24-hour room service: A Dorset den for the French Lieutenant
Lyme Regis, Dorset
Simon Calder’s career in travel started at Gatwick Airport, where he cleaned aircraft for Laker Airways and later worked as a security officer. He became The Independent’s Travel Correspondent in 1994, and is known as “the Man Who Pays His Way” because he does not accept free travel facilities. He writes across the Independent titles, as well as for the Evening Standard.
Saturday 24 September 2011
Meryl Streep left the hotel in a mustard-yellow Rover 3500.
Not while I was staying at the Royal Lion, mind; Hollywood's most enduring actress was filming her role as the "scarlet woman of Lyme" in The French Lieutenant's Woman, released 30 years ago this autumn. The movie, based on the book by local author John Fowles, put the Dorset resort of Lyme Regis on the world map: the sinister Undercliff and the dramatic Cobb extending into the Channel were the two most memorable locations, but the Royal Lion picked up a useful cameo.
Three decades on, this self-styled "17th-century coaching inn by the sea" is still discreetly reminding guests of its celluloid celebrity. A fine marquetry table tucked towards the back of reception was part of the set design for one of the scenes, as a card on top informs guests. But the hotel is no lion dormant, resting on past half-timbered glories: the multinational staff at the Royal Lion work hard to deliver good value.
Given that the original design dates from 1601, it is no surprise that the ground-floor public areas are higgledy-piggeldy. The reception desk is simply that – a desk – buried beyond the bar, deep in the innards and close to the French Lieutenant's Table.
Further back, the 20th-century designers have been at work. You can play table tennis in a room that also doubles as a library (read the account of "Sky Piracy" in the US three decades before 9/11), and an indoor swimming pool. The most modern rooms are perched above here, with views over a car park towards the Channel.
The architectural miscellany reaches its heights in the first-floor Oak Room, a restaurant that boasts a gallery and a grand piano. Offering 100-plus covers in a modest Dorset resort that boasts competition from a luminary such as Mark Hix might seem overambitious – except that the Royal Lion's kitchens and waiting staff perform wonders.
Breakfast is a grander affair than you would expect for a three-star property. Dinner, priced in at £23 per person on the half-board option, comprises three succulent courses leaning on local produce. Perhaps it's a Dorset thing, but I was surprised to see that all the European and New World varieties on the wine list are the same price (£16.95), making the Australian shiraz excellent value.
Compared with my last stay in Lyme Regis, in a more modern seafront property, the Royal Lion delivered more and cost less.
All roads in Lyme Regis seem to tumble steeply downhill to a single point – which, disappointingly, turns out to be a pay-and-display car park. The Royal Lion is on the main western approach, Broad Street, and has a large car park for your Rover 3500. The railway was torn up in the 1960s. The closest airport, Exeter, is half-an-hour by taxi. Do not try to cycle out of Lyme Regis on a bike with fewer than seven gears.
The trouble with 17th-century coaching inns is that they are structurally unsuited to 21st-century hospitality. Guests who turn up with a spirit level and tape measure, seeking flat floors and a sense of space, should go for the new block at the back – but that would be to shun the Royal Lion's character. The front of the building is charmingly lop-sided yet comfortably fitted out.
Even in the film, the décor looked a tad dated, and does not seem to have changed, but the bed was comfortable enough. The average French lieutenant's woman might not be over-impressed by the cramped bathroom, another awkward compromise of accommodating demand for en-suite facilities in a structure designed for less demanding guests and times.
Technology has moved on since Jeremy Irons answered the old GPO-issue phone while sharing Meryl Streep's bed. Most of the public areas have Wi-Fi most of the time, though perhaps not with sufficient speed to download a vintage movie without extending your reservation.
The Royal Lion may not be not be entirely a 17th-century coaching inn, and may not be quite by the sea, but it is a very decent UK resort hotel with history and a dash of glamour – which has endured a sight better than British Leyland and the "luxury" cars it churned out to general derision three decades ago.
Royal Lion Hotel
60 Broad Street, Lyme Regis, Dorset DT7 3QF (012974 45622; RoyalLionHotel.com)
Double rooms cost £110 (less from the end of October) with breakfast, or £156 including dinner.
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