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The International Writers Magazine: UK South West Coast

Exploring Poole
Natalya Popova inthe UK

One day this summer I astonished myself by signing up for a ‘Ghost Walk’ around Poole, the town I have been living in for nine years now. If it wasn’t for entertaining my niece Amy - visiting for a week - I would have never left the house on a cold Wednesday night.
"Are we to meet many ghosts on the walk?" the 10-year old could not contain the excitement in her voice, as we neared the rendezvous.
"Think it’ll be only us and that poor sailor over there," I pointed out to the lone figure of a guy in flamboyant fancy dress waiting for us near Poole museum. The sailor was smiling and waving at us with one hand, and holding his triangular pirate hat with the other.

"Of course he is glad to see any visitors at all on this windy cold night," I thought to myself disbelieving that there would be anyone out there except us.
"Don’t worry, you are not late at all," the sailor assured us having picked up on my grumpy mood. "Please join the party," he said, pointing towards a throng gathering around a Victorian housemaid lurking just around the corner.
"Oh my goodness," Amy and I exclaimed at once in surprise – me at the popularity of the walk, Amy at the beauty of the Victorian woman, who was speaking passionately about surroundings with a strong Dorset accent (possibly put on to suit the Victorian dress).

"Oh my goodness," Amy and I thought an hour and a half later, delighted and enthralled with the walk. Even though we hadn’t met any ghosts, the ghost stories told by the "Victorian maid" were fascinating, and were all based on local history, making me to realise of how little I had known about my home town. This prompted me to question myself: "What do I know about Poole?" and inspired me to learn more…

The common knowledge of Poole is that "it’s a beautiful place" according to the popular slogan of Poole tourist office, now sadly replaced by something more trendy

Poole’s claim to being a beautiful place stems from it’s stunning harbour, created – or so geologists believe – at the end of the last Ice Age. Yes – Poole harbour really is Europe’s largest, and the world’s second after Sydney, natural harbour.

Poole may be not as warm as Sydney Harbour, but being shallow and shark-free it provides excellent windsurfing facilities for beginners – a perfect place to concentrate on kite or windsurfing without the danger of drowning or being taken out into the open sea. It’s also very safe to sail in Poole - Poole is home to RNLI, and hosts the national Lifeboat College with impressive training facilities.

Poole is the second safest for its size town in the UK according to an independent survey 2007; and was the first town in the South West of England to win the Safer Shopping Award. It is also safe to swim on the beach in Poole - it has more blue flag awards than anywhere else in the UK. Poole beach – Sandbanks – is a wonderful place of its own, and the name tells it all – the beach is made of fine sand and is situated on a small sand-dune peninsula. Sandbanks is the fourth most expensive place to live in the World, after London, Manhattan and Moscow! Yes, this fact emphases how rare and special this part of Poole is, when people are paying high prices for the privilege of living in this part of England; even higher than for obviously expensive places like Tokyo or Paris. Wahoo.

Not sure if the fact that Poole is also the home to Sunseeker Yachts plays any part in it though. Sunseekers are made to order right here in Poole – isn’t it convenient to live nearby if you can afford one?

Once busy with fishing and cargo boats bringing exotic spices, coal, raw materials, building materials from long sea journeys long and short, Poole Harbour now bustles with designer yachts, cruise and dive boats. It’s good to see local fishing boats still working, and guaranteeing the freshness of local produce.

The quay area is dotted with smart restaurants, fish and chip shops, and salty old pubs, and has been recently face-lifted with new developments of modern flats. Poole quay is a popular place with local residents; kites flying just around the corner in Baiter Park add colour to the buzzing life of the town.

I love it in Poole, and being among the majority who are not able to afford a house next to the dunes with a Sunseeker moored at the bottom of the garden, I enjoy coming to Sandbanks beach to watch boats and build sandcastles. The beach has fantastic views, to the Isle of Wight in the East to the harbour entrance, Shell Bay, Studland and Old Harry Rocks to the South West…

Studland is a quieter, wilder, beach with a naturist reserve at the far end of it which is well signposted if you wish to either find it or avoid it! Studland is also the starting point of the famous South-West Coast Path; it can be reached from Sandbanks either by chainferry or - if you really insist – by driving the long way round the harbour (remembering it’s Europe’s largest!).

The chainferry would be my personal preference (however, there can be queues of cars in summer season). This is the shortest route between Bournemouth/Poole and Swanage saving the 25 mile drive, and to my opinion, the most worthwhile, because having paid just 90p return for a foot passenger, or £2.80 one way for a car, it gives excellent views from the top deck during the few minutes of the crossing. And then you’re on the Isle of Purbeck (which is a peninsula not an island!), on your way to Swanage, Corfe Castle, Old Harry Rocks and the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site.

Old Harry Rocks is one of the most unusual coastal features of Dorset near Poole; the pillars of white chalk formed by wind and waves are the most easterly point of Purbeck; they are visible from the ferry on a bright sunny day.

The scenery of white rocks rising from a blue sea into a blue sky is fascinating and stimulating. This is my favourite place in Dorset and I would call it the coast ghost monument. According to locals, the ghostly pealing of bells can be heard in severe gales here, the eerie noises allegedly coming from a ship carrying bells for a church in Poole that sank because of the crew's blasphemy!

There are several legends attached to the name of the place. One of them suggests that the rock is the work of the devil! The name Old Harry is a medieval name for Satan. Folklore has it that the Devil laid down for a nap at the top of (or next to) these chalk cliffs. I suppose it’s hard work being evil so he deserved a rest after all that wrecking... the Devil’s activities in the area MUST be true, given the number references to his work in local places names! For instance, Agglestone in Studland means in Old English 'Prince's Stone'. According to folklore, this massive block of sandstone was said to have been thrown by the devil from the Isle of Wight in order to demolish Corfe Castle!

Another local legend from King Alfred's time records that the Danish fleet arrived in a storm, most of their vessels being wrecked. Two of the shipwrecked strangers Earl Harold and his wife were transformed into rocks, to which their names became attached (another job of evil). Actually Old Harry Rock was "widowed" as recently as 1896 when Old Harry's Wife succumbed to erosion and collapsed into the sea during the same storm that destroyed the chain pier at Brighton a hundred miles or so up the coast.

Some believe that the rocks are named after the mediaeval pirate Henry Payne (also known as Harry Payne), whose day jobs included command of part of the Cinque Ports fleet, privateering from Poole, and raiding Spanish ships. It is believed that Payne used to stand above the cliffs at Ballard Down waving a white lantern. This was done to lure French and Spanish ships on to the rocks in the belief that they thought they were in fact following the stern navigation light of another vessel. Possibly there wasn’t any lighthouse ever built in Poole (apart from Lighthouse, Poole’s modern Centre for the Arts). The exploits of the Payne are celebrated in the annual Harry Payne Charity Fun Day parade in Poole every June.

Another Poole natural feature is Brownsea Island, the largest of the islands in Poole Harbour. The island is owned by the National Trust. Much of the island is open to the public and includes areas of pine woodland and heath and is famously a wildlife resort. This is one of the few places where red squirrels in England have found a safe haven, being pushed to near extinction by their imported American counterparts grey squirrels. The island is world-known as the birthplace of Scouting movement where Lord Baden-Powell held the first Boy Scout camp in 1907. It can be accessed by ferry from Poole quay or Sandbanks.

There are so many "the world’s best and the best known" special places in and around Poole. Whilst we travel around the world striving to explore (exploit?) different cultures and history, we are hardly interested in our own neighbourhoods. When on holidays in Australia it was a joy to my ears to hear Australians had heard of, even been to, Poole harbour! Yet the owner of our local – and truly wonderful - Fish & Chip shop confessed that he’d never been to Swanage, the next town down the coast to Poole! And this is when a short trip from Poole to Swanage is one of the most fascinating in the world.
There is so much to see in the area!

We travelled to Russia and Denmark earlier this year, and I am still paying off my credit card. It was noticeably more expensive than in the UK. For example Russia no longer suffers shortages in the shops – everything we can get in the UK, and more, is available but for double the price. In Russia I had to pay £50 for a decent bouquet of flowers and a cake to visit a friend of mine in a hospital, here it could be rounded to £10. A room in CabInn (a Danish hotel chain), an IKEA compact cabin of a bed/shower/toilet, was £70, emergency tights cost at a local "Boots"-like store £10 and a meal for two at a Steak House, even though nice - £80. Compare with a room at an Ibis Hotel in the UK - £50, tights - £5, decent meal - £40 to £50.

My husband liked it in Denmark - the food and the weather, except, it wasn’t as beautiful as Poole. It’s beautiful, it’s adventurous, it’s economical (not least important in the current financial climate), and there is so much in the English country side and history. All is the matter of attitude.

I owe it to Amy’s visit that I now have more knowledge and interest in my local area. I’m learning so much about Poole, and love it even more as a result. This is not just a beautiful place – this is a place of pure natural beauty.
How much do you know about your home town?
Some references:

© Natalya Popova November 2008
ferganavalley at

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