13 March 2016
Eventually I managed to tear CJ away from the squirrels but this had more to do with running out of nuts than any desire on his part to walk along the shore. Walking beside the sea feels like food for the soul to me and the beaches on this part of the Dorset coast have fine golden sand rather than the crunchy shingle of my own shore. It may still have been too cold for paddling or walking barefoot with waves lapping at our toes but the smell of the salt and the sound of those waves made my heart sing.
The sun had come out and Bournemouth pier was filled with people. The first pier, a short wooden jetty, was built in 1856. The second, built in 1861, had a short, turbulent life with wooden piles decimated by teredo worm and storms in 1867 and 1877 to finish the job. The next was demolished during World War II, to prevent invasion.
Today’s pier is a major attraction with an amusement arcade, shops, bars, restaurants, a zip wire and more. We had no need of any of these so we left it behind. I had a plan and it began with the lovely rainbow coloured beach huts lining the Bournemouth shore.
There’s something very cheery and typically English about brightly coloured beach huts. Since 2010, when Geraldine Hemingway of Red or Dead fashion fame turned these particular huts into a work of art, they have been some of my favourites. They’re painted in graduated shades from creamy ochres, through greens, turquoises, blues, purples and pinks to pale orange. The scheme is called sunrise to sunset and I absolutely love it. It makes me want to buy a row of sheds and paint them. They’d be guaranteed to make me smile whenever I felt sad.
Strangely, CJ wasn’t as impressed by the beach hut art as he had been by the squirrels. He was, however, impressed by the striated sandy clay cliffs where interesting plant fossils have been found. Until Bournemouth’s urbanisation the erosion of these cliffs created the beautiful golden sands we walked along. These days the sea wall covers the base and steps have been taken to halt erosion, so there would be no fossil hunting for us although CJ would have been more than willing.
Between Bournemouth and Boscombe piers there are two zigzag walks from the beach to the hotels and houses on Overcliff Drive. In the middle is a funicular railway called East Cliff Lift.
“That’s a long way up,” CJ said gazing at it.
“It’s a hundred and seventy feet, I looked it up. You’ve been on a longer one,” I told him, “but you probably don’t remember, you were only about six or seven. I might have a photo somewhere.”
“Where was that?”
“In Devon, the Lynton and Lynmouth Cliff Railway. It’s five hundred feet long and is powered by water, not electricity like this one. The one in Devon was built in 1890 too and this one wasn’t built until 1908.”
Waves crashed against the groynes and the sun sparkled off the sea but didn’t warm is appreciably. Close to the next zig zag we came to some more colourful beach huts. These are phase three of Geraldine Hemingway’s project to brighten the beach front and are called Ice Cream, for obvious reasons. While the Sunrise to Sunset huts will always be my favourite, if only for the sheer visual impact, these ones made me smile too. Unfortunately, they also made me want ice cream but that would have to wait a while.
Further on there was more artwork. The painting of a row of beach huts and the little land train that runs up and down the beach in summer were painted by local artist Lisa Berkshire in 2007. The train shed on Boscombe seafront, was a bit of an eyesore and there were calls to tear it down but the artwork, using self portraits painted by local school children, has made a feature of it. Even grumpy CJ had a little grin when he saw it.
At some point we’d crossed the fuzzy line between Bournemouth and Boscombe beach and were fast approaching our second pier. Boscombe has existed since at least the thirteenth century and the name means valley overgrown with spiky plants, which is just what it would have started out as when this area was all heathland. Until the beginning of the ninteenth century it was mostly a smugglers haunt but it grew into a seaside resort along with Bournemouth and Poole. It was swallowed up by Bournemouth in 1876, much to the disgust of local residents.
We stopped at the pier and sat on the raised platform in front of it watching people in coats and hats wandering along the seafront.
“Do you fancy walking to the end of the pier?” I asked.
“Not really, it looks a bit crowded. Is there anything to see there?”
“Just the sea really and the surf reef but I don’t suppose that’ll be working at the moment.”
“I didn’t think it worked at all,” CJ said.
He was probably right. The surf reef was part of the 2006 Boscombe Spa Development Plan aimed at luring holidaymakers from Bournemouth and putting Boscombe on the map. It backfired when, in 2009, after many delays, it was finished and didn’t really live up to its promise. The waves were too short, too intense and inconsistent. Modifications were made but it never really worked and closed in 2011. The contractor went out of business a year later. In 2014 it was rebranded as a Costal Activity Park but surfers felt it made them a laughing stock.
“How about an ice cream then?” I suggested, having spied an open ice cream stall by the pier entrance.
We walked over and had a look but CJ deemed them too expensive and the queues too long. I had the feeling he was getting fed up with the beach or maybe tired. He may have younger legs but he lacks my stamina. We sat back on the steps for a bit looking at the pretty Victorian houses on the hill opposite. I could see a small hut, some signs and a path leading away from the beach which I thought might cheer him up so we went for a look.
The path led to Boscombe Chine. Chines are steep sided eroded valleys usually with a stream. They make pretty walks but, when I was planning, the combination of hills and extra distance seemed a step too far so I’d discounted it. CJ was keen though so we set off along the gently sloping path. Almost at once he saw some chalked graffiti he liked and cheered up considerably.
When we’d set out, eight hours seemed like ample time to explore Bournemouth. Now a look at my watch told me it wasn’t nearly enough. Allowing for a moderately paced walk I knew we should be heading back. Because I’d discounted the chine walk I didn’t know where it would end up and, in the steep valley, I couldn’t get Google Maps to work. When we came to a side path leading to the top of the cliffs we both agreed it was best to take it. The chine would have to wait for another visit.
This was a good idea. The views from the cliff top were spectacular and a strange vessel moored off shore gave us something to wonder about, although we never did find out what it was. Behind us were hotels and swanky apartments and, when we reached the top of the cliff railway, we found an interesting sculpture.
It was CJ who discovered the plaque explaining the three curved metal contrails topped by red planes were a memorial to Red Arrow pilot Flight Leutenant Jon Egging who died when his Hawk crashed at the Bournemouth Airshow in 2011. The stunning piece with Red Arrows jets and red, white and blue glass discs is called Always follow your dreams, Blue Skies. The deep blue sky behind it seemed fitting. The design was based on an idea from local school children and the commission was won by Artist Tim Ward.
It was also CJ who discovered another memorial nearby. This was to Flight Leutenant John Henry Green, a Canadian who flew with the RAF during World War II. He died during a 1947 air display for the RAF Benevolent Fund when his spitfire crashed into the sea between Boscombe and Bournemouth. His memorial is a patch of stones that look remarkably like a grave and a small plaque. Perhaps the powers that be should commission some artwork, maybe a spitfire sculpture?
We carried on in thoughtful mood. CJ mentioned the recovered spitfire engine we’d seen in the Solent Sky Museum.
“I wonder if his plane was ever recovered from the sea?” he said.
When we came to the top of the second zigzag path we decided to return to the beach. It was long and steep but certainly easier coming down than struggling up would have been.
Before long we were passing the rainbow beach huts again and then the Bournemouth Peir. The walk back had seemed far shorter than the walk out, maybe the cliff top had been a short cut. This time, when I asked if he wanted an ice cream, CJ said yes. There was a queue and it cost the same but soon we were sitting on a wall enjoying our ice cream cones. Beside us a child was whining about sand in his shoes. His parents were fussing round him.
“You’d have left me behind,” CJ whispered, looking on disapprovingly.
“It was my patented anti whining trick,” I laughed. “Whenever any of you boys started having tantrums I’d just pretend to walk away. You always came running quick smart.”
“I remember,” he said.
“I never went very fast and I always knew exactly where you were. I have eyes in the back of my head, remember?”
With our ice creams finished we made our way back to the River Bourne and the gardens. We waved at the squirrels as we passed and looked up at the balloon, still going up and down filled with eager passengers.
Weary now we retraced our steps through the gardens. The journey back was all uphill and our legs protested a little from all the walking. Eventually we came to the Coy Pond and it was time to say goodbye to the Bourne. Somehow CJ found the energy to try to make friends with a final squirrel. With no nuts left he wasn’t very successful, or maybe the squirrels in Poole aren’t as tame as those in Bournemouth.
On the trail through Talbot Heath a cyclist almost mowed down two elderly ladies and their dog right in front of us. Incensed, CJ shouted after him to mind out and got a rude gesture for his trouble. In our absence the huge supermarket had opened and shut again. In the end we reached the Bourne Academy with time to spare. It had been a wonderful day filled with squirrels and beach huts but our feet were glad it was finally over.