You know how it is when you come back from having a couple of days away, people are interested. They ask you where you went. If you had a good time.
When I told them we’d been to Weymouth for a surprise weekend, the reaction was generally that of masked disappointment with the subtext “Oh. ..so he only took you to Weymouth..hmm…that’s a bit crap.”
It’s as though they were hoping for Cornwall, or Brittany or Bali. Actually they were really hoping I’d been somewhere they had visited, of which they have fond memories; a cloudless summer, a fabulous beach, maybe a Kirrin Island look-alike that they could swim to at low tide.
Instead of all that, they said “Yeah. I remember going there as a kid with mum and dad, year after year. Have they still got the trampolines?”
They didn’t say “It was wonderful.” or “It was really good.” Their unsaid words indicated there weren’t too many happy memories. Caravan holidays, no doubt.
Perhaps Weymouth, as a kid, staying with your mum and dad and siblings in a stuffy caravan or huddled behind a windbreak with traditional grey British summer skies, wasn’t all that exciting but I’d never been before so I was seeing it fresh. Hardy’s Budmouth Regis. What a treat! It turned out to be Bath-by-the-Sea with a little Cheltenham dropped in for good measure.
I recognised Georgian parades and the Regency proportions of our three-storey b&b reminded me of the elegant building where I work; high ceilings, nice plasterwork only with rounded bay windows. A rabbit warren of old narrow streets lies behind a long, long, stately Promenade and way out to the east, carved into the hillside, riding away towards Swanage, is King George III on his horse. He kicked up a terrible fuss about that apparently. He thought he should have been portrayed arriving not departing, as he loved Weymouth so much.
They have a Bathing Machine on the sea front to remind you that Melcombe Regis, as it was then, was one of the first places where they were used. There is a giant memorial colourfully painted commemorating King George, who stayed in Gloucester Lodge which has the best sea view in town.
Weymouth has absolutely the best sand for sandcastles and buckets and spades are on sale everywhere for cheap imaginative construction tasks. You’d think there were no particular time constraints on a beach in summer, but I heard one dad announce to his 7-year-old son “Right. We need to get that castle built with a moat for when the tide comes in.” Chop, chop, son. Honestly!
Meanwhile, in the other direction, not far from us, a mother was helping her kids build a very passable reproduction of Bamburgh Castle complete with dramatic cliff dropping to the flat sand.
DT man declared he would probably go for the easy option; Dunstanburgh Castle; mostly ruined with a tall keep. I fancied Anwick myself. You could get your teeth into Alnwick castle. Plenty of inner construction with those nice rounded towers along the outer wall. Or maybe Stirling Castle – dramatic and lofty up there on a bluff. When you’re making up your own rules your castle doesn’t HAVE to be by the sea.
So Weymouth is a proper family resort with Punch and Judy, trampolines, swing boats, deckchairs, sunbeds, a small dog-friendly area of beach if you want to go swimming with your best friend – as I definitely would have done, given the chance – and miles of no-dog clean beach, plus further miles of less perfect but ok for walking beach. The donkeys were shaded and watered and clean and groomed, unlike the donkeys of my youth. But the notice to parents was a sign of the times: “There is a strict weight limit. Please do not embarrass your children if you think they may exceed it.”
Weymouth also has cycle trails. When we weren’t on the beach or ogling boats we were on the bikes, venturing out to Portland Bill (the hardest and longest hill I have EVER ridden) and the lighthouses (passing the sparkly new Olympic Watersports Centre) and along the lanes behind Chesil Beach and the Fleet Lagoon.
Harbours are always alluring and Weymouth has the lot; from vast catamaran ferries to the Channel Islands and St Malo, to masted sailing ships, glossy multi-million pound Sunseeker yachts and lesser, but no less beautiful sailing yachts among working slightly rusty fishing boats.
But the best part of Weymouth was the beach and the water with safe, very gradually shelving sand. On the Sunday morning we’d watched a group of people in wetsuits standing fidgeting around on the water’s edge. When they got the “off” they ran into the sea for maybe 400 metres before it was deep enough to swim properly. They were doing a swim of three and a half miles. Is that triathlon length? Not sure. But they sure as hell looked fit
I doubt I ever swim three miles in one go. Standing up to my knees in the shallows, a sparkly flash of pink and silver circled around me. It was the shadow I saw first – not more than ten inches long. I guessed a young sea bass. Whatever it was, the clarity of the colours and shadow persuaded me that this was good, clean sea.
The searing shock of plunging headlong into cold, cold water never changes. It feels like your entire body is ablaze but you swim and breathe and swim and breathe until the breaths are not as snatched and it all becomes easy and it’s just perfect to pause and float luxuriating in the isolation, gazing across the flat beautiful bay to the undulating green of the Purbeck Hills and the thin border of buildings stretching out behind the distant prom.
A snowy white little tern hovered overhead. For one moment, I thought I might be dive-bombed but then I realised that he was after something much more tasty. It was still a thrill that he was fishing so close by, diving into the water four times until he finally emerged with something silver clamped in his bill.
Freshest seafood is always a treat, which is why it was good to discover the Crab House Cafe at Wyke Regis – little more than a nice shed done out with plain tables and chairs where you can watch the meals being cooked and plated up. There is a menu but whats the point when you can just have crab or lobster? I went for the crab.
The last time I had crab properly was at Silves in Portugal. That place I’ve written about previously. Dining chairs in a line along the pavement outside where people can wait for tables in comparative comfort (although the passing traffic tends to hamper in-depth conversations) and the interior ringing with collisions of hammers and pincers on carapace. This time, at the Crabhouse Cafe, the waiter (a friendly young bloke who recommended Strawberry Hill Rose – which happens to be made by Martin Fowke (ex of the Three Choirs Vineyard) at the Cote de Newent close to where we live!) gave DT man a knife and fork “The boring cutlery for you, sir” and placed in front of me an extensive Crab-tackling Kit.
There was a bib, a nine inch B&Q style hammer with a proper weighty head on it and a warning that nothing should be banged hard without safety glasses being worn, a heavy duty pair of pincers, a long thin metal pokey instrument you use for fetching crabmeat out of crab legs and other hard-to-reach places, a piece of polythene (to prevent errant pieces of carapace flying into the eyes of your beloved across the table or blinding neighbouring diners) several napkins and a large squeezy lemon.
Then the waiter delivered a plate of monkfish to DT man and to me a platter topped with a massive edible crab. Claws easily big enough to take off your big toe. Never mind the actual food. This was both a thrill and a challenge – total bliss, in fact. We drank and chatted and laughed as he ate his monkfish politely and I hammered and picked, squeezed, slurped and demolished. The bucket beside me, over 45 minutes, was filling nicely when I paused.
“You know… I’m starting to feel a bit full,” I confided to DT. The elderly woman at the next table must have been listening. She got up and came over.
“My dear. You can’t stop now,” she said. “You’re doing such a good job.”
Bugger. Comes to something when your quiet supper out is someone else’s bloody entertainment! Anyway, she was so smiley and charming, what could I do but take it as some kind of compliment? I smiled graciously and vowed to grit my teeth, think of Wales and carry on.
The thing was, I was the only person in that part of the cafe actually have the crab. So what with all the banging and the cracking and the stifled sniggering (ok I admit it, so some crab landed on DT man’s nose and I didn’t tell him for a while) it was probably a bit noisy. Eventually, all was silent and the waiter came and removed the empty remnants of a once-glorious crustacean.
Like ducks, oysters, lobsters and anchovies, crabs are such attractive, useful, entertaining creatures alive or dead. And crabs have the advantage in that they are energy-neutral. Like celery or peeling tomatoes before eating, the energy you expend in the munching far exceeds the calorie intake.
This isn’t a commercial and I have no idea who the hell runs the Crab House Cafe but I liked the staff and it’s a great place to eat. If you’re down for a paddle at Wyke Regis, walking Chesil Bank or sailing in Portland Harbour, I wholeheartedly recommend it. Don’t mess about with the menu – just order the crab – and remember to take your safety glasses.
Postscript: Just found this pic on my phone. Look I know this makes me look a complete piggy but if you’ve never eaten one, I should explain that crab is mostly shell. Those who have eaten crab can just keep schtum.