Travellers to Cherbourg and the Channel Islands will no doubt, be aware of the ferry service from Poole. This alternative route starts from the wide expanse of Poole Harbour, the second largest natural harbour in the world. Unfortunately unlike Sydney Harbour the depth of water prevents Poole from handling a greater volume of traffic. It is only by regular dredging that the channel can be kept open for the handful of vessels that do use Poole Harbour, but as a result it remains an attractive stretch of semi-inland water.
Free of the demands of heavy industry, the natural harbour is a wildlife sanctuary to waders and other birdlife. A scattering of low-lying islands are dotted around its south-western limits, with the largest, Brownsea the only one inhabited. The narrow entrance to the harbour is guarded by two narrow spits of land joined by regular car ferries. The northern spit is the only one with any habitation. Aptly called Sandbanks it has the most expensive real-estate outside of London. On the opposite side is an uninhabited area mostly filled by sand dunes and scrub. Walkers of a sensitive nature following the Dorset Coast path should be warned that part of the beach is usually the haunt of uninhibited naturists enjoying the sun.
Poole town stands above the harbour’s northern shore. The largest own in Dorset, it is a place where its ancient character fits well into modern development. Several of the buildings in the old town date from the 14th century: almshouses, an old postern gate are slotted amongst some admirable 18th century buildings, including the Guild Hall and the Custom House down near the harbour. Rather incongruously the mainline from London runs straight through the town centre, delaying shoppers who stand by the barrier in varying stages of impatience.
The sheltered bay is an ideal spot for amateur yachtsmen and women. Boats of varying sizes and value are lined up in the marina, while competitors enjoy the thrill of tightly spaced races. Power yachts ranging from huge gin-palaces to more sedate day boats are made here, mostly to the specifications of their potential owners. Some of the small boats spend their time afloat pottering about without venturing onto the high seas of the English Channel. The west side of Poole Harbour is lined with creeks fed by small rivers just waiting to be explored, but only when the tide is right – a missed tide often means being stranded on the mud for hours until the next lot of water.
Brownsea Island, the largest of the group that almost block the harbour entrance, is owned by the National Trust and run as a nature reserve, one of the few places in Britain where red squirrels are safe from the incursions of their American cousins, the dreaded grey squirrel. A half-hourly ferry service leaves from Poole Quay directly opposite a statue of Lord Baden-Powell (B.P.), founder of the scouting movement. While the northern half of Brownsea Island is a nature reserve and mostly unavailable for public access, the rest of the island is open for gentle woodland walking, or exploring the sandy beaches. Over on the west side of the island is the spot where Baden-Powell held his first scout camp in 1907, from which sprang the world-wide scouting movement for boys and girls. Scouts still come to camp on Brownsea in the place where B.P. first pitched his tent. There is a small Trading Post as it is called filled with scouting memorabilia, and there is even a collection of the ubiquitous neckerchiefs still worn by scouts denoting which troop they belong to. The island is a place of pilgrimage for anyone who was a boy scout – even though it was a dull cool day when we visited the island, there were two representatives of Boy Scouts of America, and a young Frenchman.
Red squirrels by the score, unafraid of us humans, they scurry tantalisingly amongst the trees in search of nuts. However, they apparently endanger themselves when looking for a drink of water. A notice in the toilets above the scout campsite advises users to lower the seat cover in order to stop the squirrels from falling into the lavatory pan!
There is a visitor centre together with a small café near the island landing stage. Much of the complex history of the island’s ownership and the failed attempts to bring industry to the place (someone once tried to develop a pottery), is explored in a small display in the visitor centre. In its time Brownsea had a monastery. King Henry VIII built a block house to keep marauding French pirates away, but it is the castle where most of the island’s owners lived. Now a privately owned holiday home and off limits to general visitors, the castle was first built by William Benson who bought the island for £300 in 1711 despite a dispute with Poole Council who wanted to develop it as a defensive point. No one seems to have owned the place very long, but it is interesting to see how its value increased with each subsequent purchaser. The last private owner was Mary Baker-Christie who lived there as a recluse from 1927-1961, keeping visitors away. Since 1962, Brownsea has been cared for by the National Trust.
Another regular ferry service follows the winding channel of the River Frome as far as Wareham. The Romans founded this delightful old town, but they were not the first to settle there. Pre-historic earthworks almost surround the place, and later the Saxons built a church which they dedicated to St Martin. A statue of T.E. Lawrence who died nearby, is depicted in Arab dress in a sculpture by Eric Kennington. It stands in the church in memory of this leader of the Arab uprising in the First World War. St Mary’s is another ancient church nearby; it contains a unique six-sided lead font, and the marble coffin of Edward the Martyr.
About five miles down the Swanage road from Wareham, Corfe Castle stands in a gap in the chalky Purbeck Hills like something out of a fairy tale. It barely survived the English Civil War when Cromwell’s Parliamentary forces over-ran the castle after starving its garrison during a siege in 1646. True to the military standards of the time, they rendered it unusable, ‘slighting’ it to use the expression of the time, by blowing up sections of its walls. There is no record of how much gunpowder was used, but it must have made quite a loud bang at the time. Massive walls and turrets lean at crazy angles, making the place a natural playground for children looking for adventure. Children are especially catered for by the castle’s owners, the National Trust. We were there not long before Halloween and pumpkin heads were everywhere and as a novelty, teddy bears that abseiled from the castle walls were awarded a certificate.
Corfe village is as attractive as you could wish and many of its inns and houses would have had their windows blown out when the Parliamentarians exploded their bombs beneath the castle walls. A rough lot, the troops also destroyed much of the church, but fortunately couldn’t dislodge the 15th century tower. Had we the time we would have taken a ride on the pretty steam train that runs between Swanage on the coast and Corfe.