Frances was brought up in Shropshire. She writes about country walks, urban gardens and the wildness that can be found on the doorstep. A music teacher by training, Frances currently volunteers part-time at Chelsea Physic Garden.
I arrived at Sandbanks in the early evening. Despite it being June the light was fading and there was a chill in the air. Brownsea Island looked more of an ominous cloud than welcoming retreat. Two National Trust wardens appeared, unflappable and cheerful, and took us in their little boat across the water and deposited us on the jetty. Walking through the trees to our hostel there was a curious feeling of being both within the grounds of a stately home and being on an uninhabited island, such as the one camped on by John, Susan, Titty and Roger in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons. Brownsea has sandy beaches, and pine trees that are home to the island’s treasured population of red squirrels. That evening we met one of Browsea’s resident peacocks, Benedict, who patrolled the area near the hostel, sometimes with his peahen, and wasn’t averse to climbing on top of the shed roof and uttering a long, loud squawk.
We woke to a beautiful morning. I went down to the sea before breakfast and watched oystercatchers fishing at the water’s edge. The sea was calm, the sun gently rising and it really was the most peaceful setting. A tiny bird darted between the branches of a pine tree and underneath I started to feel the warmth of the sun.
There is a lot of history to Brownsea, formerly known as Branksea, and Patrick Barkham gives an account of it in his book Coastlines. The terrain is varied and, although not a place for long walks because of its size, there is a lot to discover. My first sighting of a red squirrel, running the length of a log pile not far from the hostel was exciting; even better was seeing them up close once we were out exploring the island. Smaller and more delicate than greys, with pointed tufts for ears, they really are the definition of cute.
The island was busy with day trippers throughout our stay and, given the glorious weather, this was hardly surprising. To really notice Brownsea’s wildlife you have to visit the other part of the island managed as a nature reserve by the Dorset Wildlife Trust. Following a little path bordered by semi-wetland, the cries of people and peacocks melted away and we were in another world. Dragonflies, damselflies and a host of other insects flew about and there were birds we could hear but not see. At the centre of the reserve stands The Old Vicarage, now used to house the DWT’s wardens and a little shop. Nestled at the bottom of the hillside with plants and shrubs growing up around it, the house looked ripe to explore as we came across it in the late afternoon, and, amazingly, it was open, without a soul in sight. A list of birds currently in the island’s waters was written up in the hallway and inside a range of cards and books sat above an honesty box. There was a bird feeder in the front where tits and chaffinches were snacking, and a couple of red squirrels popped down to see what they could find, boldly seeing off a rook who thought he might join in. We left the house and followed the path into an arboretum, planted many years ago and increasing the diversity of tree species on the island. A carpet of beech leaves underfoot, then oaks and a mulberry tree, but there were many more I didn’t identify. Reaching the top of the hill we found ourselves on a cliff overlooking the water. The sun still shone with intensity and the white painted buildings of the mainland and white sails stood out in contrast to the bright blues of the water and sky.
The next morning I returned to visit the bird hides, two of which looked out onto the Lagoon, a stretch of water separated from the sea by a thin piece of land. It was nesting time for the black-headed gulls and we saw crowds of them standing guard and protecting their chicks. Common terns also perched on posts nearby, but their nests were elsewhere and we didn’t notice any tern chicks. Shelduck swam serenely in this stretch of water. A kind volunteer lent me his binoculars and I vowed to do my next bit of bird watching with my own.
Brownsea is a beautiful place to visit. It’s hard to get off the beaten track, unless you are lucky enough to stay overnight, but that, ironically, is not what this island is about. Occupying a unique place nestled in Poole Harbour, it provides a haven for wildlife and gives visitors the chance to share this spot with the natural world whilst keeping a relatively low footprint. There are no cars on Brownsea, except for a couple of land rovers used by the wardens. Without the visitors and the shop and amenities that often come as standard, the National Trust would struggle to finance it and, ultimately, manage it for wildlife. The island is a lovely place to amble, but the DWT’s reserve is an absolute must for visitors wanting to see bird-life
With a train to catch, we opted to take the ferry bound for Poole, rather than Sandbanks. This was an unexpected bonus as the boat took us around Brownsea and its neighbouring islands with a richly entertaining commentary from the captain. A glorious ride with green fields to one side and the pines of Brownsea to the other. Go and explore, and the quieter you are, the more you will discover.
All images included with this post are credited to Stephanie Bull.