A Dorset life for me
By Roger Guttridge; the illustration is by Becky Blake
Published in June ’16
I see that ‘Churchill’s bridge’ has reared its ugly parapet again (January 2016 Dorset Life) – although I use the phrase loosely because the real Churchill’s bridge was not ugly at all. What is ugly is the stubbornness of the myth that it was at Bournemouth’s Alum Chine that the future wartime prime minister had his near-fatal fall aged 18 in 1892. The story is repeated in numerous books and brochures and even on the Bournemouth council website, despite convincing evidence that it happened a mile away at Branksome Dene Chine (which happens to be in Poole, not Bournemouth).
Sir Winston himself shares some responsibility for the confusion through his failure to identify the location in his memoirs. He tells how, finding himself cornered during a game of chase, he leapt from a bridge into a tree intending to slide down its trunk. Instead he fell 29ft, rendering himself unconscious for three days and bedridden for three months. By the time Churchill told the story in 1930, the bridge that had spanned Branksome Dene Chine forty years earlier was long gone and people assumed he was referring to the one at Alum Chine, which maps suggest did not even exist in 1892. Branksome Dene was also on the Canford estate, owned by Churchill’s relatives and close to the beach house where he was staying.
The Alum Chine version is one of several Dorset myths that refuse to go away. Another concerns the alleged smuggler Sam Hookey, dubbed the ‘Wicked Man of Wick’. Highly romanticised accounts of Hookey’s exploits have been repeated in books about Christchurch and smuggling for sixty years. They tell of how he dug for buried treasure at Hengistbury Head; of how he kidnapped a dusky maiden in Guernsey to make her his wife; of how, his body weighed down by gold and pursued by revenue men, he disappeared into a fissure in the Stour never to be seen again.
Writing my book Dorset Smugglers in the early 1980s, I smelt enough rats in these tales to sink a smuggling lugger. But I also knew that Hookey was a Christchurch surname and charitably assumed there must be an element of truth. So I allocated a token few lines to Hookey on page 58 but omitted 99 per cent of the detail. Local historian Allen White later told me the whole story was invented by a retired army officer to promote the opening of Pontins holiday camp at Christchurch in 1953. Lest anyone doubt this explanation, Allen had even persuaded the old colonel to swear an affidavit confessing the origin of his Hookey stories.
‘But I presume Sam Hookey did actually exist because there were Hookeys in the area 200 years ago,’ I said.
Allen agreed that this was true – but it was about the only part of the Hookey story that was. The old colonel had admitted that he randomly chose the name of his star character from the Christchurch burials register for the 1790s and wove his tales from there.
Armed with this revelation, I revised the paragraph on Hookey in the softback edition of Dorset Smugglers in 1987. Yet almost thirty years later the Sam Hookey myth still has legs. I was once asked to give a talk on him and other smugglers at the opening of a Christchurch restaurant called Sam Hookey’s. The owners were shocked to learn they had named their new business after a character of fiction. I did the talk and broke the news to their customers as diplomatically as I could.
And then there is the most widespread Dorset myth of all – that Poole has the world’s second biggest natural harbour. This claim has gone truly global but it has no shortage of doubters, including an editor of this very magazine, who once told me that Poole is not so much a natural harbour as a ‘big pile of sand with a channel cut in it’. The phraseology seems a trifle harsh but after a little online research, I must agree that Poole’s claim does not stand up to scrutiny.
Poole’s traditional rivals in the ‘big harbour’ stakes are Sydney, Australia (usually called ‘the biggest’), Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Cork, Ireland. A Cork blogger called Colm (who obviously has time on his hands as well as the four ‘lively and fast-growing children’ described on his Sunny Spells Random Musings site) has cleverly analysed the various candidates by placing an outline of his local harbour alongside a map of each of the others. Poole emerges not so much in second place as umpteenth. Both Poole and Halifax are clearly smaller than Cork while even Sydney is barely bigger than its Irish rival. New York also compares favourably with Cork and Sydney.
And then there is Rio de Janeiro. You could drop any two of the above into the Brazilian harbour and have space to spare. Ditto San Francisco. Ditto Tokyo. New Zealand’s Auckland and Kaipara harbours are also bigger than the usual candidates, as are Lisbon in Portugal, Brest in France and Oslo in Norway.
Perhaps Poole Harbour really is little more than a soggy sandpit attached to a town, but as Churchill would no doubt have said: ‘Some sandpit, some town.’