The best of Dorset in words and pictures

Treasures of Dorset – Brownsea Island

Branksea Castle, the jetties and visitor centre on Brownsea  Island

Branksea Castle, the jetties and visitor centre on Brownsea Island (Robert Harvey)

Brownsea Island sits in Poole Harbour as if it was about to plug the gap between Sandbanks and Shell Bay which is the harbour’s entrance. Its commanding strategic position was not lost on Henry VIII’s engineers when they were building a chain of forts on the south coast against possible aggression from the French, and they constructed Branksea (the old name for Brownsea) Castle in 1547. It became a residence and is now leased to the John Lewis Partnership as a holiday home for their staff.
The island has been used for mining clay, raising dairy cattle and growing daffodils, none of them very successfully. Perhaps that is why (compared with other Dorset estates) it passed from owner to owner with relative rapidity. In the early years of the 20th century it belonged to the van Raalte family, who were friends with Robert Baden-Powell, and it was on Brownsea in 1907 that he held his first Boy Scout camp.
After the van Raaltes came Mrs Mary Bonham-Christie. After a traumatic fire in 1934, she barred anyone from landing on Brownsea. She was attended by few staff but among them was a Scandinavian lady muscular enough to throw any intruders off the island.
On Mrs Bonham-Christie’s death, Billy Butlin had his eye on Brownsea for a holiday camp. But the fledgling Dorset Wildlife Trust led a campaign to save the island for the nation and today it is owned by the National Trust, with the Dorset Wildlife Trust watching over the lagoon with its variety of waders and sea birds. A unique habitat, the island is also one of the few places in southern England to see red squirrels.
Every year since 1964, Brownsea Open Air Theatre (appropriately abbreviated to BOAT) has staged a performance of a Shakespeare play. A ‘pop-up’ theatre is installed across the field from St Mary’s church, which dates from 1854, and the amateur company consistently reaches a remarkably high standard.

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