You can’t be late for meetings on Brownsea.
There may be a queue through Shaftesbury or perhaps roadworks at Wimborne but even if the drive through Dorset is smooth, Poole will trip you up. It’s a busy place.. and by the time your car is skirting the harbour to Sandbanks, the clock is ticking perilously close to sailing time.
Then there are all the builders’ vans carrying out the latest refits to the Sandbanks mansions. Getting a car space can be problematic..so as you run for the ferry you know you’ve missed it. Nothing more defeating than standing on the jetty with the wind in your face watching it disappear towards Brownsea Castle.. after a long tense journey.
If you get there though..it’s another world. The Castle looms towards you as you approach by boat and underneath it all there is a 1540s Tudor fort. Since the 18th century, it has been owned by wealthy men who bent the building and island to their will..This is a mini-kingdom, once with all the trimmings, many now decayed and hidden in the woods.
The residents live mainly in the east. Once past the castle and the old coastguard cottages you are crossing the green, the Victorian church on the right and the model farm buildings on the left. The oldest visible building remains lie within the farm buildings. If you know where to look, the stones of a medieval chapel and the thin bricks of a fort governor’s house can be found. Medieval bodies lie beneath the farm cottages.
If you made the 8.30 staff boat, then once past the farm buildings the Island is yours. A scene from Bambi with red squirrels and deer mixing with the peacocks and seagulls. They cross your path as you progress west.
The first stop is the beach to view what the sea has done to the brick kilns. Each winter the storms cut a new trench into the south shore cliff and take away another chunk of industrial archaeology. We cleaned and excavated a section along the cliffs here in 2005 drawing and photographing what we saw. Each year Gill and Alan monitor the cliffs and record new exposures.
Brownsea’s industry has been episodic. Rich men wanting to get richer, investing money for a while and then abandoning the place when things didn’t work out. The evidence for their efforts lies in the cliff face. There has been brick and tile making here at least from the early 17th century. The cliff is striped with bright red, orange and black debris soils and heaps of burnt clay and brick and kiln waste spew onto the beach. There are pits with thin hand-made bricks but the most visible kilns are 18th-19th century.
The south shore is lovely and it was a great place to work but back past the Victorian dog kennels and the scout camp towards Maryland.
To the right, among the conifers, are deep hollows stamped into the ground with a ridge around their lip. Once, I saw dinosaur footprints like this in a Purbeck quarry but they were half a metre across. These are ten times the size and not caused by a massive sauropod trudging through the mud. In the 1940s, German bombers were tricked into dropping their load on the island by a ‘starfish’ mock-up of Poole, created with wires and cordite by Elstree film men.
At last I arrive at the west end and start to walk among brick ruins. A crescent shaped terrace of houses was built beside the sea in the 1850s for Colonel Waugh who believed the Brownsea clays would make him rich. This was his pottery workers settlement which he named after his wife Mary. Each family had a garden out the back and there are still fruit trees and paths and edging tiles showing their plots.
Over 200 people once lived at Maryland. We have their memories and the census returns describe the families and lodgers who occupied this place. Each day the children would go to school at the east end. We uncovered the pub in 2007 and brought in cider to toast the place, re-occupying the Bentinck Arms 80 years on.
It’s all very Enid Blyton and full of stories. Now a tranquil place but once full of family life and industry.