The best of Dorset in words and pictures

Christchurch’s St Catherine’s Hill

Chris Chapleo enjoys the views from the border

Looking south-east across the slopes of St Catherine’s Hill in late August

St Catherine’s Hill can be an enigmatic place – a 45-metre-high pocket of wild heathland and pine woods sandwiched between the floodplain of the Avon Valley and the suburban sprawl of Christchurch and Bournemouth.

An obvious landmark to aircraft and walkers, it yet remains little known to many of the residents who live within a few miles of its slopes.

The hill is close to the Dorset-Hampshire border. It is actually just east of Bournemouth, with views across the town, but has perhaps even more impressive views looking towards Hampshire. To the east, the New Forest spreads as far as the eye can see into the distance, and turning to look southwards gives a different panorama down to Hengistbury Head and the Isle of Wight beyond. In the foreground is the Avon Valley, with the river snaking across the lush water meadows of its floodplain as it runs down from Salisbury to meet the River Stour and join the sea at Christchurch Harbour a mile or two south of here. The Avon Valley is rich in wildlife, particularly wildfowl in winter, and well-known to anglers for the quality of the coarse fishing. The views of Bournemouth to the west are somewhat more urban but still dramatic, with vistas across the conurbation and the key landmarks of JP Morgan Chase Bank, the Bournemouth International Centre and beyond to Poole and Purbeck.

While these sweeping views can draw one’s gaze to the distance, it is worth remembering that what’s right at one’s feet can be interesting, too. The top of the hill is mainly open pine woods, although some areas are being cleared to match the eastern slopes, which are a remnant of fairly unspoilt Dorset heathland. The slopes and base of the hill (an area known as ‘Town Common’) have multiple European protection designations including Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), Special Area for Conservation (SAC) and Special Protection Area (SPA), reflecting the fact that they are rich in flora and fauna.

The view north across Town Common in early summer

The sandy soils on the heath are very acid, even more so than much of the New Forest, and this has led to some plants that are rare or even absent in the New Forest being present, especially in the damper areas. A particularly unusual plant that does well here is the carnivorous sundew. The St Catherine’s Hill area supports all three UK species, although the great sundew is rare. The compact long leaved sundew and the round leaved sundew seem to thrive on the damp paths and bridleways, however, using their sticky, colourful leaves to attract and trap flies that they then digest to absorb nutrients. These intriguing little red plants are easily recognised and the compacted wet ground suits their needs well.

Heather covers most open ground and in August and September can provide a vibrant purple flowering display, particularly bell and ling heather on the slopes and cross leaved heather which is common on the wetter areas of the hill. The Town Common area supports other damp-loving heathland plants such as bog asphodel, sphagnum moss and cotton grass, which are easily seen. This flora in turn supports particular fauna that occupy a heathland niche, with some specialist birds, reptiles and insects calling this home.

Reptiles are a real speciality of the area. All six species of native British reptile occur on Town Common’s heath and part of it is a nature reserve managed by the Herpetological Conservation Trust and leased from the owners, the Malmesbury Estate. There are very few areas in the UK where all these species occur, although the secretive nature of reptiles makes seeing them a tricky matter, particularly the rare sand lizard and elusive smooth snake. Some of our scarce heathland birds are a little more easily found, with Dartford warblers singing from gorse in spring, nightjars at dusk and the occasional hobby overhead, as well as the commoner stonechat and buzzard in evidence.

A wintry view to the
north of the hill

The heathland dotted with pools and marshy areas and the adjoining river valley make the area very good for dragonflies and damselflies in summer, with a combination of heathland and river species such as keeled skimmer, hairy dragonfly and black darter. The large hawker dragonflies are particularly noticeable – these four-inch insects can be seen in summer purposefully patrolling heathland pools and trees and are often inquisitive enough to give humans a closer inspection!
The wildlife generally co-exist well with other leisure activities around the hill, of which riding and target shooting are two of the most notable. Although some of the paths are seasonal (to protect the sand lizards that lay eggs on the paths), horse and pony riders use the rest of the network of statutory bridleways across Town Common for hacking out across the heath and there is an equestrian centre nearby at Dudmoor. The shooting range, run by Christchurch Gun Club and located in a large sandpit at the southern end of the hill, provides opportunities for live round target shooting and on Sundays in particular, the crackle of small arms fire can often be heard in the background. Other activities are less compatible with the area’s conversation status, however – unscrupulous prohibited mountain biking on sensitive areas can be an issue and, as in most heath areas, dry summers bring the constant threat of fire.

Looking across Bournemouth from the western side of the hill

St Catherine’s Hill is also an area of considerable historical and archaeological significance, with evidence of activity over several thousand years. The Bronze Age is perhaps the most significant era, with a number of artefacts having been found at the southern end of the hill. Individual items include pottery and a ‘palgrave’ (a type of bronze axe), dating back to between 2800 and 4000 years old, found near the hill’s collection of tumuli. These circular mounds of earth were used to cover burial sites and the evidence points to a significant cemetery at St Catherine’s Hill.

The Roman era has a lesser but still interesting ‘footprint’ in the area, with the discovery of material leading to suggestions of the hill’s elevated position being used as a Roman military signalling station between 1600 and 1950 years ago, although this has not been proven beyond doubt.

In Saxon times the hill was also apparently almost the site of Christchurch Priory! Legend has it that St Catherine’s Hill was chosen for the church by Ralph Flambard and work began. However, each evening the builders would finish work and return the next morning to find the building work undone and the materials moved. On one occasion a beam was cut too short, but a stranger miraculously lengthened it to fit again! The builders decided that this mysterious stranger must have been Christ and the Church’s location was moved to the present site of the Priory, where the beam had re-appeared.

St Catherine’s Hill may have its share of flora, fauna, ancient history and contemporary leisure, but for many the best experience is just to sit on top on a summer evening, to gaze at the view across the River Avon and the New Forest and to appreciate a little bit of our Dorset heathland heritage.

Bell and ling heather in bloom on the eastern slopes

Dorset Directory