The Bay Hotel is or was the centrepiece of the Marine Parade, and figures in postcard photographs of great winter waves exploding over the town's front. It's the only sea-front hotel on many miles of coast, and is an unusual one in being on not a road but a footway: between it and the sea is no avenue of cars but a promenade full of strolling people.
It was where I first stayed in Lyme Regis. I don't remember which room my parents had booked for me, but they were in the middle room over the front door, from which they watched each morning as I amused them by dashing out for a plunge into the waves. Coming back fifteen years later, I asked for this room, and landlord Nick Simmonds said: Oh, because of Inspector Morse? I hadn't heard of Inspector Morse, but television had made the room famous as the first scene in A Walk in the Woods, a novel by Colin Dexter, which we then read. Inspector Morse chooses to stay at the Bay because it has one of the finest settings of any hotel in the West Country. (An example of the difficulties of using the plural in English.) He makes phone calls from the room, but the real hotel's rooms had no telephones a simplicity almost as refreshing as if they had had no televisions, though as inconvenient for house-hunters as for a detective.
We came back four months later, and the Inspector Morse room was occupied, so we had to be in a top-floor corner room: even more spectacular, with a window toward the bay and another toward the Cobb. It was a stormy December, and when each wave smote the sea wall below the Cart Road, the tower of spray stood well above our fourth-floor window. And we could feel the thump coming through our bed. I asked Nick whether it was loosening the rock under his hotel. No, he believed the impact was being transmitted through air spaces in the rubble foundations.
(The wall those waves reached fronted the highest part of the Walk, and dropped straight to the beach. This was before the coastal protection work in which the Cart Road was extended along in front of the Walk, and the beach was built up with a huge quantity of shingle, bringing it almost level with the Cart Road. That wall, and the surface along which the waves threw themselves, are now buried deep.)
The hotel's front room was a parlour where there might be a fire; you could sit around on soft couches under the windows, pull up stools and form groups, get snacks from the bar. You might find a wedding in progress, or a scrabble evening, or Morse Society dinner. Even on overcast days in January there were crowds in the lounge and customers sitting at the outside tables.
On nights when the weather was stormy but something had been happening to bring throngs to the harbour (such as our first Guy Fawkes bonfire night in Lyme) the Bay Hotel was a refuge, like a cheery cave opening onto the Atlantic. The front door kept slamming open as another parcel of spray-lashed revellers came bulging in; they struggled to shut it against the wind as they merged into the illuminated company.
Such images, left in the mind by this hotel, were often what drew people back to Lyme. In the restaurant we met a cycling family whose habit was to come down from their inland village with the children in bicycle buggies. Another time, a Shakespearean actor from Stratford-on-Avon whose habit was to stay here between seasons; he was the one who told us that this bit of the coast is so often cloud-free that as you drive from inland under a gray sky a slit of light opens over the Lyme cliffs like a letterbox.
Alas, the Bay Hotel fell sick and nearly died. It was sort of saved but it's a different place now.
Saunter out of the hotel and turn right or left.