Thursday, 31 March 2011

Bournemouth Coast Path Section 1 Sandbanks - Bournemouth Pier

Sandbanks Ferry
At the Poole end of the South West Coast Path the journey ends for most walkers after their 630 mile trek from Minehead, but really keen coastal walkers can continue their journey along the fairly short Bournemouth Coast Path which follows the coast through this famous old seaside resort and beyond to Milford-on Sea where it then makes an end-on connection with the Solent Way (see the excellent website for more details). The total distance is a mere 20 miles so I am not sure if it qualifies as a long distance path as fitter walkers could undoubtedly walk the full distance in a day. I had long thought it would make for a good winter project, but an unexpected opportunity arose when I had a couple of hours to spare at the end of my conference in Bournemouth and I had some fabulous weather just begging to be enjoyed!
Hand of a Giant
I took the bus over to Sandbanks, the very end of the ‘Bournemouth Coast’ (actually in Poole and reputedly the area with the highest house prices in the UK). The bus stopped by the ferry terminal where it had to wait for the return of the chain ferry that would take it across to Studland and enable it to complete its journey to the final destination of Swanage. It was a most pleasant bus journey, especially as I rode in the upper deck of the open topped bus that plies the route!
Castles in the Sand
Before setting off on my walk I waited for the old chain ferry to clank across the half mile or so stretch of water that it services. I have a certain fascination with these ferries – they are like real old school transport solutions that no-one has found better technology to replace! After watching just one of goodness knows how many loadings and unloadings that take place on the ferry, I headed off towards Bournemouth Pier. Initially the route wasn’t hugely promising, following the sea wall around the bottom of the very expensive dwellings that command such eye-watering amounts of money. Around the base of the sea wall were the usual large boulders placed to dissipate the force of the waves. What did catch my eye was a very unusual boulder, which had been carved into the shape of a hand. Someone obviously had a sense of humour! As I headed around the sea wall I got a closer look at the coastline around Swanage, some miles to the south west of my position and which someday I hope to enjoy on one of the legs of the South West Coast Path.
Sandbanks Harbour
As I rounded the end of the spit that forms Sandbanks I found myself on a sandy beach, one which continues all the way to Bournemouth and beyond and the coastal feature that has really helped in the development of this coast. There were quite a few people out enjoying the sunshine, but nothing compared to the summer when I bet this coastline is absolutely heaving! Most of the visitors were elderly people walking their dogs, although there were a fair few runners as well. With a fairly empty beach I was able to enjoy the patterns in the sand made by the wind and waves that were largely undisturbed. A solitary oystercatcher was playing chase with me – every time I got near it, the little fellow would fly off across the sea for a short while before coming back just out of reach of my camera. I think he was just teasing me!
Sandbanks Beach
As I got to the end of the area of housing on Sandbanks I took a quick detour across to the other side of the spit to take a look at the wide expanse of Poole Harbour. This natural harbour really is quite remarkable and all the more so now it is full of boats as far as the eye can see! Back to the coast and I started the long traudge along the promenade towards Bournemouth Pier, said to be six miles away (not sure it is along the prom considering how little time it took for me to complete!). It is hardly a challenging walk, but I did enjoy my surroundings considerably, with the oystercatcher keeping me company. Along the promenade I became fascinated by also slightly appalled at the plethora of beach huts that had been constructed. Fascinated because there were many different types and appalled because most of them were hideous concrete monstrosities and not the traditional clapboard type ones that most people know and love. The exclusivity of the huts also became apparent, with many of the walkways behind them to some of the better view points being for beach hut users only. Luckily for me most were out of action due to the earliness of the season and so I ignored many of the signs as a result!
Another feature of this stretch of coast is the unusual cliffs that are made of soft sandstone and clad in gorse and other trees and bushes. I am not aware of any other coast like it, apart from a short stretch on the Isle of Wight, which in effect is just an extension of here anyway. Every so often the cliff line would be breached by a small stream that had carved its way through. These steep gorge like features are known as chines and the first reached today was the rather impressive Branksome Chine, where a very attractive garden had been planted in the slightly gloomy valley. Being so early in the year, I am sure I didn’t this place at its best however. A little way past the chine and I passed the remains of a fossilised tree, which had managed to attract an interpretation board but which wasn’t the most impressive specimen I have ever seen. The next chine at Branksome Dene was full of beach huts and visitors, although apparently behind these is a nice nature reserve.
Poole Cliffs
A short while later I crossed the boundary from Poole into Bournemouth and the character immediately changed from a resort that seem to be a Johnny-come-lately to one where you can feel the tradition. Almost immediately the style of beach huts changed to a crop that were more in keeping with my expectations. Sadly the very warm sunny weather that I had enjoyed in Poole also changed to more overcast conditions and the temperature rather dropped too. This was a shame as the Bournemouth coast is very photogenic and I could see why so many people flock to these parts in the summer. By the time I reached Alum Chine I had rather tired of the promenade and longed for some height so took the opportunity to head up through some tropical gardens to the cliff top to continue my walk.
Beach Hut Line Up
Now at height I could appreciate the sweep of the bay that characterises this holiday coast. Far off in the distance to the west of me were Old Harry and the Swanage Coast while ahead was the Isle of Wight and the twin piers at Bournemouth and Boscombe. It made for an impressive sight! As I climbed to the top of the Chine the first spring flowers such as hellebores and daffodils were all coming into bloom, gladdening my heart after all those dark winter months. I was also getting lungfuls of the coconutty aroma given off by the gorse blossom that dominates large swathes of the cliff faces. This is a smell I love so much and have really grown to appreciate all the more on my various coastal walks.
Botanic Gardens
At the top of the cliff the path switches between green space and roadside. Due to the topography of the landscape the road has a good deal of trouble maintaining any distance along the cliff top and as a result behaves like a zig zag to and from the coast as it tries to maintain a steady height past all the chines. Being on foot I didn’t have to worry too much about this and it gave me the opportunity to have a bit more exercise than if I had rigidly stuck to the promenade for the whole journey. As I got closer into Bournemouth though I opted to finish the last little stretch along the promenade once again. The number of people using this stretch of coast got significantly greater as I got towards the Pier, which made this section quite enjoyable due to the happy atmosphere generated by the families enjoying the late afternoon sunshine. Eventually I reached Bournemouth pier, not one of the more attractive in Britain it must be said and I didn’t trouble myself too much with a visit, preferring instead to visit the central gardens, which run like a spine up through the town centre. These were impressive, even this early in the season and knocked spots off the pier!
Bournemouth Pier
All in all an easy and enjoyable afternoon stroll along this holiday coast. There are numerous refreshment opportunities and the bus service is regular, making a short walk quite achievable without expending a lot of time. Perhaps next winter I shall finish the remaining part of the walk through to Christchurch and Milford-on-Sea beyond.
Bournemouth Pier Close Up


  1. Nice to read your report about my own home area...I actually live at Alum Chine...

    The width of the entrance to Poole Harbour across which the 'Bramble Bush' Studland chain ferry plies it's trade is in fact only 400yds. The journey takes just 4mins and saves 25 miles on a return journey...

    Keep up the good work with your blog...I always enjoy reading your posts.


  2. Thanks Trevor - I really appreciate your support. I had no idea the ferry was so short - I thought it was much further! I definitely know how far it is all the way round though!