Blown away by Dorset

Julian Harris
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Head to a hotel on the south coast for wholesome activites, fresh salty air and inexpensive fine dining

OF ALL the pastimes that governments enjoy, most involve splashing our cash around, telling us what to do, and chucking in a dose of mild nationalism to make it seem a bit more palatable. Little surprise, then, that the UK’s current administration has this year put £4m towards a campaign urging us to shun the usual cheap flights to exotic overseas destinations, and instead take our summer holidays right here in Blighty.

You may have spotted the adverts around – they feature Wallace & Gromit indulging in supposedly “Great Adventures” in Britain, and encourage the viewer to follow suit. “I’m delighted that we’re thinking innovatively about how to promote Britain – and the new Great Adventure campaign, starring the much-loved Wallace & Gromit, will showcase fantastic UK holiday destinations,” enthused Maria Miller MP upon launching the scheme.

And so, cynicism aside, I decided to test the theory with a weekend break of my own. Is the hard-sale justified, and are we living among a sea of easily-accessible holiday gems? Or is it all caravans and rainy motorway service stations, Wensleydale and ridiculous hijinks involving some ageing bachelor’s dog?

Boarding a packed and late-running train from Waterloo, having had a strop at my girlfriend over breakfast, the latter outcome seemed more likely to materialise. Yet two and a half hours later we were happily splashing around in kayaks on the shallow waters of Christchurch harbour in Dorset.

Further into the harbour, boats and buoys bobbed on their parking spots, while windsurfers whooshed past in impressive spurts before their inevitable limb-flailing caused them to collapsed back into the water. A nearby swan eyed us up, jealously guarding a miniature island that it had no doubt claimed as its own. “You know what?” I rhetorically asked myself, surveying the huge expanse of blue water and sky around us. “This is actually alright.”

We were staying at the accurately-named Christchurch Harbour Hotel, which former Michelin-starred chef Alex Aitken has taken on after spending many years domiciled in a plush country house hotel in the nearby New Forest.

Upon arriving at his latest project, Aitken swung open the harbour-facing doors, inviting in a gust of fresh salty air to shake up the sterile atmosphere of a seaside hotel where the average age of the clientele had, at times, approached three figures. In came wooden floors, a sea-view cocktail bar, a grand piano, et cetera – and out went the expectation that gentlemen must at all times wear jackets and ties.

Guests are now offered activities such as a “hook it and cook it” boat trip, during which you can rip one or two of the local sea-life from their habitat, send their souls to fishy heaven, then shove the fleshy remains on a barbecue and eat them up. How very wholesome.

I, however, am a big fan of outsourcing, and so – leaving the catching, killing, and cooking to the professionals – booked a table at the well-known Jetty restaurant. The Jetty sits separately from the hotel yet within its grounds, and was until a few years ago named “Rhodes South” and run by TV-chef Gary Rhodes.

Having been assured by Aitken that the Jetty in its current format is on a par with the kind of seafood restaurants one finds in places such as Padstow – “but not as pricey” – its chefs had a lot to live up to. And it soon became clear that it specialises in what is best described as, if you’ll excuse the apparent contradiction, posh food done simple.

The simple part was reflected by the fact that several of our dishes from the tasting menu included mashed potato. Yet it was very good mash and the accompanying flavours would not be out of place on tables of a high-end restaurant. Weymouth scallops with chorizo and white bean puree led us down-stream to the catch of the day, which we opted for instead of the advertised beef. The staff seemed more than happy to substitute different plates, and our choice to stick with seafood turned out to be the best decision since a football coach up the road from here said, “Hey, why don’t we offer that Le Tissier kid a contract?”

Each of the five or six courses is accompanied by an intelligently selected glass of wine, which for us included the pleasant surprise of a new world chardonnay that tasted nothing like one of those off-the-back-of-a-lorry bottles of perfume that used to get flogged out of suitcases on Oxford Street.

The tasting menu, at just under £50 a head, is the kind of outside-the-M25 value that city folk like me hope to discover on the few occasions that we dare to leave the capital in something other than a plane. Do be careful with the generous quantities of wine, though, else you could end up more smashed than the locally-sourced spuds.

The following day we attempted to burn off the copious calories of the night before, jumping on a ferry across the entrance to the harbour and over to the sand dunes of the seafront. That side is crowded with coveted beach huts (I’m told there’s a several-year waiting list) which people use as summer bases as they surf, windsurf, sail, or just bum around getting fat off barbecues. We persevered with the healthy option, however, taking on a mile or so of seaside walking through the strong coastal winds.

The weather, of course, being England, is variable. It was exceptionally windy during our stay, while thick clouds were often blown into the sky above, rationing the sunshine. But we all know that this isn’t why you would go for a trip in the UK. If you want a sun-holiday, you fly south. And if you want an exciting city break, you go to Prague or Budapest or New York – not Dorset.

Yet it doesn’t have to be a case of either/or. The year is long, with plenty of options for extended weekend breaks, and these funny isles we inhabit contain some notably affordable, accessible and pleasant attractions. Christchurch, to some extent, offers a closer and less expensive version of Cornwall.

Reflecting on our weekend away, it occurred to me that holidaying in England is not too dissimilar from how our time on the harbour began. Like kayaking, there’s always the danger that you’ll end up cold, wet and miserable. But if that’s the worst that can happen, so what? It’s still worth a go.