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.
Anonymously reviewed by Lucy Mangan (Comedic columnist)
Reviews of The Bull Hotel from Smith members
Whenever you book a stay through us, we’ll invite you to comment when you get back. Read the Guestbook entries below to see what real-life Mr & Mrs Smiths have said about this hotel…
The beautiful courtyard is great for evening G&Ts.
Lucy, BlackSmith stayed on 11 Oct 2013
I liked the friendly, efficient staff and buzzy yet relaxed atmosphere. Amazing food drink – we ate in both the hotel restaurant and the Stable pizza restaurant, drank fabulous cocktails in the Venner cocktail bar and ate (one of the best) hotel breakfasts we've experienced! Nothing was too much trouble and overall this was brilliant value for money.
I'm struggling to think of anything…
Tracey, SilverSmith stayed on 19 Aug 2013 Yes, 10y and 6y
Our room was stunning, with a gorgeous four-poster bed. The room was spaceous and not noisy, despite being at the front of the hotel. The chilled bottle of bubbly on arrival to celebrate our anniversary was super! We enjoyed very tasty cocktails in the bar and ate in the restaurant on both nights (equally delicious). The staff were clearly run off their feet but took time to recommend (and let us try) a couple of wines to decide between them. Overall, it was good value, with excellent friendly and attentive service. The pretty and peaceful courtyard was an added delight and being able to eat dinner there the second night was perfect. I throughly recommend it and want to return.
More vegetarian options on the menu and different salads would be good. If we were to eat there another night, I would struggle to find something new. It was a shame that the courtyard closed at half-past ten… though, that said, we weren't asked to move and I'm sure we were there later than that.
Verity, BlackSmith stayed on 2 Aug 2013
We really enjoyed the central locality of the Bull Hotel to everything in Bridport. The staff were really friendly and helpful. The breakfast menu was good as was the food in the restaurant and the Stables. We found the Venners Bar nice and quiet and relaxing to chat in.
A lift would be good as it's a long way upstairs with heavyish suitcases. Having said that, I'm not really sure where it could go.
Gary, BlackSmith stayed on 27 Jun 2013
The atmosphere and service were second to none. Staff were extremely friendly, helful and attentive. Car parking is right round the back of the hotel and is limited, but when we stayed we didn't have a problem. We asked for a quiet room, which we got, with wonderful views over Bridport and the surrounding countryside (207). Food is totally delicious and in good portions.
The water pressure on the second floor was poor at peak times, especially in our room, which was the furthest point away from the main entrance. However, I was told that the hotel were aware of the problem and that improvements were in the pipeline. Dining chairs could have been more comfortable: hard wooden seats were difficult to relax in for a long period.
Karin, BlackSmith stayed on 6 May 2013
The decor was lovely and the room was really comfortable. We had two evening meals and they were both really enjoyable. The cocktail bar was lovely and the staff very attentive.
More than one tea bag in a pot of tea for two. We didn't get the Mr and Mrs Smith extra of a glass of champagne with our meal.
Valerie, BlackSmith stayed on 8 Feb 2013
A really nice, homely, friendly place. The Red room was terrific - really pretty - although it does look over the High Street. The food was really good and it's a great place to stop if you're on a Dorset discovery trip.
They were incredibly busy when we arrived (Sunday lunchtime). It took a while to check-in and get served lunch. It's probably a symptom of success, but it did feel a bit fraught. That said, the staff were very friendly. It's no big deal, but they also forgot to give us the champagne freebie we'd been offered from Mr & Mrs Smith...
Shamik, BlackSmith stayed on 2 Sep 2012
Lovely hotel with real quirkiness and character. We were upgraded to the Honeymoon Suite so our room was fantastic, but I suspect all the rooms are equally gorgeous! We couldn't have been better looked after.
Clifford, BlackSmith stayed on 20 Aug 2012
Free room upgrade, very helpful and friendly staff. Great location. Lots to do if you check the local arts centre and music guides.
More fish choices on the menu.
Kara, BlackSmith stayed on 19 Aug 2012
On arrival the reception staff were very friendly and showed us personally to our room, which was very comfortable. Meals in the restaurant were excellent, particularly the home-made bread and cakes. A slightly quirky hotel, but very comfortable, and friendly staff made for a very enjoyable couple of days away.
Ian, BlackSmith stayed on 23 May 2012
A really great hotel – shabby but in a nice way – with outstanding service from great staff, a fantastic breakfast and the restaurant was way above average.
Louis, BlackSmith stayed on 10 May 2012
Beautiful hotel and really friendly staff. We stayed in a family suite; grandparents, myself, my husband and our 20 month old daughter. There was plenty of space and a Z bed, lovely books and toys for our daughter. We were hungry and tired when we arrived after road works which delayed our trip and the lovely lady who checked us in kindly arranged room service pizzas from the Stables restaurant for us all – delicious with interesting combinations of local ingredients. Breakfast was a beautiful array of yoghurts, bread, pastries and fruit and the most wonderful cooked options. We spent most of the day deliciously full. We had dinner in the restaurant which was nice but not outstanding, however they were truly happy for all five of us to dine in the evening and our daughter was delighted with the food and the books which kept her entertained. All round a lovely hotel, beautiful town and close to the beach. We hope to go back again soon.
Kirsten, SilverSmith stayed on 23 Mar 2012
The Bull Hotel was a warm, welcoming place to base ourselves for a break on Dorset's beautiful Jurassic Coast. The restaurant was fantastic and reasonably priced with excellent service, and we loved having our Smith member offer of a glass of champagne to accompany the meal - a lovely touch. We would really recommend Lyme Regis and the wonderful Hix Restaurant and Oyster Bar with a beautiful view of the bay at sunset, a real treat. Sunday was spent eating a delicious Mothers Day meal and exploring River Cottage, based on a working farm, only 30 minutes from the hotel. Fantastic food in a beautiful setting. The beaches are fantatstic too. Try heading to Eype, Beer, Burton Bradstock and Seatown, all a short drive from the hotel. A lovely relaxing stay with great food and fabulous countryside. Highly recommended.
Zoe, SilverSmith stayed on 16 Mar 2012