West Bay has undergone massive changes in recent years, as Margery Hookings discovers.
Almost eight years ago, I was asked to be a part of the Windrose Media Trust’s Forever Archive, a series of films capturing life in West Dorset through the eyes of those connected to the area.
I was tasked to find suitable subjects for the short videos which would illustrate the link between people and places. They ranged from singers to stately homeowners, artists and photographers to dentists and designers.
There was one problem, though, they needed someone at very short notice to wax lyrical about Bridport and West Bay, and would I do it? As a former editor of the local newspaper, the Bridport and Lyme Regis News, I would be the ideal person, according to Windrose director Trevor Bailey and cameraman James Harrison.
To be honest, I’m much happier behind the camera or armed with a notebook. And, in any case, I was about to exchange the lovely West Dorset landscape for a year in Greece. How could I talk about a place with conviction when I was just about to leave it?
Still, they needed someone in a hurry so I said yes. Their particular preference, they said, was to film someone down at West Bay to talk about the area. And that’s what I did, stopping off for an ice cream and chat with Margaret Grundell who had been running the kiosk for so many years she was serving up 99s for the great-grandchildren of her first customers and was on first name terms with all of them.
When I first moved to Bridport in the spring of 1982, I didn’t know it very well, even though I was born and brought up about 25 miles away in south Somerset. My abiding memory of Bridport was that it was the place where my flatmate’s treasured cigarette lighter was stolen as we hitch-hiked from Exeter to Salisbury two years earlier. And West Bay, well, my late father always used to describe it as ‘that place with the hole in it’. He meant the harbour.
Still, it wasn’t far from my roots, which was where I wanted to be.
After an interview in Taunton, I visited Bridport and West Bay with my mother. It was the day before I was due to start work as a reporter on the Bridport News. War had just broken out in the Falklands. I remember the two of us gazing at the newspaper office at 67 East Street. It was rundown, even in those days. I think there was a deep intake of breath before we headed down to ‘that place with the hole in it’—West Bay.
We trudged up East Cliff and then turned around at the top to gaze down on West Bay and the hinterland beyond. It was absolutely gorgeous. Yes, I thought, I love this place. I feel at home here. I’ve been attached to it ever since.
The landscape of the part of Dorset covered by the Bridport News was like nothing I have seen before or since. It’s a special place, full of hidden lanes, rounded hills and stunning vistas, a place where you can escape from the crowds in the summer by going inland and enjoy the coast in the winter when everyone else has gone home.
West Bay was a favourite haunt back in the day when my new flatmate and I made The Bridport Arms our local, in the days before it became twice its original size.
And I still love West Bay.
Parts of it are gorgeous and others aren’t. But it’s the sum of its parts that appeals to me. It’s a place where a caravan park is allowed to rub shoulders with chi-chi eateries and fish and chip kiosks. It’s a place where people mess about on boats in the harbour before put-put-putting up through the piers and into the open sea beyond. Where fishing boats bob alongside pleasure crafts and a band strikes up on the green.
It’s a place where you can wander around the hole in its middle and then take a wonderful bracing walk along the pier and along the esplanade—which is not genteel like Sidmouth’s or Lyme Regis’s but is wonderful just the same because it is familiar, so close to the roar of the sea and you inevitably bump into someone you haven’t seen for years.
Over the years, West Bay has seen massive investment and change, but still its core remains the same.
I well remember the furore when planning consent was granted for the apartments overlooking the harbour and the beach. But at the time when Pier Terrace was built in 1884-85 by Arts and Craft architect Edward Schroeder Prior, the non-plussed locals dubbed it ‘Noah’s Ark’, according to a contemporary report in Bridport News.
Every year something seems to be happening down at the Bay, whether it is sea defence work or the opening up of a new restaurant or café. It’s a living, working canvas and something which appealed to television writer Chris Chibnall, who described Broadchurch as a love letter to the scenery of the Jurassic Coast, with the landscape a main character of the drama.
Before that, my late friend David Martin, a writer who lived in the pink house overlooking East Beach, had come up with a similar idea for a series set in West Bay where the lead character, played by Nick Berry, was the harbourmaster. Harbour Lights was a hit, although not the sensation that Broadchurch was to become.
As West Bay prepares for the new season, its beaches shored up in a massive, multi-million pound flood defence scheme which involved 40,000 tonnes of rock and 10,000 tonnes of shingle from Scotland, four smaller coastal projects, funded by government money and with community support, are taking place or are nearing completion. Although a planned boardwalk along East Beach has not been feasible because of ‘funding constraints’.
At the West Bay ‘hub’ opposite the kiosks, there is now a circle of curved benches made out of concrete and designed by artist Michael Pinksy to reflect the curves and shapes of the local land and seascape. Love it or hate it, this motorcycle mandala is now well and truly installed, with bikers gathering around the outside of the ring and pedestrians sitting inside as they enjoy their food from the kiosks and shops.
The bridleway along the old railway line between West Bay and Bothenhampton has been resurfaced and widened for walkers and cyclists, with new cycle parking stands between Station Yard and West Bay Road car parks. And access to the disabled toilet next to the beach near the West Bay Discovery Centre is being improved.
To top it all, there’s free public Wifi at West_Bay-Free.
As West Bay businesses prepare for the Easter invasion, here’s to the new improvements making a welcome difference to its many visitors. Me, I’ll be hibernating over the summer, ready to emerge and soak up its splendours next autumn and winter.
- Windrose Media Trust’s Forever Archive films can be found on You Tube – https://www.youtube.com/user/windroseRMT/videos – along with fascinating video and audio from the area, including a silent melodrama featuring West Bay called Dope Under Thorncombe, made at the end of the 1930s by hairdresser Frank Trevett and a group of friends. It now accompanied by a new musical score by Rachel Leach.