Brownsea Island is an island (as you might have guessed) located in Poole Harbour. It is one of my favourite places. I have been visiting it regularly probably since the age of around 5 or 6 and go at least once most years. So the photos for this post are taken on various different visits over the years. It is also the largest of the islands in the harbour, at around 1.5 miles wide and ¾ of a mile tall. Around 2/3 of the island is accessible to the public.
The island is now owned by the National Trust, although parts of the island are also leased to the Dorset Wildlife Trust (as a nature reserve) and the castle and surrounding land are leased to the John Lewis Partnership, as a private hotel (for their staff). This is because of the original arrangement when the Trust acquired the island, as these organisations also provided much of the funding.
The history of inhabitation on the island goes back to the 9th Century, as a religious community linked with Cerne Abbas. After the dissolution of the monasteries, the island became owned by the crown, but subsequently it had a number of private owners, some of whom tried (and usually failed) to run businesses on the island. The last private owner was Mary Bonham-Christie. She was something of a recluse and ordered the evacuation of all the other residents of the island. When she died, the island was given to the treasury to pay her death dues. It was at this point that between them the Dorset Wildlife Trust, National Trust, Scout and Guide Movement and John Lewis Partnership managed to raise enough funding to purchase the island, and it was opened to the public soon after, a situation which continues today.
As a result of this complex ownership, the public have free access to a little over half of the island (the areas controlled by the National Trust, and the Scout and Guide camp). The Dorset Wildlife Trust reserve is also accessible via a self-guided trail for an additional charge (£2 I think it is, or £5 for an annual ticket). The castle remains private and is not accessible to the public (although despite this, I have been inside it).
The island is now open to the public for most of the year. It typically opens at weekends only from early February to late March. From then on it is open daily until the end of October. Occasional guided visits are available outside these times, but these must be pre-booked. Details of the opening hours, dates and prices can be found on the National Trust website.
Details of the ferries can be found at the end of this post but they go from both Sandbanks and Poole (generally every 30 minutes) when the island is open. It is also possible to stay on the island. There are a few holiday cottages (let by the National Trust) on the quay. In addition Scouts and Guides can use the campsite on the island and those working for John Lewis can stay at the hotel (but I understand there is a waiting list to do so).
When I visit the island I normally go from Sandbanks, as this is both faster and cheaper although parking can be tricky, as the small public car park by the ferry is limited to 1 hour and hence not useful for a trip over to Brownsea. As a result I normally park on the streets near the ferry (which is free currently) as the nearest public car park which allows a long stay is around ¾ of a mile away. However Poole Council wants to starting charging up to £15 a day to park on these roads (I will start going from Poole if they do so which will end up being cheaper).
As you approach the island you will land at the quay area at the east of the island. It is rather an attractive approach, as you can see.
This photo was actually taken from on the deck of the Condor Express ferry when I was using it to head to Guernsey. The imposing castle, Branksea Castle is the private hotel and not open to the public. The other buildings on the quay and area immediately behind it house the arrivals hall (where you pay if you are not a member and can also pick up a free map), a gift shop, cafe and toilets. The other buildings are a mixture of holiday cottages (let by the National Trust) and private residences, as the island does still have a small resident population. Most of the quay is private and therefore not accessible for this reason.
You get a nice view of the waterfront as you approach the island.
And when you arrive you head straight into this building.
Here is the quay on a quiet occasion.
The National Trust shop is housed in the nearest building (with the castellated roof) whilst the rest of the houses are a mixture of private houses and holiday cottages. Beyond these (and out of sight) is a low sea wall. This was originally constructed to create agriculture land. However they were not maintained and later caused a lagoon to form behind the sea wall. This is now tightly managed to keep the water at the idea depth for the numerous wading birds that live or nest on the island.
To the left as you approach there is also a separate quay, used by the John Lewis Hotel in Branskea Castle, as they have their own boat which also runs during the evening.
The free map the National Trust publish is the most useful, as it is more detailed than the Ordnance Survey maps. A copy is available online here although you will normally be given a leaflet with it in on arrival at the island (and this version has a couple of suggested walking routes highlighted).
From the quay and surrounding buildings you follow the gravel track passing the (private) gate to the castle on the left.
If you go through this gate (which of course, is not allowed) you can see the fine gardens of the castle.
There is a public bird hide just past this on the right too but there are generally better views from the 3 hides in the Dorset Wildlife Trust area, although you do still get a good view from here.
You follow this gravel path and the entrance to the Dorset Wildlife Trust area is on the right, along the long board-walk path access through the gates. There is an additional charge (£2 I think) to visit this. However I’m going to walk around as much as the coast as possible going clockwise, so I will come back to the reserve later. Following the gravel path I soon reach the attractive Church Field. At the far corner of this (as you might) expect is the church, which is still used for services I believe. The church field is a popular area for picnics and there are also outdoor theatre productions here in the summer. There are also usually an assortment of wildlife around the field, mostly chickens and peacocks.
I keep along the left hand side of this field (the fence on the left separates some of the grounds of the castle), approaching another couple of cottages. Passing these there is an old farm yard acting as a museum of farm equipment and a small visitor centre and toilet block on the left. Perhaps surprisingly (given how busy it is) this is one of the better areas to see the islands famous residents, the red squirrels. They can often be seen running over the old farm equipment or running around in the trees just beyond them.
The path onwards from here heads up a gentle hill where I often see the red squirrels in the wood on the right. Turning left when you can here takes me to my favourite view from the island. Here there are pine trees on top of the soft sandstone cliffs that erode rapidly. From here you get a good view over Poole Harbour, to the neighbouring Furzey Island and back to Sandbanks and the Shell Bay ferry.
There is a straight path here, a bit back from the coast (Portland Avenue), or a more coastal one that winds it’s way back and forwards giving views off the cliffs. However I think it’s best here to head down the “steep steps” (they are not really that steep) onto the beach. The beach on the south coast of the island is a mixture of sand and shingle, although you do need to be careful as there are small areas with mud and clay as well. Sadly, you are not allowed to turn left here (but you can look), as the beach ahead is private (again, part of the John Lewis hotel).
But if you turn right it’s a lovely beach walk.
I’m not the only one to enjoy this beach either, as this Oyster catcher (actually, there were several) was also hopping along the beach.
There are a few more sets of steps down the cliffs as you continue along the beach although I noticed on my last visit that one of these has now eroded. After a while there is the remains of some old kilns built into the cliff face. One of the owners of Brownsea attempted to make a pottery on the island. He had the idea it would make fine ceramics. In the end, the clay was too poor and was mostly only used for things like roof tiles and pipes. Further up the coast, the remains of this failed endeavour litter the beach. The National Trust took a decision a few years ago to remove the defences around these old kilns and let them be eroded by the sea. It is surprising to see how quickly they have been eroded.
This photo was taken in 2006, when the defences were still in place.
This is the same site in 2013.
Continuing along the beach you soon come to a little house, the South Shore Lodge. This is private and I think used by the Scout and Guide Movement as a base. This is because the purchase of the island was part financed by the Scout and Guide Movement and they still have a very large camp on the island just beyond here. They often use the harbour for water sports and the like, the sheltered and shallow waters must make a fine place to practice canoeing.
Near here it is worth heading back up to the cliffs, because there are more fine views over Poole harbour.
Indeed if you look hard enough it is even possible to make out the ruins of Corfe Castle from here (I took this with a powerful zoom).
You can also see neighbouring Furzey Island. There is actually oil wells on this island, but you would not know from here. Sometimes (as below) you can see a little ferry which takes oil tankers and trucks too and from the island.
Returning to the beach it is a nice walk beside the low cliffs.
Soon on my right I’m passing the large Scout and Guides campsite on the island. This is in fact the site of the very fast camp, set up by Robert Baden Powell in 1907 to test the ideas in his book “Scouting for Boys”. There is a commemorative stone on the island, a short distance inland.
The view from the campsite is wonderful, too.
Visitors to the island are allowed to use the toilets here. Don’t try and follow the signposts though!
Continuing along the beach there are now ruined bits of pottery all over the beach, the abandoned remains of the failed pottery business.
There are stunning views inland over the harbour around here too.
The cliffs are now very low, so you can easily climb up onto one of the more official paths to the right. I was lucky enough to spot a deer here once.
The cliffs soon start to get a bit higher again though. There is a path marked on the map along the coast here, but last year (2015) the National Trust marked it as closed after concerns the path was likely to be eroded by the sea (although I still used it), but it does give nice views over the harbour.
You can also see out to Green Island.
A little distance beyond the cliffs drop back to sea level again and there is access to the beach. Here are the remains of the pottery pier which was used to ship goods to and from the island. It is now derelict and dangerous.
The beach is not sand any longer but a mixture of pebbles and broken pottery.
There is, as the National Trust map indicates difficult access on the beach from here on, because the trees overhang the beach and it’s only really possible to get along the beach at low tide. I have done it though.
At the far end is the last set of stairs up to the cliff top. But you can continue along the beach if the tide is right for a little distance.
Looking out into the harbour you can also see a surprising sight – this is the old Sandbanks Chain Ferry, now moored up in the harbour and being used for collecting Oysters now.
After a while a sign tells you that access is not permitted any further along the beach. This is because it soon approaches the lagoon, and the Dorset Wildlife trust area. So I returned and headed up the steep steps where there is a my favourite lunch bench.
From here you have to head back inland along the long path known as Middle Street, although it is the northern most street as far as National Trust visitors are concerned! After a while you pass the remains of another failed industry, a vinery on the right. There is little remaining other than a few brick walls though. As you near the church you can then take the path that leads into the Dorset Wildlife Trust area.
This boardwalk can be another good place to see those cheeky squirrels!
This used to be private and the only access via guided tours, but a few years ago they opened up a self guided trail, for a small additional fee. This can be reached along a board walk to the gate, where you then follow a gravel path. At the first junction of this, there is usually a volunteer sitting at a table where you pay for admission (£2 I think). If they are not there, you are requested to pay in the villa, further on.
The first point you can access is the Low Hide, one of two that gives access over the lagoon that makes up the north east corner of the island. This was drained to make farm land with the wall, but the water soon leaked in and these days it is carefully managed to keep the water at the ideal depth (about an inch I think) for wading birds.
A number of islands have also been created, close to the hide, which the birds nest on, providing wonderful views.
I rather like the contrast between the nature of the lagoon and the large ferry passing (Britanny Ferries boat Barfluer heading back to Poole from Cherbourg)
And here an LD Lines vessel on a short-lived service between Poole and Spain distrubring the birds.
The birds seem to like the posts around the island too. These support the fences which are erected to keep the deer of the islands.
Speaking of Deer, you can sometimes see them from the hide too.
I’m told they swim around the shallow waters of the harbour between the mainland and the islands.
From the first hide you can return to the gravel path and continue to a second hide, the McDonald hide which is accessed over a causeway and built part out into the lagoon.
The birds here really are the star of the show and you can literally see hundreds and all sorts of different species. From the fairly common gulls to wading birds such as Curlew and Oystercatcher and ducks such as the Shell Duck. You can also even see spoonbills here sometimes.
But perhaps most impressive is the sheer numbers.
Continuing on the nature trail, you soon come to the villa.
This is where you need to pay if there was no one at the table. There are also toilets upstairs in the villa and a little information display on the ground floor.
Just past the villa are a couple of picnic tables and bird feeders are put up here. They seem to be more favoured by the islands population of red squirrels though!
Just after this there is another dead-end path leading to another bird hide. This one looks over an extensive area of marshes. It often appears as if there is nothing to see here, but keep looking and you are likely to see heron as well as often deer.
The path then continues and heads uphill where there is a path up to another hide. These over look two lakes, formed from clay extraction by the ill-fated pottery although in my experience you normally only see ducks here. I did however once hear and see a Nightjar here.
The path then rounds the top of the cliffs and finally, more coastal views.
From here the path heads down steps to emerge beside the villa and you return on the same path back to the church green. I sometimes then head to cafe, which has a lovely garden overlooking the harbour.
Finally it’s time to return to the quay where there is usually plenty of boat activity to watch.
As well as the coast the inland of the island is worth exploring, for there is a large heath in the centre of the island and numerous wooded areas, where you can often see the famous red squirrels. I hope a few of these photos will give an indication of what can be seen.
Brownsea Island is a lovely island and I very much enjoy my regular visits to the island. It is truly a wildlife haven, I don’t think I have ever seen so many different animals in one place other than at a zoo! The coast too is lovely with high sandstone cliffs, good sandy beaches and fine views of the harbour. I strongly recommend a visit.
It seems nice to end with a dusk view over Poole from Brownsea.
To get to Brownsea Island you can travel from either Sandbanks or Poole.
From Sandbanks, Brownsea Island ferries operate every 30 minutes (on the hour and half past the hour) from 10:00am to 4:30pm whenever the island is open, although there is a break in the ferry service at lunch time. It takes a little over 5 minutes to reach the island. Boats return from the island at quarter past and quarter to the island, except that the last boat from the island is as at 5pm (there is no 4:45pm sailing). The ferries go from a little jetty just next to the chain ferry that goes over the mouth of Poole Harbour. At present a return ticket costs £6.50 currently (National Trust members must also pay). In addition there is a landing charge made by the National Trust on arrival at the island, which is currently £7, but there is no charge for National Trust members.
Parking at Sandbanks can be tricky. At present the B3369 loops around Sandbanks (it is a one-way street and there is on-street parking on this road after the chain ferry and on the side roads off it, in the marked bays only. However Poole Council wants to make this all pay and display. The nearest off-street car park is the main Sandbanks beach car park which is nearly 3/4 of a mile away, so allow at least 20 minutes to walk from here. It costs around £2 per hour.
By bus there are two routes serving Sandbanks, both of which stop by the ferry, just a minute or two walk from the Brownsea Ferry.
Purbeck Breezer route 50 : Bournemouth Station – Bournemouth Square – Westbourne – Canford Cliffs – Sandbanks Ferry – Shell Bay – Studland – Swanage. Hourly Monday – Saturday rising to every 30 minutes during the peak summer. Once every 2 hours on Sundays during the winter and hourly during the summer.
More Wilts and Dorset route 52 : Poole (Bus Station) – Lilliput – Compton Acres Garden – Canford Cliffs – Sandbanks Ferry. Hourly Monday – Saturday only (there is no Sunday Service).
From Poole two companies operate to Brownsea. This is Brownsea Island ferries and Greenslades Pleasure Boats. Both operate from Poole Quay a short walk from the town centre and both operators have a kiosk on the quay from where you can buy a ticket. I believe both operators accept each others tickets on the way back. Boats typically run twice an hour (on the hour and half past) from 10am to 4pm. The last boat back from the island is at 5pm. It takes around 15 minutes to reach Brownsea. On the return crossing from Poole most boats operate a “Round the Islands” tour taking a longer route round some of the islands of the harbour, although this is dependant on tide, hence the return crossing takes a bit longer. From Poole it costs £10.75 return and as mentioned before if you are not a member of the National Trust, there is an additional £7 landing charge on reaching the island.
There is a large quay car park a short walk from the boats which costs £7.20 for 8 hours, which should be enough to visit the island.
Poole has extensive public transport links. The bus and rail stations are both around a (fairly brisk) 20 minute walk from the quay and there are many train and bus services to nearby towns from these. If you prefer not to walk Poole Route ONE (town circular) bus route runs every 15 minutes Monday – Saturday and links Poole Bus and Rail stations to the quay.