The best of Dorset in words and pictures

Hengistbury Head & Mudeford Spit

Joël Lacey captures an area of antiquity, natural beauty and sought-after beach huts in the east of the county

A panoramic view of Christchurch Harbour from Hengistbury Head

Much of Hengistbury Head could be described as old; not geologically old – it’s a hundred million years more recent than parts of the Jurassic coast – but in terms of its human settlement history, which dates back around 12,000 years. It’s name however, hinting as it does at being the burial place of the legendary 5th-century Anglo-Saxon Hengist, is actually a 17th-century example of the somewhat romantic rewriting of history. Prior to that, the name was Hensbury, from Hedenesburia, from the Old English for a fortified place associated with a person named Heddin.

Early morning at Mudeford Spit. The huts permit overnight occupation during the summer season and command prices up to £225,000.

Mudeford Spit, or Mudeford Sandbank to give it its official name is the final pointy bit of the land adjoining Hengistbury Head. It has grown and shrunk over the years as shifting sands – and man’s often unsuccessful attempts to control them – have had their effect. Between the double dykes that mark the beginning of Hengistbury Head to the west, and the tip of Mudeford Spit to the east, are a diverse range of habitats that support a wide range of flora and fauna. To the south are cliffs of ironstone and the sea, to the north is Christchurch harbour.

One of the ponds on the Hengistbury peninsula where the natterjack toad so beloved of David Bellamy impersonators is to be found. The cliffs overlooking the sea are just beyond the ridge visible in the picture.

The area is protected as a Site of Special Scientific Interest and was declared a Local Nature Reserve in 1990, as a commitment by the town of Bournemouth to conserving and enhancing the environment. The heathland forms part of the Dorset Heaths and is internationally protected as a Special Area of Conservation and Special Protection Area. Much of the upper reaches of Christchurch Harbour including the meadows at Wick are designated as an Environmentally Sensitive Area and is scheduled as an Ancient Monument and has been the subject of a number of archeological digs.

Looking west from the top of the cliffs at Hengistbury Head as Bournemouth struggles to emerge from the morning mist. Life clings on tenaciously on the sparsely fertilised soil.

There is a plethora of insect life, meadows grazed by cattle, nationally rare sand lizards – which were reintroduced to the peninsula in 2011 – and natterjack toads, a wide variety of beetles, a third of the UK’s moth species and over 300 species of birds either live on or visit Hengistbury Head.

The tree trunks' writhing and twisted forms show their struggle to reach for sunlight


Steps leading down to the brackish waters of Christchurch Harbour from the Nature Reserve at Warrens Hill

In short it is an area of interest to anyone with a yen to learn about the past, wildlife, human settlement, Victorian industrial history (the ironstone quarrying, for example), wildlife, or just having a walk with lovely views.

A telephoto shot of Christchurch Harbour with its sandbanks carved through by the rivers Avon and Stour as they make their way to the sea. The Priory is clearly visible in the distance with Christchurch's clearly recognisable nautically themed housing and hundreds of masts of dinghies and yachts.

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