My desert island Bournemouth
Alan Illingworth, long-time lover of Bournemouth, chooses eight places or things about the town, the memory of which would cheer him if he were ever to be cast away
Published in September ’15
We all have our eight pieces of music ready for when the call comes to appear on ‘Desert Island Discs’, but it is an amusing and challenging exercise to choose your eight favourite features of a place that means a lot to you. You may not be able to take them with you, but at least you can take the memory of them. Here is my personal choice, some obvious, some perhaps more obscure, but all special.
Before Bournemouth ever existed, the most notable feature of this part of the coast was the chines: deep, steep-sided ravines that carried small streams down to the sea. Their sides were often clad in the pine trees that were the key to Bournemouth’s growth. The trees were supposed to give off a resin-y miasma that was beneficial for sufferers from tuberculosis in particular. Thus Alum Chine combines the two qualities in the town’s motto, ‘Pulchritudo et Salubritas’: beauty and health. Beautiful it certainly is, and a lovely walk down to perhaps the best part of Bournemouth’s beach. Spanning the lower part is a suspension bridge that nearly changed the course of our history. Playing on it with his cousins, eighteen-year-old Winston Churchill tried to jump from it into a nearby tree. He missed, fell thirty feet to the ground and damaged himself so severely that he was unconscious for three days and in bed for three months.
The East Cliff Lift
The length of the track up which the lift (properly, it’s not a lift but a funicular railway) runs is only 57 yards, but riding it is one of the cheapest thrills in Bournemouth. Get into the car at the bottom and look up, and it seems almost impossible that the heavy car can be dragged up such a steep incline (68%, or 1 in 1.5). Note the ordinary ladder laid between the racks, up which someone with a good head for heights has to climb to carry out maintenance. Then with a lurch you’re off, and turn the other way to watch the vista of the beach open up almost magically as you rise. The lift was installed in 1908 and is one of three such lifts in Bournemouth, the others being on the West Cliff and at Fisherman’s Walk, Southbourne, but the East Cliff one remains my favourite.
The Aubrey Beardsley mosaic
Aubrey Beardsley, the famous artist, was always delicate and in 1896, at the age of only 24, was encouraged to come to Bournemouth for the sake of his health. He lived first in Boscombe, and then in a house called ‘Muriel’, on the corner of Terrace Road and Exeter Road, just up from the Square. Alas, even the Bournemouth air could not save him and within two years he was dead from tuberculosis. In 1996, this mosaic, based on a Beardsley design, was erected on the spot where ‘Muriel’ had stood. It is not a great work of art, but I will admit to being influenced by my admiration for Beardsley, whose technical skill, flair for design and willingness to push against the frontiers of contemporary taste make him one of the great figures not only in Art Nouveau but in the whole history of British art.
The Tolkien plaque
As an enthusiast for both Bournemouth and Lord of the Rings (my desert island book), I must include this plaque next to the front door of the Hotel Miramar on the West Cliff. J R R Tolkien and his wife, Edith, first came to the Miramar in the mid-1950s. Edith in particular loved Bournemouth, where she could be herself instead of feeling like a fish out of water among her husband’s academic friends in Oxford. It was partly for that reason that on Tolkien’s retirement they moved to a new home in Bournemouth – actually in Lakeside Road, just over the border in Poole, although Tolkien referred to it as Bournemouth – but they continued to use the Miramar to entertain guests. After Edith’s death, Tolkien returned to Oxford, but he died in Bournemouth, on a visit to his former doctor who lived near Meyrick Park.
‘Bournemouth Central Station, c. 1906’
This painting by D E L Green is in the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum, so it gives me the chance to cheat by including two favourites for the price of one. I have always had a soft spot for Bournemouth Station, whose red brick and iron latticing is redolent of Victorian railway architecture (it was opened in 1885). The locomotive in the picture is a LSWR Drummond class that remained in service until 1954. The Russell-Cotes is almost literally breathtaking, both inside and out. It was built by Merton Russell-Cotes, a former Mayor of Bournemouth, for his wife, Annie, and together they filled it with paintings and objects from around the world, but in particular with a stunning collection of British art, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s masterpiece, ‘Venus Verticordia’. I know that the painting of the station is in nowhere near the same league, but I also know which one I’d rather have on my wall.
If Bournemouth could be said to have a wilderness, this is it. Coy Pond, where the Bourne Stream rises, is actually in Poole, but it soon enters Bournemouth and forms the central feature of the gardens that run all the way down to the sea. The contrast between the quietness of the Upper Gardens and the more populated and more obviously tended Lower Gardens could hardly be greater. The Upper Gardens were originally the private garden of a family called Durrant and contain a dazzling selection of exotic trees, including a giant redwood that is believed to be the largest in Britain. On ground level you will find almost every plant you can think of that enjoys wet conditions, because the whole area is very boggy. Happily, in the worst patches the path runs either on tarmac along the edge of the gardens or through them on wooden walkways.
Bournemouth Little Theatre
This theatre does exactly what it says on the tin, with not more than about eighty seats, I would guess, but its size creates a unique atmosphere. With the cast almost sitting in the audience’s laps, and no proscenium arch, the division between what is happening on stage and those watching dissolves almost completely. There is no hiding place for the actors, and for the audience it is a most stimulating place to watch drama. It is on the first floor and used to be the canteen for a motor company that occupied the showrooms below. It was converted in the 1970s by the Bournemouth Little Theatre Club, which had been founded in 1919 and had previously occupied the Palace Court Theatre behind the hotel of the same name in Westover Road. Today, the club still stages half a dozen productions a year in the theatre, as well as letting it to other organisations.
This choice is not so much for what it is as what it could be. A mill was grinding corn at Throop since before the Domesday Book, in which it is mentioned, until 1972, when the present building ceased to operate. Scandalously, it has lain unused since then and is slowly deteriorating, despite efforts to turn it into a visitor centre, a tea room or almost anything that would stop it becoming a complete ruin. It is in one of the few truly rural parts of Bournemouth and is a reminder that a substantial part of Dorset’s major river, the Stour, forms most of Bournemouth’s northern and eastern borders on its way to the sea at Christchurch Harbour. The last miller, Cecil Biles, expressed a wish to die in the mill and to be carried out by his sons. That is what happened, but as he was an exceptionally well-built man and died on the top floor of four, it was not an easy wish to grant.