September 28, 2003
What drew me in, initially, was the pub’s tidy bow-front exterior. It looks like a trim little ship – the pilot boat of its name, perhaps. This oceangoing theme is continued inside, with the interior resembling the saloon of a boat, all polished wood and low-set beams, with the inevitable nautical accoutrements.
Though doing a brisk lunchtime business, the staff were friendly and attentive. Stepping up to the gleaming polished bar, I ordered a half-pint of Palmer’s bitter and one of the seafood specials of the day, paella. I’d soon thirstily drained the half-pint and was working on my second when the paella arrived, a generous portion heaped with prawns and mussels on a bed of spiced rice. The food at the Pilot Boat is definitely a cut above ordinary pub fare, with an impressive range of fresh seafood as well as a number of vegetarian entrees.
I was pleased with my lunch, but even more pleased with the atmosphere in the pub, a bustling, sociable place in the best British pub tradition. Interestingly enough, the group men in a nearby booth were discussing fossils. One man was a local paleontologist, while the others were involved in the preservation of the Jurassic Coast.
And the three legends? Well, the first is not so much a legend as a historical tidbit. Mary Anning, the intrepid female fossil hunter who first found an Ichthysaurus in the cliffs outside town, was said to have sold fossils to passengers on the coaches that stopped at the inn. More disreputably, the Pilot Boat was also rumored to have once been a smuggler’s lair. This story is based on the fact that there is access from the cellar out to the River Buddle and thus to the sea, a route which would have allowed smugglers to secretly transport their booty.
The last legend, however, is the most appealing. The story goes that in 1915, the battleship Formidable was sunk offshore by a German U-boat. Several of the survivors were brought to the Pilot Boat, which was used as a center for the rescue operation. One such survivor, Able Seaman John Cowan, had been given up for dead and laid in the cellar.
The landlord of the Pilot Boat at that time had a rough-haired collie named Lassie. The dog refused to leave Cowan’s body, lying beside him, licking his face, whining, and nuzzling him repeatedly. Of course, it transpired that Cowan was not in fact dead and that the dog’s actions may have saved his life – and thus the Lassie legend was born. Eric Knight, who later penned the Lassie story of screen fame, apparently based his Lassie on the publican’s original heroic collie. Needless to say, dogs are still quite welcome in this pub.
From journal The Jurassic Coast