Seaside postcard: Bournemouth One of England's quintessential seaside resorts, the strangest thing about Bournemouth is the paucity of its history. At the start of the 19th century this was barren heathland, perched on clay cliffs between the ancient harbours of Poole and Christchurch. In 1812 a sea-loving couple moved in by the mouth of a small river (you can guess its name), and over the ensuing years thousands more have followed suit. The town's mild climate earned it a reputation for elegant holidays, and more recently as a middle class retirement bolthole. In 1974 Bournemouth was transferred from Hampshire to Dorset, somewhat unwillingly, to avoid the anachronism of a county boundary slicing through the inner suburbs. Today, along with its neighbours in 'The Three Towns', it forms the largest conurbation in England that isn't a city. And on a warm bank holiday Monday, it's a top place for a day out. [Visit Bournemouth]
The beach is golden sand and stretches for seven miles, broken only by a rhythm of well-tended groynes. There's very little difference between high and low tides, so you can guarantee space to dig or lounge or play. Even better for the seaside connoisseur, an intermittent line ofbeachhuts follows the promenade, the numbers above the doors topping two thousand at the nearly-in-Poole end. Around 10-20% were occupied on Monday, their doors flung wide to reveal flip-up chairs, miniature sinks, rows of bottles and a selection of Sudoku magazines. Other seafront facilities are somewhat limited, focused on the few points where roads dip down to beach level, while a hop-on land train exists to ferry tired tourists (and weary residents) from one end to the other.
Bournemouth has two piers a mile apart, one longer and livelier, the other shorter and inherently hipper. Bournemouth Pier: This is the long one in the centre of town, with access to the thousand-foot boardwalk for a £1 fee (the ticket acts as an annual pass, so as not to annoy residents too much). Being Bournemouth it's not overrun by amusement arcades and fortune tellers, but there is a children's funfair and restaurant down the far end, and the former Pier Theatre now houses an 'Adventure Activity Attraction'. For the especially brave, £15 buys you a ride on the high zipwire that leads from a tall tower at the tip of the pier across the shallows to a landing point on the beach. Boscombe Pier: Once a separate resort to the east of Bournemouth, Boscombe'spier was a more modest affair built from wood and iron. Its claim to fame is its pierhead, rebuilt in a wing-shape in the 1920s from high alumina concrete. A concrete neck followed in the 1950s, creating a minimalist Modernist structure that Wayne Hemingway recently described as “one of the coolest piers in the country”. Facilities are limited, the only building on the pier (a former theatre) having been demolished for safety reasons and replaced by a viewing/angling platform, while the pierhead offers a retro choice between Stores, Ices and Take Away. Other than that, there's just deckchairs and a chance to read the paper, plus a rather splendid percussive music trail (ostensibly for kids, but I loved bashing out Oh I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside on a sequence of tubular bells).
Traversing between the top and bottom of Bournemouth's cliffs is a key part of the seaside experience. Three cliff lifts exist, each terribly reasonably priced at £1.30 a time. I got the EastLift to myself, locked into my glass carriage for the brief near-vertical journey, with an uplifting view across the bay towards Swanage and the Needles. Elsewhere, though still in relatively few locations, a traditional zig-zag path allows change of altitude without requiring substantial exertion. "I've not brought my purse," said one old lady I passed on the paved chicane, unable to take the lift, but she seemed to be coping admirably.
Bournemouth would be just another featureless coastal town were it not for the 'chines'. Several short river valleys dig down into the clifftop creating deep wooded valleys, creating both a scenic landscape feature and an annoying barrier to traffic. But for those on foot, and those in mobility scooters, they're ideal. I walked up/down five. Boscombe Chine: Has the feel of a linear park, with minigolf at the top leading down to a long sweeping walk beneath pine trees. Durley Chine: The least ornamental chine, secured for motor transport, heading down steeply to a secluded Harvester restaurant at the foot of the cliffs which must thrive only in good weather. Middle Chine: A steadily deepening ravine, green and pleasant, dipping below a high road bridge halfway down. Alum Chine: This is the chine I remember from my childhood, a half-mile descent through a wooded gash, with occasional locked gates sealing off private steps to hotels high above, and a tropical garden overlooking the sea at its foot. Branksome Chine: The longest (and quietest) of the chines, although technically over the border in Poole. Here the path follows an actual river, carefully cajoled into an artificial channel that could only have been designed by a seaside council's architect, with an understated 'fairy glen' vibe.
The River Bourne was turned into an ornamental feature through the centre of town over a century ago. From the shopping centre to the coast it forms part of Lower Gardens, passing manicured lawns and municipal rockeries before disappearing into a pipe and (presumably) into the sea. The most unexpected sight hereabouts is a huge tethered balloon, Bournemouth's premier helium-filled tourist attraction. For £12.50 you can step into the large octagonal basket and rise 150 metres above the town, which on a sunny day must be quite impressive, and on a grey day rather less so. The balloon is visible from across the centre of town, and especially from the gardens themselves, lifting silently above the trees and rooftops like some kind of temporary surveillance platform. But I decided against, not for any fear of heights but because one complete up/down cycle appeared to last only ten minutes.
Russell-Cotes Museum and Art Gallery: In the absence of a proper civic history, one of Bournemouth's Victorian mayors decided to create a museum for the town himself. Merton Russell-Cotes (the hyphen between his middle name and surname added for show) was a self-made man who moved to Bournemouth in 1876. With his wife Annie he loved nothing more than touring the world and collecting 'stuff', once returning from a trip to Japan with 100 crates. As his collection grew he needed somewhere to store it, so built East Cliff Hall in 1897, a striking turretedconfection in a combination of Italian Renaissance and Scottish baronial styles. Ten years later the couple donated the house and its contents to the town, living upstairs until their death, after which the place opened more regularly to the public. It's well worth a gander. Downstairs is the art gallery, its walls covered by pastoral landscapes and twee portaits of utterly Victorian taste (plus, at present, a splendid retrospective of Alphonse Mucha's fin de siècle Parisian posters). Russell-Cotes' private rooms have a brooding Art Nouveau flavour, decorated with eclectic items such as a Norwegian sledge and Napoleon's very own table from St Helena. Closed on Mondays, with the exception of Bank Holiday Mondays, for which I am enormously grateful.