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Dorset’s Rivers

The Stour: Wimborne to Mudeford. John Chaffey concludes his journey down the River Stour

Throop Flour Mills

Throop Flour Mills still bear the name of their last operator, even though they closed in 1972

The lowest stretch of the Stour could aptly be named ‘the Valley of the Great Meanders’. Nine graceful swinging meanders carry the Stour from Wimborne Minster to Christchurch Harbour, where it is joined by the Hampshire Avon as the two rivers meet and flow into Christchurch Harbour and then through The Run into Christchurch Bay. The meanders sweep across a flood plain mostly devoid of settlement, for it is here that the Stour has caused some of the most severe flooding on the whole of its course from Stourhead to the sea. From Merley to Christchurch Harbour a remarkable sequence of river terraces rises, step upon step from the Stour south-westwards, eventually forming the skyline of Bournemouth.

backwater of the Stour below Throop Mill Cottage

Water-lilies spread over this backwater of the Stour below Throop Mill Cottage

On the northern side of the flood plain, terraces also exist but do not have the same staircase-like appearance as in Bournemouth. Both Wimborne and Christchurch are built on terraces, while all of Bournemouth International Airport lies on the combined terrace of the Stour and the Moors River to the east. Beyond the flood plain of the Stour to the south, the ambience of the river is essentially an urban one: by way of contrast, rural tranquillity still prevails to the north through Hampreston and Dudsbury, Parley Green and Hurn, although in the latter the tiny hamlets of Merritown and West Hurn echo to the roar of jet aircraft, a reminder of the increasing traffic handled at the International Airport.

Wimborne Minster stands well back from the river on its dry terraces, and the flood risk is likely to occur as much from the Allen as it is from the Stour. Flood defences now ensure that this risk is reduced to a minimum. Just below the reedy confluence of the Allen, Canford Bridge, completed in 1813, carries Poole Road southwards out of Wimborne Minster. Just downstream, the railway nicknamed ‘Castleman’s Corkscrew’ from Southampton to Dorchester formerly crossed the river, to be replaced further downstream by the bridge carrying the Wimborne bypass as it scythes its way across the floodplain in an age of hugely increased road traffic.

Downstream, Canford School adorns the south bank of the Stour. The Manor House at Canford was bought by Sir John Guest in 1846, and he commissioned Sir Charles Barry to build him a country home on the site. The buildings later passed to the first Lord Wimborne, Sir John’s son. Canford School acquired the estate in 1923, and numerous additions have been made since that time, with the grounds now occupied by pitches for all types of sport.

The first of the great meanders now carries the Stour towards Canford Bottom, and the second swings away southwards to enclose the terraces on which Hampreston was built. Its church, built of a pleasing combination of heathstone, Purbeck Stone and greensand, dominates the meadows within the meander.

Two more swinging meanders carry the Stour to Longham and its bridge of eleven brick arches, with the piers and cutwaters constructed of Purbeck Stone. This bridge was built in 1792, replacing an older one of 1728: earlier bridges were of timber. The bridge is dominated by the large pumping station upstream which is jointly operated by Wessex Water and the independent Bournemouth Water Company. Below, a reed-infested Stour continues on its curving way past the Iron Age fort of Dudsbury Rings, the lowest such fortification on the river until Double Dykes on Hengistbury Head is reached. The river swings against the Iron Age fort, cutting a small river cliff, ensuring the dominance of Castle Rings, as it is also known. On the opposite bank are water meadows to Kinson Manor Farm, and the encroaching suburbia of Kinson itself.

The cast-iron Ensbury Bridge, built as recently as 1910, carries the new main road from Ferndown into the northern Bournemouth suburbs of Ensbury and Northbourne. The route across the girder bridge still carries the name of New Road: it effectively created Parley Cross and its shopping parade.

The next two meanders carry the Stour past an intriguing mix of new suburb, such as Muscliffe, riverside meadow in the Stour Valley Nature Reserve, and older riparian settlements such as Throop and Holdenhurst, still remaining rurally aloof from the burgeoning urban sprawl to the south. Throop lies safe on its terrace gravels, overlooking what is essentially a backwater of the Stour since the New Cut was incised through the flood plain to the north in 1972. The backwater is now very much a re-incarnation of the ‘cloty’ Stour of the Blackmore Vale, with great spreads of water-lilies extending across the river below Throop Cottage and towards the sluices at Throop Mill. Throop Flour Mills still carry the fading name of Parsons & Sons, the last family to operate the mills in their last years of production – the last miller worked at the mills from 1929 until closure in 1972. Recent re-building in the 19th and early 20th centuries obscures a long history which goes back to Domesday times, when the mill is recorded as serving the people of the early settlement at Holdenhurst. Holdenhurst still retains the air of a farming village, assailed by the roar of traffic along the A338 spur road into Bournemouth.

Just before the spur road bridge, another important tributary joins the Stour. The Moors River, originally the Crane, above the Moors Valley Country Park, brings its waters quietly into the Stour after traversing the dark and mysterious Quomps Copse. There are memories here of the old Blackwater Ferry that crossed the Stour to the heathy and pine-clad terraces to the north of St Catherine’s Hill.

Place Mill, on the quay at Christchurch

Place Mill, on the quay at Christchurch, dates from medieval times

Smaller meanders now carry the Stour down to Christchurch Harbour. Below the northern estates of Christchurch, snuggling into St Catherine’s Hill, the Stour is very much a flood menace to residential development on its eastern bank. Extensive flood defences are now in place to protect those parts of Christchurch that ventured unwisely on to the flood plain. Flood walls, flood banks and sluices of 1990s vintage protect housing and the A35 as it crosses the floodplain into Pokesdown. Earlier the Stour needed diverting at Sheepwash, upstream from Iford Bridge, when it began to threaten Castle Lane by eroding along the outer concave side of its meander. Iford itself grew up as a small hamlet and the first Iford Bridge, a structure in Purbeck Stone, is still preserved downstream from the new, modern Iford Bridge that dates from 1932. Iford is derived from ‘eye (island) ford’, and the island is still present where both bridges cross it between the main stream of the Stour and the minor branch, now flood-overflow on the Christchurch side.

This bridge at Iford

This bridge at Iford was built in 1932 to replace the original Purbeck stone one, which still exists 80 yards downstream

Downstream, the old Military Experimental Bridging Establishment flourished on the Christchurch bank of the Stour and saw the development of the famous prefabricated Bailey Bridge for use in countless river crossings in the European campaigns of World War 2. The site is now largely a housing development and shopping centre, accessed from Barrack Road in Christchurch. Just downstream, a steel girder bridge carries the main line from London into Bournemouth, after having crossed the Avon with a similar structure to the east of Christchurch – the first railway bridge still carrying traffic across the Stour since Gillingham. The Stour cuts one last river cliff just before Tuckton Bridge, now the lowest bridging point of the river. The first timber bridge was built on the site in 1883, but was replaced by the present cast-iron structure in 1905, carrying the first tram from Bournemouth into Christchurch.

The Stour now passes the delightful quayside gardens at Christchurch, with more yachts and smaller boats anchored against the tide. The magnificent Priory Church is now backdrop to gardens, bandstand, Place Mill and Christchurch Quay itself. Early medieval Place Mill, operated by the tides, receives supplementary water from the Mill Stream, a diversion from the Avon.

The Stour is now joined by the Hampshire Avon after its long journey from the Vale of Pewsey. Yachting now dominates the river scene, with more modern leisure homes, complete with moorings, lining the lowest stretch of the Avon, some might say in alien fashion compared to a much older and gentler, less angular riverine past. The two combined rivers now flow through Christchurch Harbour, fringed on one side by the looming shadow of Hengistbury Head, and on the other by the fishing and leisure settlements of Stanpit and Mudeford. The Stour and Avon enter Christchurch Bay through the treacherous Run between Haven House Inn on the Mudeford shore and the far end of Mudeford sandspit on the other. Unstable sandbars threaten and constantly modify the course of the rivers beyond The Run, where marker buoys are essential to navigation.

After sixty miles of meandering its way through Blackmore Vale, cutting handsomely across the rolling Dorset chalklands, and edging past Bournemouth’s eastern suburbs, the Stour finally reaches Christchurch Bay. Its course is a wonderful embodiment of all of Dorset’s rivers, part dark and slightly murky clayland stream, part delightfully clear chalk stream, and part open estuarine channel.

The Run at Mudeford

The Run at Mudeford, where the Stour
finally enters the sea

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