This review of the Bull Hotel in Dorset is taken from our latest guidebook, Mr & Mrs Smith: Hotel Collection – UK/Ireland Volume 2.
‘When I am president of the world,’ said Mr Smith, gazing about him as we stood before the open fire waiting to check into the Bull Hotel in Dorset, ‘all hotels will look like this.’ The Bull Hotel was bought by Richard and Nikki Cooper in 2006 (‘It was all a bit Fawlty Towers before then,’ confides one local shopkeeper) and they’ve worked swiftly and successfully to restore a beloved (and grade II-listed) building to its former Georgian glory. Downstairs, the lobby, bar and gastropub restaurant are replete with stripped floorboards, wood-burning stoves, and wood panelling adorned with the duck egg/sage hues so typical of Farrow & Ball. Modern furniture, with a hint of the 1970s, provides the requisite contemporary injection.
As soon as we get to inspect the bedrooms, we see that, in here, Nikki and Richard have given themselves a freer, more extravagant hand. Cole & Son and Manuel Canovas papers feature on accent walls, setting off the shiny Philip Hunt furniture, Frette bedlinen and silk-canopied four-poster beds. And there are vintage mir rors, chests and wardrobes from Parisian fleamarkets and the antiques shops with which Bridport and its outskirts are liberally sprinkled. Beautiful roll-top baths – in our case set on a wooden platform in the bedroom – hit just the right note of louche decadence for a romantic weekend away. The bathroom itself had a huge shower, and was stocked with Neal’s Yard toiletries. Other bedroom goodies include a flatscreen TV and Tivoli radio. (Mr Smith and I can’t quite decide whether staying in a hotel with better shampoo and electronics than you have at home makes you feel impossibly decadent or impossibly inadequate, but we conclude it’s a good conundrum to mull over while we test them all out.)
In the morning, it’s shaping up to be a beautiful day in Bridport. The Bull’s windows are pushed up and the French doors opened, leading those who fancy breakfasting alfresco onto the suntrap of a courtyard. We linger for so long over delicious bacon, eggs and all the trimmings that we decide just to pop round the corner to the excellently named Bucky Doo Square before lunch. There, after a cup of tea in the Beach & Barnicott, with its eclectic mix of clients – from cheerful Aussie hikers to a grumpy old man who may have grown out of the Georgian panelling itself – we find Bridport Old Books. This wonderful second-hand book shop comes complete with an owner whom we witnessed gamely trying to explain Shakespearian sonnets to a teenager. Hearts warmed, we sauntered back to the Bull for lunch.
We’re aware that Bridport is rapidly becoming the foodie’s destination of choice: Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s nearby River Cottage has helped to spotlight the region’s plentiful farm-and-sea-fresh produce. What we didn’t realise was that the Bull employs chef Matt Cook, formerly of Marco Pierre White’s Talkhouse in Oxford. I have never been so pleased to arrive anywhere this hungry. Dinner is divine: little throaty moans of pleasure emanate from Mr Smith as he polishes off mash, gravy and sausages with more actual-factual meat in them than in most supermarkets’ entire meat and poultry aisles. He assures me that similar noises could be heard from my side of the table as I tucked into beef medallions that barely needed chewing and delectably crispy potato rösti that, after a lifetime of oven-parched offerings in lesser gastropubs, were a breath of oxygen-rich fresh air. Ditto the next day’s home-cured gravadlax lunch, and dinner of locally dived scallops and iced strawberry soufflé.
We justify our gargantuan appetites with a slow-paced afternoon utilising one of the Bull’s more personal touches, which is that they will drop you off and pick you up at a number of the local walks in return for taking their pet spaniel, Lulu, with you. Mr Smith not only loves dogs but also windswept seaside walks. So, we spend some happy hours striding across spectacular parts of the Jurassic coast.
For our follow-up hike, after surrendering Lulu to a better Bull couple (one with energetic, stick-and-frisbee-throwing children), we hit West Bay’s pebble beach, which is bracketed by sandstone cliffs on one side and old-fashioned pubs and fish ’n’ chips kiosks on the other. Walking back, we pass an elderly lady in her garden, who overhears me comment to Mr Smith on the gorgeous hot-pink flowers by the wall. ‘They’re wild gladioli, dear!’ she trumpets gaily. ‘You can’t buy them in the garden centres.’ She trowels up a cluster of corms and thrusts them into my hands. ‘They’ll spread!’ she reassures. ‘And that,’ says Mr Smith after we’ve thanked her and resumed our walk, ‘is why we have to move to the countryside. Londoners rarely bother giving people in the street a smile. Here, they give you flowers.’
On our final day, Lyme Regis is on our agenda. It’s altogether lovely and, although I don’t accrue any additions to my garden, it deserves a special mention for having been a favoured summer haunt of Jane Austen back in the day – and yet not sporting even a single ‘Jamsfield Park’ tearoom or gift shop devoted to selling Elizabeth Bennet tea towels and Colin Firth swimming trunks.
There’s a slight chill in the air when we get back to the hotel, and the Bull has drawn itself close round its flickering fires. We curl up on the sofa in the bar, listening to the murmurs of contented diners from across the passageway, and I suddenly realise that although Bridport is in essence a seaside town, the Bull will be just as good as a cosy winter retreat. The thought that I won’t have to wait until next summer to return draws the sting out of our departure. The Bull Hotel is so charming, friendly, thoughtful and relaxed – it’s not just the food that makes you sigh with pleasure – we very much hate to leave. But we must. As Mr Smith reminds me, I do, after all, have gladioli to plant.