By Terry Willey.

As part of a visit to Poole Harbour earlier this year, we were especially keen to take a trip over the water to Brownsea Island, via one of the ferries that run daily from the bustling harbour.

There was a special reason I was keen to revisit the Island, having had the opportunity in the late 1960’s of staying in Brownsea Castle for a holiday. At that time, this was a privilege open to senior managers of the John Lewis Partnership with their families, and strictly subject to availability. The cost of staying at the castle was considerably subsidised by John Lewis and was entirely exclusive and not open to the public, as is still the case today. I recall that the week was full of arranged activities including walks around the Island and the chance to observe its varied wildlife, including peacocks and red squirrels.

Changes over time

On our more recent visit, we boarded the boat late morning, and I was keen to see if there were any changes since those early days with my parents. I found that there had been considerable improvements to the arrival pontoon area, which I recall was basically a gangplank from the land to an approaching small boat with an outboard motor! The National Trust, which owns the entire Island, has provided an excellent visitors centre and café and, whilst not always available, there are opportunities to be ferried around the Island in small electric buggies to assist those who are not able to easily walk.

The centre was operated by very pleasant staff on behalf of National Trust who welcomed at least 50 visitors from our large ferry, outlining the facilities on offer along with the excellent museum. Certainly a far cry from my visit all those years ago!

The day we arrived was quite hot and sunny and I could hear the peacocks in the distance but unable to see them as they were sheltering from the heat. However, red squirrels could be seen occasionally.  Time did not permit us to take on a designated walking trail, but we were able to spend some time around the castle and in the museum. The public are not permitted within the castle or its walled grounds, but there is plenty to see outside and throughout the Island.

Brownsea Castle

The castle has stood since the 16th century and remains an impressive sight. It was a private residence in 1726 for one William Benson, and after improvements over the following years it became a place of great interest and importance, being visited by the Prince of Wales in 1818. Interestingly Major Kenneth Balfour purchased the whole Island in 1891 and introduced to the Island Sika Deer from Japan.

In 1896 the castle was rebuilt after having been destroyed by fire in January of the preceding year. That marked a time of Edwardian splendour when Robert Baden-Powell, later to become a Lord, was given permission to hold an experimental camp for 20 boys in 1907 which led to the founding of the Scouting Organisation in 1908. In 1927 Brownsea Island was purchased by Mrs Mary Florence Bonham-Christie as a place where she could live as a recluse. All the Islanders at that time were given notice and all the animals were let loose to roam, thereby allowing Nature to take over.

Sadly, however, decay set in and in 1934 there was another serious fire that damaged Maryland Village and half of the Island, although the only Island Church, Villa and Castle survived undamaged.

The war years

During the Second World War, Brownsea Island was a prohibited area, allowing Army and Naval personal to be stationed there. Mrs. Bonham-Christie died in April 1961, leaving the Island to her grandson and this marked the first involvement of the National Trust as he was unable to pay the death duties.

Ultimately the Island was offered by the State to the National Trust, which undertook a great deal of clearance work and was officially opened to the public in May 1963 by Lady Baden-Powell, widow of the founder of the Scout movement. The John Lewis Partnership was then given a lease of the Castle Hotel for their employees’ holidays, and the Dorset Wildlife Trust has a nature reserve there. The church remains the property of the Church of England as an “Island within an Island”. This rich history together with lots of remaining artifacts are explained and displayed in the museum.

As we walked around we were able to savour a tangible sense of history from this uniquely- situated little Island sitting within Poole Harbour –  Europe’s largest natural harbour, and a valuable nature conservation site. This is a magnificent wetland, teeming with wading birds and designated as a site of significant scientific interest one of the country’s most spectacular and beautiful habitats. The whole area is registered as a Special Protection Area (SPA) and can be observed from the numerous boat trips available throughout the year that leave from Poole Harbour and take in Brownsea Island, Sandbanks, Furzey Island, Green Island, Long Island and Giggers and Penguin Island to name a few.

Maintaining the Island

We were fortunate to take a trip of over an hour, with excellent commentary all inclusive of our stay at Brownsea. Our day concluded with the landing back at Poole Harbour where numerous lunch venues are sited along the quayside. The restaurants set up seating with umbrellas on fine days, such as we were having, but we found it’s also enjoyable to sit along the quay walls and watch all the boats coming and going whilst relaxing with our food and drink.

It had been especially nice to spend some time with the National Trust staff on the Island, who were fascinated to hear that I had in fact stayed in the castle in the late 60s, not long after they had acquired the Island in 1963.

I am certain my late parents would have applauded the John Lewis Partnership for maintaining and improving the castle and grounds, and the National Trust for the way it has also beautifully preserved the natural environment of the Island, pontoon arrival area and visitors’ building, while at the same time making it a wonderful destination for Scouting trips, walkers, wildlife enthusiasts and everyone wishing to simply take in and enjoy the splendour of this very special Island.