The best of Dorset in words and pictures

‘A Mediterranean lounging place’

John Walker is our guide on a tour through central Bournemouth

Looking from Bournemouth’s Central Gardens, past the War Memorial on the left, to the imposing Town Hall buildings – previously the Mont Dore Hotel until its purchase in 1919 and subsequent conversion for council purposes

Two hundred years ago, central Bournemouth was just wild heathland with no development at all – quite surprising considering the close proximity to Poole’s growing port and to the ancient priory town of Christchurch.

Significant interest in the area did not occur until 1810, yet by 1890 Bournemouth had grown sufficiently to achieve Municipal Borough status. It has been said that no town in Victorian times could compete with Bournemouth’s pace of expansion and fortunately, much of the heritage of this period has been retained through its fine churches and the Victoriana of the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum. In Tess of d’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy likened Bournemouth (which he called Sandbourne) to a ‘Mediterranean lounging place on the English Channel’.

The walk starts at the 1984 Bournemouth International Centre (BIC) in Exeter Road. The BIC is well signposted and has excellent parking and refreshment facilities. Over £20 million was spent on its modernisation during 2004/5, making it one of the country’s leading venues for conferences, exhibitions and top entertainment attractions.

Cross the road from the BIC to the 1958 Punshon Memorial Methodist Church, designed by Ronald A Sims as a modern replacement for the 1886 church of the same name, which was destroyed by bombing in 1943. It was named in memory of Rev. Dr William Morley Punshon (1824-81), a noted Methodist leader who conceived the idea of fund-raising to enable communities in holiday resorts to provide larger churches than would otherwise be possible.

Bear left along the church courtyard to view the Royal Exeter Hotel from the south. In 1810 Captain Lewis Tregonwell, a wealthy Dorset landowner destined to become known as the founder of Bournemouth, purchased land on which to build houses for the summer enjoyment of his family and friends. His main residence, known locally as the Mansion, now forms part of this hotel. The Mansion was completed in 1812. The hotel was previously named the Royal and Imperial Exeter Hotel but the word ‘Imperial’ was dropped at the beginning of World War I when it was deemed inappropriate.

Continue down Exeter Road to its junction with Exeter Crescent. On the opposite side of Exeter Road is the site of the former Winter Gardens, referring to the two concert halls that bore this name. Both were home to the Bournemouth Municipal (later Bournemouth Symphony) Orchestra.

Now a grade II listed building, the Bournemouth Echo building was built in the early 1930s by Seal and Hardy. Designed in eye-catching Art Deco style, the main elevations are faced in ‘Monks Park Bath Stone’.

Stay on Exeter Road and on the opposite side you will see a mosaic dedicated to the brilliant young Art Nouveau artist and illustrator, Aubrey Beardsley (1872-98), who lodged in a house on this site for a few months in early 1897. Further on, the former St Andrew’s Scottish Presbyterian (later United Reformed) Church, a Victorian church which closed in 2004, is reached.

Walk onwards to the pedestrianised Square. Next to the Camera Obscura, view the fine pebble pavement mosaic with a maritime theme.

Now turn left along Bourne Avenue and immediately descend into the Central Gardens by the sloping path opposite Borders bookshop. After about fifty yards, turn left and walk to the end of the 1990 pergola to admire Paradise, the natural garden between here and the Square. Return to the path and turn left to view Bournemouth’s war memorial. Just beyond the memorial is a seated area, laid out in 1998 and dedicated to the memory of Diana, Princess of Wales.

Return to the war memorial and climb the steps to the road to admire the imposing Bournemouth Town Hall. Originally built as the Mont Dore Hotel – King Oscar II of Sweden and Norway laid its foundation stone in 1881 – it was once a mecca for wealthy invalids coming to Bournemouth to ‘take the cure’.

Turn right, cross to the opposite corner and climb the steps to the re-named Richmond Hill St Andrew’s United Reformed Church, the largest church in Bournemouth. Designed by Messrs Lawson and Donkin, it opened in 1891 to replace the original Richmond Hill Congregational Church.

Continue up the slope past the church and turn left down St Stephen’s Road to the much-admired St Stephen’s Church, designed by John Loughborough Pearson and built between 1885 and 1908. In 1888, it was the location of the wedding of Prince Oscar of Sweden and Norway to a commoner. Former Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman said in a 1949 broadcast that it was worth travelling two hundred miles on a coach, and being sick on the journey, in order to visit this church!

St Peter’s churchyard with the Shelley tomb in the foreground, the burial place of Mary Shelley and the heart of her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley

Return along St Stephen’s Road to its junction with Richmond Hill, pausing to admire the 1934 Art Deco excellence of the purpose-built Daily Echo building, designed by A J Seal and Partners. Cross the road and bear right down the hill to the elegant Roman Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart, completed in 1875 and extended in 1900. Its main entrance is in Albert Road.

Continue along Albert Road to its junction with Old Christchurch Road. Immediately opposite is Beales, Bournemouth’s oldest department store. J E Beale and his wife set up the Fancy Fair fancy goods store nearby in 1881, which grew and grew until J E Beale Ltd was founded.

Turn right to reach a glass archway covering a suspended giant fob watch, which was a gift from Bournemouth’s twin town, Lucerne, to commemorate the 1990 centenary of Bournemouth achieving Municipal Borough status. Turn left through the arcade, formerly Gervis Arcade when built by Henry Joy in 1866. The fortunes of its shops took a turn for the better once it was glazed over in 1873.

At the far end of the arcade, turn left up Gervis Place and cross the road for a final Victorian church visit. The prominent St Peter’s, Bournemouth’s founding parish church, was re-built to its present specification between 1851 and 1879. It was mainly designed by the noted architect, George Edmund Street, best known for the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand. Refreshments are available here.

Climb the steps behind the church to view Bournemouth’s two most-visited tombs. The large oblong tomb straddling the steps is the family tomb of Lewis and Henrietta Tregonwell, founders of Bournemouth. Turn back towards the church and descend to view the large tomb on the left, the Shelley tomb. Among those buried here are Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, and the re-interred remains of her literary parents, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. Also within the tomb is the heart of Mary’s husband, the famous poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, which was removed during the cremation of his body on an Italian beach in 1822 after a boating tragedy.

The formal Lower Gardens viewed from the bridge. Originally known as Westover Pleasure Gardens, they were formed in the 1840s on ten acres of fir trees next to Westover Road.

Exit the churchyard and go back along Gervis Place to cross Westover Road to the Visitor Information Bureau. On the opposite side of Westover Road is a fine terrace of shops. These elegant buildings are on part of the site of Bournemouth’s original ‘sixteen villas’ of the late 1830s and early 1840s.

Walk along Westover Road past the Visitor Information Bureau and the public telephone boxes, then immediately turn right through the local artists’ Art Exhibition area (summer months only) to the exotic bird aviary. Take the steps to the right of the Pine Walk Café into the Lower Gardens. Turn left at the bottom and proceed past the bandstand along Pine Walk, the former Invalids Walk, so-called because of its usage in Bournemouth’s early days by invalids in their bath-chairs. Bear right to the bridge spanning the Bourne Stream, from which the town gets its name.

Prominent above the large rockery is the Pavilion, which opened in 1929. The bridge is a good point from which to view the lovely formal Lower Gardens that run from here to the Square. From the bridge, continue down the pathway to Pier Approach from where you can go onto the beaches or visit Bournemouth Pier.

From Pier Approach climb the East Cliff promenade slope, passing the Waterfront (Imax) Building on your left. Further up on the left, behind the brown fence, is the impressive Royal Bath Hotel, extended to its present frontage in 1880 by the then owner, Merton Russell-Cotes, a great benefactor of the town and a leading figure in its development. Beyond on the left is the garden and southern aspect of the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum. On your right you will pass the fine wrought-iron seaside sculptures by Richard Quinnell adorning the railings. At the top of the slope admire the glorious expanse of Poole Bay. To the left, take in the outlook to Hengistbury Head and the Isle of Wight. To the right, view the Purbeck Hills and Old Harry Rocks and, on the extreme right, the entrance to Poole Harbour.

Lastly, make a hairpin turn back towards town to reach the front entrance of the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum. – the final point of the tour and a free-entry venue of Victoriana, oriental treasures and fine art. It was formerly the family home of Merton and Annie Russell-Cotes in the grounds of their Royal Bath Hotel and the generous couple gifted both the house and its contents to Bournemouth.

Merton Russell-Cotes built the museum as a birthday present for his wife, Annie, in 1894. After Sir Merton’s death, new galleries were added and it was re-opened in 1919 as the Russell-Cotes Museum and Art Gallery by Queen Victoria’s youngest daughter, Princess Beatrice.

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