Lyme Regis, the “Pearl of Dorset”, is a year-round destination popular with holidaymakers and walkers. Its fossil-filled beaches and cliffs form part of the 95 mile-long Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site. Prehistoric finds, exposed and deposited by landslides and stormy seas, were first highlighted by Mary Anning, a carpenter’s daughter born in Lyme Regis whose pioneering early 19th-century palaeontology contributed to changes in scientific thinking.
For centuries, Lyme was a major port, attracting ships that traded with Africa, the West Indies and the Americas. It became a shipbuilding centre and was once larger than the port of Liverpool.
Its harbour wall, The Cobb, was first mentioned in 1294 but probably existed before the town received a royal charter in 1284. Destroyed or damaged by storms multiple times, it attracts visitors who come to see the steps where Louisa Musgrove fell in Jane Austen’s novel Persuasion, or where Meryl Streep stood, looking forlornly out to sea, in the film adaptation of John Fowles’s book The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Further along, the Promenade is lined with pretty Georgian cottages painted in pastel colours.
Lyme holds festivals year-round, from the Great Duck Race and Lyme Lunge swim on New Year’s Day to the Fossil Festival in spring, Lifeboat Week (July) and Regatta and Carnival week (August).
How to get there
The nearest railway station is six miles away at Axminster. South Western Railway services from London Waterloo to Exeter stop there. From the Midlands, travel via Exeter St David’s and then east to Axminster. First Bus’s X53 service from Axminster station to Lyme Regis takes 25 minutes. It runs roughly hourly on weekdays but offers only five services on Saturdays and three on Sundays. A taxi to Axminster costs from about £18.
Where to stay
The Alexandra, a Grade II listed Georgian hotel, has direct access from its private garden to the seafront. Many of its 23 comfortable rooms have sea views. Doubles from £155 B&B (two-night minimum, no dogs). There are ground-floor rooms for guests with disabilities and two serviced apartments.
Dorset House, an award-winning, family-run B&B in a converted Regency villa, has doubles from £135 . It offers fantastic breakfasts made from local produce. There is no lift or ramp for wheelchair users; but assistance dogs are welcome.
Multiple self-catering holiday lets are available to suit all budgets. For example, Watersmeet – a three-bed seafront flat sleeping six – is £1,709 for seven nights from 4 August.
Up with the sun
Kiosk, a takeaway on the beach, serves organic coffee, home-made cakes and pastries, bagels and crab sandwiches. Ease into the day by watching early-morning swimmers and paddleboarders from its deck chairs.
Lyme Regis offers great walking for experienced ramblers and novices. Follow the South West Coast Path national trail 4.5 miles from Lyme via Charmouth to the Golden Cap estate – the highest point on the South Coast with spectacular views from an elevation of 191m.
Alternatively, head west from Lyme through the Undercliff National Nature Reserve. It’s a seven-mile hike with some challenging climbs and passes through the Axe Estuary Nature Reserve at Axmouth, home to wildfowl and wading birds.
No visit to the Jurassic Coast would be complete without a fossil hunt. Lyme Regis Museum organises three-hour group walks led by its own experts. You should soon be able to distinguish an ammonite from an iron pyrite (fool’s gold) – and you can pick up and keep what you find. Adults £14.75, children £8.75. Afterwards, tour the charity-run museum built on the former site of Mary Anning’s house. It is packed with fossil collections, maritime objects, paintings and photos.
If you failed to strike lucky on a fossil walk, don’t worry – plenty of shops sell them. The Old Forge Fossil Shop and nearby Lyme Fossil Shop both have impressive collections to suit all pockets.
The main thoroughfare, Broad Street, is stocked with chain outfitters (Saltrock, Joules, Fat Face, Seasalt Cornwall), as well as pasty and fudge shops and quirky independent stores. Ammonite sells artisanal West Country food, drink and gifts, while the specialist dog-related emporium Pug and Puffin designs unique gifts for canines and their owners.
The creative heart of Lyme Regis is the Town Mill, with artisan shops located around a pretty cobbled courtyard. Its restored buildings date to the 14th century and include a working water-powered flour mill, art galleries, a café and Lyme Regis Brewery.
Time for a sundowner
Lyme Bay Café & Bar on Bridge Street has outdoor seating with panoramic views over the bay and a seasonal local menu. The Harbour Inn, a traditional, dog-friendly pub/restaurant at the western end of the promenade, has a terrace and offers local ales and good seafood.
At the 22-cover Robin Wylde restaurant on Silver Street, former London chef Harriet Mansell uses wild foods foraged from the surrounding coast, hedgerows and fields to create a £95 tasting menu with unexpected flavour pairings (kohlrabi sorbet, anyone?). It opens only from Thursday to Saturday, every other week in summer.
Tom’s Lyme Regis specialises in local fish and seafood such as Dorset rock oysters, lobster, crab and scallops, with an emphasis on sustainability and seasonal menus.
Hit the beach
In high summer, Lyme’s Front Beach is the most popular with families, because it has a sheltered stretch of sand. Monmouth Beach, to the west past The Cobb, is quieter but more rocky.
Harry May Boat Trips (07974 753 287) runs three-hour deep-sea fishing trips (£45 adults, £30 children) or one-hour mackerel fishing trips (£15 adults, £10 children), with rods and bait included. Any fish caught can be taken to Herbies fish bar for cooking.
Sitting on a hillside above The Cobb is celebrity chef Mark Hix’s Oyster and Fish House. The menu changes twice a day depending on what local fishermen have caught, but expect dishes such as grilled Lyme Bay lobster with garlic butter and chips (£60) or baked thornback ray wing with brown butter and capers (£27).
Time to relax
Overlooking Lyme Bay, Langmoor and Lister Gardens’ paths wind between grasses and shrubs designed to encourage wildlife, and there is also an outdoor sculpture gallery, an 18-hole mini-golf course and table tennis and a small putting green.
On the east side of town, the church of St Michael the Archangel occupies a commanding position. Mary Anning is buried here, and commemorated with a stained-glass window.
Have a treat
Baboo Gelato sells some of the best ice cream in town at its beachfront and Broad Street outlets, with traditional and exotic flavours such as elderflower sorbet, as well as vegetarian options.
Three things you might not know about Lyme Regis…
1) The town’s former mayor and MP Sir George Somers (1554–1610), a naval officer, founded the English colony Somers Isles, now Bermuda.
2) On New Year’s Day 1915, the Royal Navy ship HMS Formidable was sunk by German submarines off Lyme Regis. Only 199 of the 747 crew were saved. Survivors were taken to the Pilot Boat Inn, where the owner’s dog, Lassie, licked the face of Able Seaman John Cowan, who was feared dead, and reputedly brought him back to life. The dog’s namesake became a mainstay of books, radio, film and TV.
3) The philanthropist Thomas Hollis created the first public promenade at Lyme in 1771 and the town became a fashionable Regency bathing resort known as “The Naples of England”.