What says summer more clearly than a family road trip on home territory? Paul Tierney gets behind the wheel to road test the South West 660 through Dorset and Devon. Buckle up for one of summer’s sweetest adventures.
One of the few positive things to emerge from the pandemic travel restrictions has been the UK’s reacquaintance with itself. Prior to life being turned upside down, our listless summers, over-familiar Greggs-heavy high streets, and that damp sense of British ennui usually triggered a dash for sunnier shores.
Then, dramatically, with wings firmly clipped, we had to look inwards instead. Families more interested in Dubai than Dorset were suddenly extolling the virtues of UK National Parks, the surfeit of local history or the joys of a road trip. And from that perspective so the South West 660 was formed.
A relaxed paced road trip that gently slows time
A leisurely road trip route from Dorset to Somerset, the South West 660 follows the beguiling coastline of south west England in 12 unique sections. Starting in Poole and finishing in Watchet, it’s guided by a gently instructive website full of tips and recommendations: this is a journey where time slows and life unfolds at a pleasingly relaxed pace. Co-founded by Dorset hotelier Mark Godfrey along with a group of like-minded locals, their enthusiasm for this part of the country is palpable. And they may point out obvious locations, however, the emphasis really lies on persuading you to take the road less travelled.
Of course, a road trip is a great family tradition, so I’m joined on this one by my 86-year-old father, Basil. An octogenarian who, despite his age, brings a mixture of insight and indefatigable humour to the table. But he’s no ordinary octogenarian. As a former press photographer and wine bar pioneer his wisdom, taste and (glasses permitting) vision helped me explore the road and everything on it with unflinching enthusiasm. We were Last Of The Summer Wine meets Jack Kerouac: idealism laced with pragmatic, northern wit. Dry and cool, that was us. A multi-gen dream team, ready to put pedal to the metal, but in comfy shoes.
From Dorset to Devon with plenty pitstops along the way
The plan was to drive a generous stretch from Studland, Dorset, to Exmouth in Devon. Along the way, taking in a wealth of must-see locations and enjoying the best of the region’s hospitality. Within the first half hour we’d been transported from show-off Sandbanks where John Lennon once bought a sizeable house for his beloved Aunt Mimi, to the Isle of Purbeck’s bucolic delights. It really takes a mere four minutes via a charming little chain ferry, yet the contrast feels like a chasm of time and place.
It’s been said that the British Isles hold a wider variety of scenery for their size than anywhere else in the world. A lofty claim perhaps. But there’s little doubt that no other UK county offers more road trip diversity than Dorset. Arable pasture threaded with quiet, drifting streams borders fossil-studded limestone cliffs. There’s dense heathland and a golden coastline puckered by pirate-baiting coves. And you won’t find a motorway in sight. This truly is Thomas Hardy country and far from the madding crowd just about sums Dorset up.
Studland is a must-do overnight on this road trip
The chocolate box hamlet of Studland is a microcosm of such landscape: sweet, pine-fringed micro-beaches and Jacobean buildings – the inspiration behind Enid Blyton’s Noddy books, no less. Local legend, The Pig On The Beach, is our first port of call and must surely rank as one of the loveliest bolt holes in the country. They describe themselves as ‘a restaurant with rooms’, which is characteristically modest, and only half the story. Said restaurant, housed in a spectacular sun-dappled greenhouse, sources produce from a strict 25-mile radius and its own kitchen garden. Rustic-luxe rooms are plump and sleep-inducing. Elsewhere, amongst the tasteful nooks and crannies, staff hover purposefully. Although kids will probably be more interested in the lazy passel of pigs wallowing in muddy pens outside.
Don’t miss Corfe Castle if you’ve teens in the car
Onwards to Swanage, a quintessential seaside town which has, perhaps, seen better days. We notice a comment on TripAdvisor that makes us smile. “Swanage is a little run down,” opines Jill of Hemel Hempstead. “It has a sandy beach but little else to recommend it.” Actually, that’s a tad unfair. There’s also a steam railway with a perfectly preserved Brief Encounter–style station; more antique shops than you can throw a copper kettle at and possibly, the UK’s last surviving Wimpy. What’s not to like?
By contrast, neighbouring Corfe Castle is an undeniable road trip highlight. Perched high on a conical mound like a vampire’s lair, it’s one to send delicious shivers up teenage spines. Crumbling it may be, yet also defiant, and steeped in the type of history this part of Dorset has in spades. We found the trick was to get here early in the morning, when low-lying mist descends upon the gaunt remains like a dramatic Gothic blanket (more teen-friendly atmosphere).
The surrounding village is a compact but perfectly formed huddle of stone houses serviced by a handful of pubs, all vying to be the oldest in town. The Greyhound Inn, ‘most photographed pub in Britain’ claims to have served drinks for almost 500 years.
Road trip to Kingston for Dorset with Jamaica vibes
On the subject of Dorset pubs, we head a few miles south to the village of Kingston, stopping off at the Scott Arms. Basil and I once came here four years ago for an incongruous dub-reggae festival, these days it nods to Jamaica with an outdoor jerk shack drifting curried smoke over the garden in summer. If you’re lucky, you might spot the Swanage steam train chugging its way through the surrounding fields. Young fans of The Railway Children should probably resist the urge to run down and wave hankies.
Lunch beckons, as our road trip leads us west to Lyme Regis at the very heart of the Jurassic Coast. Sitting hillside at The Oyster and Fish House, looking down at the famous harbour Cobb, it’s difficult not to picture Meryl Streep in The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Lyme is an undeniably cinematic, if wave-battered, little town, flanked by Dorset cliffs that reveal fossils almost older than humanity, but it’s far from fusty. After losing everything in the pandemic, owner Mark Hix re-opened The Oyster and Fish House earlier this year, in response to popular demand. Tucking into evocative sounding dishes such as Korean fried Monkfish cheeks and cockle popcorn, its easy to see why the Groucho Club recently netted him as their food director. They’ll never net these views, though.
Wake up to Best Breakfast of the Year in Lyme Regis
Tonight, our accommodation lies up the road at Dorset House, a benchmark in how to do bed and breakfast in style. If Three In A Bed is your guilty TV pleasure, you’ll know how hard these places work to get it right. But this charming Georgian town house – a period gem brought up to date by hard working hands – is a sure fire winner. Super-genial hosts Lyn and Jason Martin are warm but discreet, happy to make up extra children’s beds for you or dispense tea or local advice if needed. And it comes as no surprise to find they won AA Best Breakfast of the Year in 2022.
Crossing county borders is always cause for a little cheer, as though you’re traversing the great divide. The next day’s road trip leg from Dorset into Devon doesn’t reveal an extraordinary leap in landscape or architecture, but the local accent – a warm west country burr – suddenly turns as soft and salty as butter.
Remember to stop at Sidmouth and say ‘hi’ to the donkeys
Make a pit stop at Sidmouth to visit the local Donkey Sanctuary. It’s a heartwarming affair and if, like me, you’re fond of these placid creatures, hundreds of carrot-ready residents in-situ are just waiting for a velvety nuzzle. It’s a nicely wholesome interlude, and if kids get carried away you can virtually-adopt a favourite for less than £40 a year.
Devon ends our road trip with some five-star lux
Although our road trip hardly deprived us of luxury, our last stop at Devon’s Lympstone Manor fairly drips five-star glamour.
Hidden by trees at the side of the Exe Estuary, this dapper looking building is a hotel and fine dining restaurant par excellence. The work of uber-chef Michel Caines – local boy done good – it’s undeniably posh, but if you’re going to splurge, why not go the whole hog? We booked a luxury suite looking out onto the glinting river, complete with alfresco marble bath and fire pit. Although Plymouth gin on the nightstand was maybe a decadence too far.
However, just beyond the hotel’s own vineyard there’s also a clutch of adorable shepherds huts, which ramp cosiness up to improbable heights. Pretty much perfect for families, right down to snuggly sheepskin pillows, they sleep up to five, and you get a breakfast hamper delivered each morning. However, you will have to buy your own Plymouth Gin!
Driving home brings us back to earth with a bump. Passing the charity shops and supermarkets of real town life is a sobering affair, so we detour into unknown territory, vaguely cheered up by the sight of a rural burger-van festooned in lightbulbs at the side of the road. I know Dorset is diverse, but it’s still quite a leap from Powderham lamb to battered Spam.
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