Holiday bays at Bournemouth, and headlands steeped in history
Beaches as popular as any in the south of England line the broad arcs of Poole Bay and Christchurch Bay, and between them extends the dramatic promontory of Hengistbury Head. Seaside jollity dominates Poole Bay, but at th-2 eastern end of Christchurch Bay, beyond Milford on Sea, there is a complete contrast: a desolate spit thrusting into the Solent and tipped by the gaunt remains of Henry VIII’s Hurst Castle. (T) BOURNEMOUTH
Until the railway came in 1870, Bournemouth was mainly a residential resort where the rich built their villas on the pine-clad slopes of the Bourne valley. The town had little to offer in the way of entertainment until the vogue for sea-bathing in Victorian times gave it the opportunity for development.
The first Winter Gardens Theatre was built in 1876, and in the following years more and more seaside entertainments took their place on or near Bournemouth’s seafront, giving it an ever-increasing reputation as a holiday centre. With its neighbouring town of Boscombe to the east and Alum Chine to the west it offers today two piers, a wide range of seaside amusements and 7 miles of sandy beach washed by warm waters; there are lifeguards at the beach offices, and volunteer lifeguards patrol the stretch between Alum Chine and Bournemouth Pier at weekends in summer.
The steep cliffs that shelter the beach are cut by valleys – the ‘chines’ – which provide shady groves away from the shore. Each of these chines has a public garden and marked paths leading to the beach. The Lower Gardens and Central Gardens provide a lush green contrast to the beach; in summer, brass bands or orchestras play on the bandstand, and picture exhibitions often line the paths.
The original Winter Gardens Theatre was dismantled in 1935 and replaced by an indoor bowling green. After the Second World War the hall was discovered to have good acoustic pioperties and became the home of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.
Another centre of entertainment, the Pavilion, built in 1929, has a 1,500 seat theatre, a ballroom and a restaurant with terraces overlooking the Lower Gardens and the Bourne stream. The Bournemouth International Centre, opened in 1984, hosts exhibitions and conferences. It has a restaurant, and an indoor swimming pool with a wave-making machine.
Bournemouth is well endowed with museums. The Russell-Cotes Art Gallery houses, amongst other exhibits, the town’s last-remaining Bath chair. The Transport Museum is open during high season only, while the Shelley Museum is the only one in the world specifically devoted to the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, whose son, Percy Florence Shelley, lived in Bournemouth from 1849 to 1889.
Originally, Christchurch was a Saxon town named Twynham, meaning ‘the town between two waters’, a reference to its two rivers, the Stour and Avon. It was a walled town, one of Alfred the Great’s strongholds against the Danes, and still retains its Saxon street plan.
The town, now largely Edwardian in atmosphere, takes its modern name from its priory church. Begun in the 11th century, this took four centuries to complete and, at just over 300 ft, is Britain’s longest parish church. Its 120 ft tower holds the country’s two oldest bells, cast in 1370.
In the car park of the priory church is Christchurch Tricycle Museum. On display are adults’ and children’s pedal tricycles dating from Victorian times to the present day. There are Victorian street scenes, models in period costume, and wall displays.
At the quay there are motor boats for hire and harbour trips. The harbour offers safe mooring, but at low tide becomes mud-flats.
It attracts a wide range of birds, and Stanpit Marsh on the harbour’s northern shore is a local nature reserve. There is fishing in the harbour by means of permits issued by the local angling club; flatfish, mullet and eel are common catches.
The southern flank of Christchurch Harbour is a 2 mile spit of land, with a spine of low hills between mud-flats and sand-and-pebble beaches. It is at once an important archaeological site, a wildlife conservation area and a leisure centre.
The Head was occupied continuously from the Stone Age to Roman times, and in the Iron Age included one of the country’s busiest ports. Though there is nothing on view locally, archaeologists have unearthed coins from the Iron Age and Roman period, pottery and bronze objects.
The combination of shallow harbour, hills and pounding seas has created a patchwork of different habitats – heath, woodland, meadow, salt-marsh, freshwater marsh, dunes, rocky shore and shingle shore. At a headquarters, near the car park, wardens can provide expert guidance on local insects and birds.
The Head has changed considerably in the last century and a half. Originally, the seas ate away slowly at the southern shore, where the coast was reinforced with ironstone. But in 1848 a coal merchant began quarrying the ironstone. Deprived of its natural defences, the sandy coast was eroded fast. Its soil was swept eastwards and dumped on the Head’s northern spit, squeezing the harbour tides into a 30 yd wide channel, the Avon Run. A groyne built in 1938 checked the erosion.
A land-train – a mock railway engine with rubber-tyred carriages – takes passengers to the Head’s tip, where there are lines of beach huts and a windsurfing school with boards for hire. Swimming is safe except in and near the Avon Run.
The 118 ft summit of Warren Hill offers dramatic views of Christchurch Bay and Bournemouth Bay, and across the Solent to 85)
A dilapidated Gothic-style castle, built in the 1830s for Lord Stuart, guards a shady parking area, from which visitors can descend by steps to a fine sandy beach. Further along the coast a stream called Chewton Bunny runs into the sea. From a car park on top of the cliff a path leads down to a groyne-ribbed shingle beach which has sand at low tide.
BARTON ON SEA
An unpaved road runs along this broad deserted undercliff area, but the road is not open to visitors’ cars. Instead, park at the top of the cliff. The cliffs contain a fossil-bearing layer where bones of prehistoric reptiles have been found. There are good, open walks along the mounds formed by earth that has slipped from the cliffs, above a pebbly beach with a scattering of beach huts. On-shore winds can make swimming dangerous.
A footpath leads for a third of a mile from a parking area to a small shingly beach overlooked by a ragged line of tank traps, remnants of the last war. The beach is the Isle of Wight. A nature trail follows the lower eastern slopes through grasslands and woods and past a lilypond. The Head is visited by more than 1 million people a year, posing an increasing threat to land, wildlife and archaeological sites, and visitors are restricted to certain routes.
The tiny village on the eastern tip of Christchurch Harbour, opposite Hengist-bury Head, has fine views up the coast and across to The Needles of the Isle of Wight. Lobster and whelk pots are often piled up on the quayside. There is a ferry across the fast-flowing Avon Run, and several boats that offer trips to catch mackerel and deep-sea fish. Boats can be launched on the harbour side of the quay. Access to the quay is by a road from the village, and there is ample car-parking space.
Extensive sands even at high tide draw holidaymakers to Avon Beach. There are several car parks and a beach cafe. Swimming is safe most of the time, but red flags are hoisted when the undertow is dangerous. secluded, but the spot’s most charming feature is the clifftop walk through fields towards Milford on Sea, 2 miles away.
MILFORD ON SEA
The extensive beach is mostly shingle with some low-tide sand. The town itself is modern and predominantly residential, offering little beside the usual beach amenities.
The castle is set at the end of a 1 ½ mile spit of pebbles, and was built by Henry VIII in 1544 as part of his south coast defences. Together with forts on the Isle of Wight, it could effectively close the Solent. It is reached either by a 20 minute slog along the pebble causeway, or by ferry from Keyhaven.
The fort was abandoned and re-used many times – King Charles was briefly there in 1648 when he was taken from the Isle of Wight to face trial at Westminster. It was much modified in the 19th century but it is still a solid blockhouse of a place, its ancient shape overlaid with a facade of Victorian brickwork. It has a 12-sided central tower surrounded by a curtain wall with three semi-circular bastions. Troops were billeted there during the Second World War, and the Ministry of Defence still uses the two Victorian wings. The castle is open to the public.
This tiny tidal inlet, which turns to salt-marsh and mud at low tide, is the terminal for the Hurst Castle ferry and offers safe moorings to a few dozen small boats. It is also in part a nature reserve.
PLACES TO SEE INLAND
Breamore House, Fordingbridge. 18 miles N of Christchurch. Elizabethan manor house. MosI afternoons in summer
Furzey Gardens, Minstead, 12 miles N of Lymington. Daily.
Macpenny’s, Bransgore, 4 miles NE of Christchurch, Woodland garden. Daily.
Rockboume Roman Villa. Fordingbridge, 15 miles N of Christchurch, Daily in summer.
Spinners Garden, Boldre, 1 1/2 miles N of Lymington. Most afternoons in summer,