Brownsea is the largest island in Poole harbour, at around 1.5 miles long by 0.75 miles wide and with an area of approximately 560 acres. It is owned by the National Trust and is open to the public from mid March through to early November. Not surprisingly, access is only via water either by taking one of the public ferries from Poole Quay or Sandbanks, or by private boat.
A sizeable area of the northern part of the island is set aside as a nature reserve which is managed by Dorset Wildlife Trust. This area includes a large brackish lagoon with two hides, reedbeds, woodlands and a couple of freshwater lakes. There are a couple of boardwalks and a system of paths that give access to most of the habitats. And, although not accessible to the public, there is also a heronry where there are regularly good numbers of Grey Heron and Little Egret. In fact, only a few years ago in 1996, Brownsea became the first site in the UK where Little Egrets nested.
In addition, the island is also one of the few places in southern England where indigenous red squirrels still survive, largely because non-native grey squirrels have never been introduced.
Outside the reserve there are coniferous and mixed woodlands interspersed with open grassed areas, heather and rhododendron scrub where you may see Sika Deer.
However, it is the lagoon that is the most interesting part of the island as it provides an important haven for both overwintering and summer breeding birds. From April to August Gulls, Terns, Mallard, Shelduck and Oystercatchers nest on the banks. You'll also see large numbers of Cormorant, and towards the end of the summer Kingfishers that have come across from the local Dorset rivers. And then from late summer through the autumn and winter months, it is the time when the waders arrive, either visiting for a short time on migration or staying to overwinter on the lagoon. Whimbrel, Knot, Sandpiper, Ringed Plover, Sanderling, Redshank, Greenshank and Curlew Sandpiper are all regular visitors. Later it is the turn of the Black-tailed Godwit, Spotted Redshank, Teal, Shelduck and Shoveler, and in recent years Spoonbill. But, arguably, it is the Avocet that provides the real spectacle as they flock in very large numbers during the winter. If the lagoon does not freeze or flood they will stay all day, flitting from one end to the other to feed off small shrimps which they find in the shallows.
All in all, and even apart from the wildlife, it's a very nice place to visit.
"I had no idea I had such a delightful spot in my kingdom
", exclaimed the Prince Regent after a trip to Brownsea in 1818.
And, for a small island there is plenty of history with records going back to to the 9th century when a small chapel and hermitage were built by the monks from Cerne Abbey near Dorchester. Early records also show that in 1015 Canute led a Viking raid to the harbour and used Brownsea as a base to sack Wareham and Cerne Abbey. Ownership changed over the next few years until 1154 when King Henry II granted the Abbot of Cerne control which the Abbey maintained for the next 350 years or so. Following the 'Dissolution of the Monasteries' in the 1530's, control passed to Henry VIII. The King recognised the strategic importance of the island for guarding the entrance to Poole harbour, with the first "Brownsea Castle' being built in 1547. In the late 1500's it was a hideout for pirates, and then became a garrison during the English Civil War. By the time of the 'Restoration' in 1660 it was owned by Robert Clayton who later became Lord Mayor of London and was one of the MPs who invited William of Orange to take the throne from James II in 1668. In 1726 the island was purchased by an eccentric, William Benson, who dismantled the now derelict fortifications and rebuilt the castle as a residence. He also planted trees and hundreds of rare plants. Improvement continued when another wealthy owner extended the castle and laid out gardens. By the start of the 19th century, France threatened to invade, so once again Brownsea became a strategic military defence post. Throughout the Victorian age, the defences were strengthened to protect England's south coast trade from smugglers, with a coastguard station (now the National Trust cafe) being constructed in 1842. A few years later it was bought by a couple who thought they had discovered the existence of high-quality china clay. They expected to make their fortune so constructed a three-storey pottery on the south shore complete with engines, a brickworks and a horse-drawn tram to bring clay from the north of the island. They also gave the castle an elaborate makeover with a new Tudor-style facade, a gatehouse and a pier with castellated watchtowers. But the clay proved unsuitable for making fine china, and the production of pipes and terracotta chimney pots was not profitable enough to finance the initiative. The couple became bankrupt and the island went up for auction. The island changed hands a couple of times over the following years and then, unfortunately, in 1896 the castle caught fire and despite the best efforts of the bucket chain formed by the islanders the building was gutted. Undaunted, the owner rebuilt the castle and in 1901 sold it to a wealthy family who wanted it as their country retreat. It was then, during the time of their ownership in 1907, that the island became the home of the first camp of the Boy Scout movement when Robert Baden-Powell took 22 boys across for a week to take part in activities such as camping, observation, woodcraft and lifesaving. The experiment was considered a success and the following year Baden-Powell published his book Scouting for Boys
, following which the international Scouting movement grew rapidly. This was a period of unparalleled prosperity and grandeur up to the war in 1914 when 30 or so Brownsea islanders had to go away and fight with only half a dozen returning. In 1927 the island was sold again at auction to Mrs Mary Bonham-Carter. She moved into a house on the quay and lived a very reclusive life. Opposed to blood sports and other exploitation of animals, she banned fishing and allowed the farm animals to roam free. The island started to become an important wildlife sanctuary. When she died in 1961 her family were obliged to put the island on the market in order to meet her death duties. Developers started to talk about plans for luxury houses and a marina and, when these rumours circulated, concerned locals formed a committee with the aim of protecting the island and keeping it in its current unspoilt state. Their lobbying made the Treasury accept the island in lieu of death duties and then agreed to the National Trust taking over responsibility on condition that a sizeable endowment was raised. A nationwide campaign followed with sums coming in from individuals, local businesses, charitable trusts and Scouts organisations. The John Lewis Partnership was a particularly generous donor. They repaired the castle and have rented it from the trust ever since. Over the next couple of years, the island was prepared for visitors before opening to the public in 1963. In August 2007, 100 years after the first experimental camp, Brownsea was the focus of worldwide celebrations of the centenary of Scouting. Four camps were set up on the island and hundreds of scouts and girl guides from 160 countries travelled to the island to participate in the celebrations. The island now remains in the safe hands of the National Trust.