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Friday, 28 February 2014

Walk 112 Brownsea Island then Sandbanks to Swanage

Walk  112 Brownsea Island then Sandbanks to Swanage (Dorset)

(Second leg of English coastal walk – Broadstairs to Lands End)

Map: L/R 195
Distance: 13 miles or 21 km approx
Difficulty: moderate
Terrain: paths/ pavement/sand
Access: Parking at both ends
Public transport: Regular bus links from Poole to Swanage and Sandbanks. Ferry to Brownsea Island runs late March to early November – check times before travelling.

Brownsea Island is owned by the National Trust and it is worth signing up for one of their conducted tours (if available) to find out much of interest. These walks don’t cover the whole island but here are paths which can be walked independently.

There have been settlements on Brownsea since the 5th century BC and these include Viking settlers and an abbey. Henry V111 first built a castle on the island and there were several owners who have added to it or rebuilt it. These include ‘Mad’ Benson in the 1700s who was said to dabble in black magic, a Colonel and his wife in the 1800s who became bankrupt after building a large pottery and chapel, Major Balfour who rebuilt it after a fire, the Van Raalte family who filled it with musical instruments and Mary Bonham Christie a reclusive eccentric who let the island drift back into a natural state. When she died in 1961 the island was taken over by the National Trust. The major retailing company John Lewis has contributed to the repair of the island including the castle which is now used by their employees as a hotel.  There are red squirrels, deer and a wide variety of birds to spot.

On return to Sandbanks get the chain ferry over to South Haven Point on the opposite bank. The ferry has been running since 1923 and saves a 25 mile road journey. On the other side there is a short walk to Studland Bay and the start of the South West Coastal Path – announced in a metal sculpted sign. The path is over 600 miles long and ends in Minehead in Somerset.

The walk across Shell and Studland bays is probably best undertaken on the firmer sand nearer to the sea. The area is home to three of Britain’s native snakes: the adder, the grass snake and the rarer smooth snake. The latter creature feeds on the equally rare sand lizard which also lives here. Studland means ‘land where horses were kept’- presumably some of these would have belonged to pirates and smugglers who were active here in the 18th and 19th centuries. Parts of the beach are frequented by naturists – I took some children across the sands several years ago without realising this  – judging by the sniggers my pathetic attempts to persuade them to avert their eyes were largely ignored.

After a couple of miles or so the path leaves the beach and goes along the cliff top. Near Redend Point is Fort Henry – the largest and strongest World War 2 observation post to be built in Britain. It was constructed by Canadian engineers in 1943. Studland Beach had a high profile throughout the war, even the sea was set alight with petrol as part of a deterrent and around 5000 mines were positioned on the sands.

Continue the cliff walk to The Foreland or Handfast Point. The area is known as the Isle of Purbeck but it has long ceased to be an island. Next to the sheer chalk white cliffs is Old Harry a stack that marks the point where the Purbeck Hills fall into the sea below Ballard Down. Old Harry is about 200 years old and it used to be accompanied by a smaller stump called Old Harry’s Wife but this collapsed in the 1950s. If you are lucky you can still see this during low spring tides. The name Old Harry refers to the devil who is said to have rested on the rock, although others suggest it was named after a famous pirate.

Continue around Ballard Point enjoying the spectacular white cliffs beneath your feet. As far back as the middle ages this area was quarried for lime stone and Purbeck marble was used in Salisbury Cathedral and Westminster Abbey. Soon Swanage comes into view where the stone has been used to help improve the appearance of the town.

Before tourists became the main source of the town’s income Swanage was the centre for shipping Purbeck stone to London. When the empty sailing ketches started sinking on their return from London they were loaded with unwanted heavy street items from the Victorian streets of the capital. Swanage then earned the name Little London as many of these ballast items were incorporated into the streets of the town. Look out for them!

Carry on the walk to the pier. The original pier was built in 1860 and used mainly for shipping stone. It is now used for leisure and volunteers have helped to repair recent storm damage. Walk inland from the pier to the Swanage Railway terminus. Trains first ran on the branch line to Swanage in 1882 but it all came to an end in 1972 when British Rail closed it. Fortunately, The Swanage Railway, a charity, took it over and it has been rebuilt by volunteers. Steam and diesel trains operate daily during the summer and at certain other times. This is a great way to go to inland Corfe Castle (on another day) and explore the ruins where Edward the Martyr was murdered in 978.

Snaps show: Studland Bay; the start of the South West Coastal path;Old Harry rocks; Swanage Beach; the twin Purbeck pillars on the walk out of Swanage; the Swanage Railway.

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