassy little building set on Cobb Road.
JOBS & COMMUTING
Traditional industries like fishing and boatbuilding still survive, but tourism is king in this town, which has been a fashionable resort since the 18th century (Jane Austen’s novel Persuasion was set here). Lyme attracts artists and writers; and it’s a good place to open a niche tourism business (think cake shops and creative retailing). The nearest railway station is at Axminster (six miles away), on the mainline which travels from Exeter to London Waterloo – trains take around three hours to reach the capital. The nearest airport is Exeter (25 miles).
A National Maths Hub, strong in visual arts and said to be one of the most innovative schools in the country, Lyme’s state secondary, Woodroffe School, is rated Outstanding by Ofsted.
Lyme’s liassic clay cliffs are in a constant state of ‘active erosion’ and have a habit of collapsing (in 2008, the Black Ven landslide destroyed most of the coast path between Lyme Regis and Charmouth). The majority of the town’s historic buildings have stood the test of time, but it’s wise to check properties for signs of subsidence.
Lyme Regis Museum has had Lottery funding to help build a zinc-and-glass extension which will house, among other things, a new geology gallery. It is also hoped that the Grade II-listed Regent cinema, built in 1937 – and burnt to a cinder in 2016 – will re-open in the future.
PAY A VISIT
In a tall Georgian townhouse at the upper end of Pound Street, this is Mark Hix’s first hotel venture and he clearly had a lot of fun with the décor. Rooms are themed, with Hunting, Fishing, Sailing, Reading and Mad Hatters, among others, all with novel king-size beds, rich colours and quirky collections of vintage knick-knacks. Breakfast is a hamper of goodies brought to the room via Hix Oyster & Fish House (where Townhouse guests get a 10 per cent discount). Doubles from £130.
What Will likes about… LYME REGIS
A favourite pub is the Harbour Inn (harbourinnlymeregis.co.uk). ‘A veranda overlooks the harbour and there is no better place to sup a pint after work in the summer,’ says Will.
Monmouth beach – Will walks there nearly every day. ‘Head west when the tide’s out and you can see the Ammonite Pavement – a ledge of rock set with hundreds of natural ammonites,’ he says.
Close by is the Prescott Pinetum, the Woodland Trust’s forest of oak, beech and conifer trees overlooking the Jurassic Coast (woodlandtrust.org.uk).
John Fowles, author of the 1960s classic, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, lived in Lyme Regis until his death in 2005. The 1981 film version, starring Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons, was partly shot in the town.
CAN YOU AFFORD IT?
Lyme Regis: £390,674
Average house prices: January 2017. Source: Zoopla (zoopla.co.uk).