Brownsea Island, Poole Harbour, Dorset

When I was a lad, growing up in Poole, Dorset, Brownsea Island was somewhere to be viewed from a distance but never visited. It is the largest of several islands in Poole’s extensive harbour (reputed to be the world’s second largest natural harbour after Sydney) and it is the most prominent in that it sits closest to the harbour mouth. When walking along the harbour shore, or the Quay at Poole, its forested profile is a constant presence.

However, it was owned by a strange old lady named Mrs Christie (Mary Bonham-Christie to be exact) who bought the island in 1927 and lived there in total seclusion, never leaving the island and never allowing any member of the public to land on it. She refused to allow any creature to be killed, and that included mosquitos, or for any commercial activity to take place there. The farm animals that the previous owner had kept were shipped off and so were all the estate workers apart from a few personal servants. The island was allowed to return to its natural state, which meant, for example, that the rhododendrons went berserk and took over much of the available land.

However, Mrs Christie died in 1961 and the island became the property of the National Trust. A huge amount of work needed to be done to restore buildings and clear undergrowth, not to mention dealing with the mosquitos, but eventually the island was ready to accept visitors once again.

It is certainly somewhere well worth a visit. The island can be reached either by the short ferry crossing from Sandbanks or the longer one from Poole Quay. It is open from March to October.

The landing stage is at the eastern end of the 500-acre island. There is a small village here, St Mary’s church and Brownsea Castle. The castle is not open to the public, but the church is – it was built in 1852 in neo-Gothic style and contains some fine Italian sculptures.

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There is no motor transport on the island, so it is a place for walkers. The island is divided into two sections, one of them being the nature reserve on the northern side that is leased by the Dorset Wildlife Trust. This incorporates a lagoon (see photo) that is a haven for thousands of wading birds including oystercatchers and avocets. The woodland area is home to many bird species including treecreepers, woodcock, jays and tawny owls. Brownsea is one of the few places in England where you can see red squirrels in the wild, and there are also sika deer here.

On the southern side of the island is an open area that offers splendid views across the quieter part of Poole Harbour towards the other islands and the Purbeck Hills. On a fine day this is a very peaceful spot with the water lapping at the shore and the cries of seabirds.

The grassy area is highly significant for any visiting scouts or guides, for this is where Robert Baden-Powell held a camp in 1907 for local boys who became the world’s first Boy Scouts. A stone monument marks the site.

Brownsea Island is a place that is well worth spending time to explore and on which to relax and enjoy the views and the wildlife. However, it is a good idea not to relax too much and miss the last ferry back!


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