It was, my wife observed, our first sleepover since lockdown began and the feeling of unfettered normality was refreshing as a burst of fresh country air. Well, almost unfettered. The number of covers in the restaurant at Yalbury Cottage had been reduced from 26 to 20 and dinner sittings stretched longer than usual. Although we would have preferred to eat earlier, the only slot available when I booked was at 8.30pm.
In our ground floor room, with its views of grazing sheep, the TV remote was in a clear plastic bag, so guests could avoid leaving the virus on its buttons. Even in normal times, hotel room TV remotes are a prime source of infections. But we could still make a wake up cup of coffee with – if we remembered to ask for it the night before – fresh milk.
Yalbury Cottage is a small, partly thatched, low beamed hotel in the Dorset village of Lower Bockhampton, near Dorchester. Dating back some 350 years it was once the home of a shepherd and the keeper of the nearby water meadows. It has a lovely garden in which to relax with a pre or post diner drink on warm evenings.
This is Thomas Hardy territory. Just up the road in Higher Bockhampton is the cob and thatch cottage where he was born in 1840. He wrote Under the Greenwood Tree and Far from the Madding Crowd there. In the opposite direction is the blacksmith’s cottage described in the former, just before the narrow humpback bridge with its iron plaque, warning would be vandals they could be transported to the colonies.
The joy of the staff at opening again on 4 July showed no signs of wearing off. Led by the irrepressible Ariane Jones, who runs the place with her husband, chef Jamie, they were clearly still bubbling with rejuvenated enthusiasm.
Before checking in we walked on the South Dorset Ridgeway on a grey, windy afternoon. Below us were Chesil Beach and, landside of it, the stretch of water known as the Fleet. In the distance to the south Portland played hide and seek in the murk. In clear moments we could see the flotilla of cruise ships, laid off by the pandemic, at anchor in Weymouth Bay. Whether or not the pandemic was also to blame for the appalling state of some stiles on the footpath I cannot say.
Menus at dinner were disposable. The cooking was excellent – perhaps, though memory can deceive, better than we remembered it. A starter of mackerel fillet, Portland crab, gooseberry and chilli was so good I ordered it on both nights. Plaice can be uninspiring but not with a strip of crisped skin and a lovely tangle of tagliatelle, samphire, cockles and herbs. They’re big on foraging. A dessert of strawberries, meringue and yoghurt included sweet woodruff, a little known herb once grown as an air freshener, sometimes called baby’s breath. Another, of egg custard tart with double milk ice cream, came with the fruit that precedes a Scots pine cone. There is a good selection of local wines, too. On our second night, to accompany hake, with Japanese rice and katsu sauce, we drank an apple fresh white from Sherborne. There’s an extra course of Dorset apple cobbler and Dorset cheese, which we shared.
Between the two dinners we took a hike of around ten miles direct from the hotel, using the Ordnance Survey map for Purbeck and South Dorset. The weather was much kinder than expected. The going dry.
Village churches, sadly, were locked. Thus there was no chance to see the inside of St Andrew’s in West Stafford, much of which dates, as may its tower, from 1640. Even more frustrating, we were denied a look at the early 12th century chancel arch in St Peter’s at West Knighton. It was at West Knighton that we interrupted our progress for pints of bitter in the garden of the New Inn. The pub had reopened only two days earlier. The staff member who served us took our phone number in case we were in contact with someone infectious, but we were at least five metres from the nearest occupied table.
After lunching on mammoth roast beef sandwiches, provided by the hotel, we returned via part of what Hardy called Egdon Heath, his setting for Return of the Native. On the way, by a quarry, there were warnings of quicksand and poisonous snakes. I seemed to recall mud in the novel that could swallow the unwary. I must read it again. Certainly one of its characters, Mrs Yeobright, dies of heat and an adder bite.
We slept like rocks that night, tired and happy as the sleepover, made all the sweeter by earlier restrictions, drew to a close. And Yalbury Cottage passed my acid test for all hotels. Perfect scrambled eggs.
www.yalburycottage.com (01305 262382). Dinner bed & breakfast cost £200 a night with a 10% discount for booking direct.