Seaside postcard: Brownsea Island
Of the five islands in Poole Harbour, by far the largest and most well known is Brownsea. A mile and a half long and three quarters wide, it's best known as the site of the very first Scout camp in 1907. But the island also has a long strategic history, and considerable ecological significance (red squirrels!), as well as being a fantastic place to visit. Indeed my Saturday target wasn't really Poole or Sandbanks, it was Brownsea.
Everyone arrives by boat. For the general public this means the main jetty, but guests at Brownsea Castle have their own exclusive landing place alongside. This waterfront fortress is part of Henry VIII's chain of south coast defences, and a rare survivor, although it's been rebuilt several times since. Its last owner was the reclusive Mary Bonham-Christie, who hid away on her private island until 1961, after which ownership transferred to the National Trust to pay the 98 year-old's death duties. Today it's leased out to the John Lewis Partnership who use it as a holiday home for employees, although the waiting list is apparently five years long. The NT use some of the quayside buildings for a cafe and gift shop, and collecting their £7 entrance fee, but once you're past the gatehouse the island opens out and becomes increasingly tranquil and remote. Assuming the place isn't crawling with scouts, that is.
They were flocking across the green below the church when I arrived, it being a bank holiday weekend and therefore ideal for camping. This was bad news for the peacocks that live here, dozens of them, scuttling away from unwelcome attention to hide away in what remains of the daffodils. Things quietened down once various Akelas had led their charges away, at which point the younger peacocks returned to impressing the younger peahens, rapidly vibrating their backsides despite their feathers not yet being in any way spectacular. Inside St Mary's church a volunteer waited to pounce and explain the history of this isolated place of worship, while up the hill in the island's Visitor Centre (a former daffodil-packing shed) three more volunteers stood waiting to advise and flog 50p red squirrel maps.
Much of the northern half of the island is a nature reserve, including a large saltwater lagoon important to migrating birds including avocets and little egrets. This area is generally sealed off from the public, barring a series of boardwalks and hides added courtesy of the Dorset Wildlife Trust, accessible for an additional £2 donation. Instead I followed the track along the fence into the heart of theforest, a dense landscape of pine and silver beech, increasingly untroubled by other passers-by. Racks of black beaters are a regular sight along the trail, the threat of fire a real and present danger to the ecosystem, indeed most of the trees on Brownsea date back to the aftermath of a particularly nasty conflagration in 1934.
At the far end of the island, which I suspect most visitors never reach, are the remains of the hamlet of Maryland. A row of a dozen cottages once stood here, plus a pub, for workers employed to turn the local china clay into pottery. Unfortunately the deposits turned out to be of poor quality and the business swiftly went bust, and the village was used as a convenient decoy during WW2 so was bombed out of existence. The remains of several kilns can be still found along the south coast, along an idyllically rippled beach, although the steep clay cliffs are highly unstable so they'll not last much longer. Indeed landslips are a perennial problem here, taking out banks of trees and forcing the closure of footpaths, reminding visitors that Brownsea has a long but finite lifespan ahead.
The southwestern corner of the island is where Baden Powell set up his experimental camp for twenty proto-scouts. Boys were woken at 6am by a blast on the Kudu Horn, and took supper at 8pm round the camp fire before turning in at nine. Inbetween they learnt skills according to a daily theme, including knot-tying, tracking, first aid and 'chivalry', subjects a modern scout would still recognise, although they probably wouldn't be subjected to a compulsory hour's rest after lunch. I wondered why the fabled spot wasn't more heavily featured on the National Trust's map, and got my answer when I discovered dozens of tents pitched across the site, a temporary home to beavers, cubs and scouts from across the country, with several more lumbering in with bulging rucksacks throughout the day. Fenced out, I had to make do with hovering by the memorial stone up top on the edge of the heath.
I was surprised by how good the view was from the clifftops. Sandbanks and the entrance to Poole Harbour can be seen to the east, the sparkling blue water criss-crossed by the wake of speedboats and jetskis. The Purbeck Hills rise up to the south, a long green ridge terminating at Old Harry Rocks, which I wasn't expecting to be able to see. But the real joy of Brownsea is inland, in its mix of natural environments with tracks to follow and wildlife to see. Although I kept my eyes peeled I'm sorry to say I didn't see a single red squirrel - apparently there are only 300 on the island, and they're most active in the autumn. But I did stumble upon two sika deer, sandwiched between two sets of photographers and therefore less hard to spot than they might have been. Baden Powell was clearly onto a good thing when he scouted here, and it's easy to see why so many people still drop by each year.
Getting here: Between March and October a regular ferry service runs from Poole and from Sandbanks, the latter a much shorter crossing at six minutes rather than twenty. Returning to Poole takes considerably longer, a full three quarters of an hour, as the voyage continues round the harbour to pass the other islands in the inland archipelago. Furzey Island has 22 oil wells hidden behind a screen of trees, and was until recently owned by British Petroleum - not the only BP around here! Green Island is currently owned by Lord and Lady Iliffe, whose redwood log house is a rapid replacement for their first, which burnt down a couple of years ago. Round Island has holiday cottages... and by this point in the journey most of the girl scouts on the open upper deck of the boat had given up and gone downstairs to be out of the chill. If you're up for sightseeing it's quite an interesting trip, whereas if you're simply trying to get home the endless meandering must be quite infuriating. Poole Harbour is notoriously shallow and the only safe channels are meticulously marked by posts and buoys, these particularly circuitous to the south and west. Just be sure to be off the island by the time the last boat departs at 5pm, or to have brought a tent and bedding, otherwise an awkward night awaits.