Brownsea Island isn’t just a great place to visit, it’s an adventure. And like all the best adventures, it begins and ends with a boat trip.
It’s also an adventure packed with rare and exotic creatures, hidden away places and treks through wild and wooded spaces.
Brownsea Island is an accident of nature. It’s a one and a half-mile long dollop of land in the middle of Poole Harbour, but don’t think of “harbour” in the sense of concrete piers and quays, cargo boats and lots of unpleasant flotsam drifting by.
Think “harbour” in the sense of “natural harbours”. In the sense of vast expanses of semi-enclosed water surrounded by mudflats and tidal marshes. In the sense of a huge tidal lake surrounded by hills and heaths and woodland and dunes. Fix that thought, then think how cool it would be to live in a house in the middle of it all on an Island!
This is a thought that others have had before and so it is that Brownsea Island has a long and varied history of human habitation, military occupation and various kinds economic exploitation.
Today Brownsea Island is owned by the National Trust, which given that it is a short boat ride away from Sandbanks, some of the most expensive and highly-prized residential real estate in the World, is probably a good thing. It means that instead of being home to a bunch of over-rated Premiership soccer players, Brownsea Island is a nature reserve unlike any other in England.
But don’t confuse nature reserve with “natural habitat”. Brownsea Island is a managed habitat and has been for centuries. The effects of human habitation on the Island are clear to see, from the landing stage and picturesque house and cottages on the Eastern shore to the disused Pottery Pier at the Island’s most Westerly tip. Everything in between is managed by man - or at least the National Trust and the Dorset Wildlife Trust - to optimise the benefits for the diverse species that live on and use the Island and its shores.
Most human visitors to the Island arrive at the Brownsea landing stage, on one of the many ferries that regularly service this particular stop. Double-decker bus-like boats, ply their trade from Poole Quay, Swanage, Sandbanks and Bournemouth.
On a sunny day, what better way can there be to start an adventure than a boat ride. There’s masses to see, from the natural scenery to the host of boats and ships large and small. You may even see Brittany Ferries’s massive cross-channel “Barfleur” and Condor’s high-speed Channel Island service fast-cats, all of which operate out of Poole.
In contrast to these leviathans, arrival at Brownsea has a much cosier and rural feel - a small landing stage and a row of small, shoreline cottages. You will already have paid your boat fare, but if you are not a National Trust Member, you will also have to pay an entrance fee to the Island. So make sure you do your sums before you leave the “mainland”.
Once you are on Brownsea, there’s a excellent visitor centre, with shop and Café/Restaurant. The Café itself would be worth the trip as the food is tasty and affordable for most pockets and, in fine weather, the fully enclosed garden is a bizarrely wonderful place. One minute you’re sitting enjoying your lunch or a cappuccino, with a view across the sea to Sandbanks or Studland. The next you could be faced with the side of a cross-channel ferry slipping into or out of the harbour. This odd union between land and sea, can at times seem surreal!
This little corner of Brownsea is information, refreshment and relaxation. It is also as commercial as the Island gets! For this reason it could be as far as those who expect, or need, their entertainment to be brought to them on a plate get. For everyone else, this point will not mark the full extent of their enjoyment of Brownsea Island, more likely it will be the marker of its beginning and end.
Brownsea Island is probably best viewed as a place for exploration. It’s as riddled with beautiful walkways and paths as Swiss Cheese is with holes. Paths criss-cross and circle the whole Island as well as different sections of it. There are woodland walks and heathland walks, coastal walks and beach walks. All have wonderful views whether of the Island itself, or across the water to Purbeck.
And you will certainly want to keep your eyes peeled. If you don’t you are likely to miss the most spectacular of Brownsea’s residents.
Not far from the visitor centre as you make your way into the Island, there’s a farmyard, Church and a village green, where you can sit and picnic. Here you will find domestic chicken running wild and, more often than not, a peacock or two. These can also be found high up in trees or on the ground throughout the Island so keep looking.
Elsewhere on Brownsea there are also deer and waterfowl. The latter can be seen particularly well from the Dorset Wildlife Trust hide. But there’s no doubt, for most visitors to Brownsea, the real wildlife stars are the squirrels. Not just any squirrels, but Red Squirrels.
Brownsea Island is almost the only place in England where you can see Red Squirrels in the wild, and they are gorgeous!
With this wealth of wildife, it’s no wonder that the BBC’s Autumn Watch 2008 decided to base themselves here, but you don’t need to be Bill Oddie or Kate Humble to see Red Squirrels at Brownsea and you don’t need a camera like Simon King’s to get up close and personal. If you’re alert and reasonably quiet you’re almost certain to spot at least one fluffy-eared, bushy-tailed, bright-eyed Red Squirrel during an amble through Brownsea.
If you happen to have some binoculars, take them with you, but if not, you’ll still see plenty without them. In the Autumn months the squirrels are particularly active as they come down to the ground to collect nuts. But otherwise keep looking up and the chances are you’ll be lucky!
Brownsea Island is a wonderful day out at any age, but inquisitive kids find it particularly magical (and energetic), which is probably why Baden Powell’s first-ever Scout camp took place there and why the Baden Powell Outdoor Centre is still there today.
To the extent that there are any downsides to a place as beautiful as Brownsea Island, they are these.
The landing stage for journeys home can get busy and confusing at peak times, especially if you have a cluster of younger children.
You will also want to make sure you don’t miss the last boat back, so keeping an eye on your watch can be important if you don’t want to have to sprint half the length of the Island!
Lastly, despite Brownsea’s apparent seclusion, it can be a noisy place. The passage of the occasional ferry or chugging fishing boat is bearable, but the incessant, if distant, whine of jet-skis and speed boats can, at certain times, detract from the overall feel of such a beautiful place and penetrates quite deeply into even the most wooded and central areas of the Island. That said the squirrels don’t seem to mind and once you’ve seen one you probably won’t care either! A gentle cruise around the back of the Island on your way home will do much to smooth any tension, whatever the cause.
Don’t go to Brownsea Island expecting a “fun-park”, but do expect a wild and unique park that will give you an immense amount of fun!
Don’t go to Brownsea Island expecting a “fun-park”, but do expect a wild and unique park that will give you an immense amount of fun!..."