Welcome to the first edition of a new monthly series, Wessex Watchtower, which will feature places around the south and south-west of the UK.
Without further ado: edition one, Broadchurch.
You all know Broadchurch, at least, all of you in the UK. Broadchurch has been the biggest TV show of the about the last decade, even if most people seem to be in agreement that the second series was terrible and the third is not quite living up to the first. I’ve only seen the third series but as I was in Bridport recently for a comedy gig, I thought I’d run down to Broadchurch.
Broadchurch itself is played by West Bay, once a small fishing village and now a small resort. Tourism has boomed over the last three or four years. A study by the University of Exeter found that 77% of business reported an increase in customer numbers in 2013 and 47% of them felt that was due to Broadchurch and that effect can only have increased in the last four years.
The town is not really a natural town, in that it didn’t just pop up because people started to live there, in the way that most towns develop. The harbour was built deliberately to serve Bridport, which, despite the “port” in its name, actually had no port. In fact, a series of harbours has existed on that stretch of coastline since Anglo-Saxon times and the current one is at least the fourth, built in 1740 to replace one the local industries had outgrown, which replaced one damaged by storms and the Black Death which in turn replaced one that had been silting up over and over again for centuries. It was called Bridport Harbour up until 1884 when it was literally rebranded as West Bay when the railway was extended down there. Along with the railway and the rebranding came the building of a terrace of lodging-houses, Pier Terrace: West Bay’s first hotels.
West Bay has grown a lot since 1884 but it’s still not as big as Broadchurch makes it look. It stretches from the famous East Cliff to the big grey cliff to the west, with the harbour in between and it mostly only goes back as far as the kiosks. There’s housing, both permanent and holiday-homes, stretching up the side of the west cliff and back a little way but anything that looks like an actual town in Broadchurch is Clevedon, near Bristol. Even Trish Winterman lives all the way out at West Bexington, six miles away and wouldn’t be wandering down to the harbour on foot.
So what is there in West Bay?
First of all, and most strikingly, the famous East Cliff, which I have always wrongly believed to be Golden Cap (which turns out to be a far bigger and more dramatic cliff six or so miles west). West Bay is more or less where the white cliffs of Dorset start transitioning into the red cliffs of Devon, resulting in a gold that reminds me of a certain brand of golden caster sugar. These cliffs are incredibly unstable, incredibly crumbly and unbelievably dangerous. Broadchurch makes it look just fine to stand right on the edge; this is foolhardy at best, and as for sitting underneath it… You may – or may not and indeed probably don’t – know that I have a respect for cliffs that borders on terror, which is what happens when there’s a story in the local news about cliff deaths just about every week. In fact, right now there’s a story on the front page of the Bridport News entitled “cliff walker at West Bay ignores warning signs and sees how far his luck will hold“.
It’s a very pleasant beach at the foot of the cliff, yellow sand that’s visibly very very fine gravel, sheltered from the prevailing south-west winds and the waves blown all the way over from the Americas, by the piers and sea walls – the harbour itself and the west cliff don’t quite have the same protection, which is why they’re on their fourth harbour and why there’s ongoing coastal defence work since humans have been working in this area. On a hot April Saturday, the beach is packed with tourists (“grockles” in this part of the world; the sort of tourists who get in the way of the locals) and people fishing.
If you walk west along the beach and into town, you’ll come across the harbour and from the stink of fish, there’s no doubt that it’s still a working harbour. Captain America could leap the gap across the narrow harbour entrance but polar bears are not meant for leaping so I have to walk all the way around. On the east side of the harbour is the Bridport Arms pub, the Methodist church, Harbour Stores and Pier Terrace, the original lodging-houses. The harbour is fed by the River Brit and you have cross the sluice gates to get to the other side. Opposite the walkway by the river are the kiosks, which is the place to go if you get hungry in West Bay. This is the traditional seaside fare – fish & chips and ice cream mostly, but one of them sells Dorset apple cake and there are also burgers and pasties and milkshakes and hot drinks, anything the discerning tourist could want to eat while sitting on a bench admiring the sea views. Don’t go there at mealtimes unless you particularly want to partake in the British tradition of enjoying a good long queue – get there early or late because these kiosks are very popular and everyone has their own opinion on which one does the best cod & chips.
Next to the river, and surprisingly well-hidden, is a holiday park, a sort of mini-Butlins which even has a huge indoor pool complex. I know West Bay is a small resort but it doesn’t feel like the sort of resort that has big holiday parks, not yet. And when I say “mini-Butlins”, this place dwarfs the town, which is why I’m surprised that you can hardly tell it’s there.
On the west side of the harbour is the new regeneration scheme, a terrace of modern flats with glass balconies and the “police station” which is actually a three-storey round building called The Folly which houses a penthouse apartment, less prestigious middle-floor apartments and a helmet shop stocking a huge range of motorbike safety equipment. There’s a cafe in the building next door and then the sea front is lined with old-fashioned holiday apartments that look like they were taken from Butlins in the 1970s. The west cliff beyond has been artificially sloped to make more room for housing but if you want to walk up the cliff and head west, you’ll pass through two more caravan parks before you get to Eype, the next settlement (home to a certain yellow-beige shack…).
And that’s about it for West Bay, really. The railway that made West Bay its own town shut up shop in 1962, by the way, and there are currently two carriages sitting at the old station, now functioning as a restaurant that seems a little more upscale than the average visitor to a small seaside town might expect – more cocktails than cod.
Incidentally, with Broadchurch on my mind, I went into the supermarket in Bridport on the way back and found someone had smashed a jar of beetroot in the bread aisle, producing a most gory-looking puddle.