Charles with the Beard and Other Delights – Dorset, England

Charles with the Beard and Other Delights
Dorset, England

Charles with the beard

Charles with the Beard

I had nearly finished my cream tea when “Charles with the beard” came through the door of the Bell Cliff Restaurant and Tea Rooms in Lyme Regis. He paused for a moment as he looked to see if his usual table by the window was free. I was sitting opposite the doorway and could feel my face light up as soon as I saw him. He gave me a puzzled look as he took his seat. He must have been thinking, “Why is that silly lady making eyes at me?” He took a guarded look over to my table and then I could almost see the light bulb as it flashed on over his head just before he gave me a big smile and nodded.

Although I have stopped in the Bell Cliff many times to see if he was there, Charles and I hadn’t seen each other since 1985 on one of my first visits to Lyme Regis. Then he was sitting alone at a table for two the first time I entered the Bell Cliff, a venerable gentleman with a magnificent white beard. All of the tables were occupied so the waitress asked Charles if I could join him – a usual custom in Dorset but a very unusual one in Los Angeles, my home town. He graciously agreed and I rather gingerly accepted the seat by the window. It was my first experience dining at an intimate table for two with a perfect stranger.

As our meal progressed I learned that Charles was a long time resident of Lyme who dined regularly at the Bell Cliff. I found Charles very easy to talk with because he didn’t seem to mind all of my questions. In fact, he seemed to enjoy telling me about Lyme’s history and about it’s more interesting citizens. We enjoyed several more meals together during my week long stay.

This year when I finished my cup of tea, I went over to his table to talk to him. The only concession he seemed to have made to the passing years was that he now finds it easier to come to the Bell Cliff in the afternoon instead of evening. We wished each other well and expressed our hope to meet at the Bell Cliff again next year. “Just ask for Charles with the beard,” he said, just as he had said twelve years ago.

This year I had to hurry because I was not staying in Lyme. I had to catch the last bus back to Weymouth at 3:40. After 14 visits to Dorset in as many years I’m still too chicken to rent a car and drive on the wrong side of the road. But I’m fortunate enough to have good friends who let me use their holiday cottage on Hardwick Street in Weymouth as a base. It’s only two blocks two blocks from the train station and just a little further to King George’s statue on the Esplanade where I can catch buses and coaches to almost anywhere I want to go.

For my trip to Lyme Regis and my happy reunion with Charles, I caught the Southern National service No. 31 by the King’s statue at 12:00 noon and arrived in Lyme at l:37. That might seem like a long time to travel to spend a little more than two hours in Lyme, but some of the various bus routes in Dorset are so attractive that often the journey is the object, not the destination. The front seat on the upper deck of a bus traveling along the Dorset coast is hard to beat.


Abbotsbury Swannery

Another favorite is the Weybus No. 5 that travels between Weymouth and Abbotsbury six times a day. This year for a £2 return ticket, I stopped first at the Sub-Tropical Gardens to see if I could capture a photo of one of the white Chinese peacocks as it displays and have yet to get a good one. My luck was no better this year. Then with the same ticket, I caught the next Weybus at the garden’s entrance for the short ride to the Swannery. Here, the rearing enclosures and rush-filled inlets contained hundreds of young cygnets as well as their stately parents. It’s a lovely way to while away a few hours.

When I had finished watching the fascinating goings-on I could have hoped on the Weybus back to Weymouth at the Swannery entrance, but I decided to take the footpath up to village for a late cream tea before using my ticket a final time to catch the Weybus at the stop across from the Ilchester Arms pub. I was back in Weymouth 30 minutes later. It could have been sooner but our driver went a little out of his way to take the beautiful lane that leads to Langton Herring and slowed down so he could point out a beautiful chestnut with her handsome new colt at her side. I was delighted to see him and so were all of my fellow passengers.

About the only place in Dorset that I can’t reach easily on public transportation is Sturminster Newton, but my annual visit to Dorset wouldn’t be complete without some time spent with Ken and Jill Hookham-Bassett at Stourcastle Lodge. I usually rely on favorite bed and breakfast guide books when planning my English holidays, but I found Stourcastle Lodge in Sturminster Newton on my own in 1987. It’s been a favorite ever since.

Market day

Market day in Sturminster Newton

Something comes over me when I’m in Dorset – I do things I would never do at home in L.A. When the pretty black and white Georgian cottage caught my eye I boldly went to investigate. I peeked in the window and saw a beautifully equipped kitchen that could only belong to an expert cook. It looked cozy as well as efficient with a beamed ceiling and lots of copper. There was an oversized electric mixer probably used for making bread. A large scale was near the window, although antique it looked as if it was getting regular use. The garden was beautifully kept and had what looked like an apartment house for white doves, and there was a large black cat sunning himself on the lawn. I knew I had found the ideal guest house.

I never miss staying in Sturminster Newton because it has all the charm and appeal of a quiet English village plus the convenience and comfort of a town with all the traveler’s necessities like banks and chemists shops where you can have film developed nearby. It even has a Laundromat.

Fiddleford Mill

Fiddleford Mill

But it’s main attraction is the series or footpaths leading to beautiful countryside walks. My favorite is the one that leads to Fiddleford Mill. It’s level all of the way. The older I get the less attractive the uphill walks seem to be. Next to Gold Hill in Shaftsbury and The Granery in Wareham I think I have taken more photos of Fiddleford Mill near Sturminster Newton than any other Dorset landmark. My husband teases me about having so many. But wasn’t it Claude Monet who painted 26 views of Rouen Cathedral? And in each case the cathedral was observed from the same point of view. At least I move around the mill a bit and change angles.

After 14 visits to England, Dorset is still the county I find most intriguing. I take many side trips to beautiful places outside the county but I’m happiest when I return because I’ve found nowhere to equal its soft, gentle beauty.

This article appeared in Dorset Life in 1997. Sadly, Charles with the Beard died in 2001 but I feel fortunate to have met him.