There can be few islands the size of Brownsea Island that are known by so many people around the world. The fame of Brownsea Island has spread far and wide thanks to its historic links with the Scouting movement, but also many fans of Enid Blyton like to think of it as Kirren Island.
The largest of the eight islands to be found in Poole Harbour, Dorset, and the Island is mostly owned by the National Trust, and consists of only a few buildings, including Brownsea Castle, situated at one end of the five hundred acre island.
Brownsea Island has a long and diverse history. The name of the island is an Old Saxon name deriving from “Brunoc’s Island”. There is though evidence of occupation on the island long before the Saxon period and in the 5th Century BC, the most impressive evidence being a 33ft log boat. A few centuries later the Romans made their own settlements around Poole Harbour.
Into the medieval period and the monks of Cerne Abbey had established a small chapel on the island, and the monks remained in charge of the island through until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s. At this time Henry VIII took control of the island and set about providing some fortifications to defend the important trading port of Poole. At this time Brownsea Castle was built to house a small garrison of men from Poole itself. Within forty years though the island was abandoned as a fort and instead became a hideout for infamous pirates of the day. The fortifications though soon once again came into use as a Parliamentary stronghold in Dorset during the English Civil War.
The eighteenth century saw the island pass into private hands, and William Benson started to improve the island rebuilding the castle as his own personal residence. It was an improvement that was continued by subsequent owners, including Sir Humphrey Sturt who started planting trees and gardens on the island. Into the nineteenth century and new owners thought about the possibility of developing the island as a source of china clay. To this end manufacturing and pottery works were established along with workers building but the china clay quarry was not financially viable.
As there was no hope for industry, the next owner, Hon George Cavendish-Bentinck MP set about an agricultural approach, and at the same time packed the castle with Renaissance treasures. The treasures and the castle though were lost during an 1896 fire, a fire that the few islanders were unable to extinguish.
The Edwardian period saw Brownsea Island become a country retreat for the elite of British society, guests of the van Raalte family. These guests included Marconi who tried out his radio experiments on nearby Sandbanks. The island though was sold off in 1927 to Mary Bonham-Christie and the resident islanders were banished to Poole as the new island allowed the island to revert to how nature intended it. Wildlife flourished and even though the island was continually bombed during the Second World War, animals and plants flourished. Following the death of Mary Bonham-Christie though, her family were unable to afford to keep the island, and so the National Trust took over the responsibility for the island. To make this happen though the National Trust looked to donors, and there were many who gave their money willingly including the John Lewis Partnership, who now rent the castle building for their staff, and also many scouting groups.
Today Brownsea Island is a popular tourist attraction for those visiting Poole and Dorset, and in excess of one hundred thousand people visit each and every year. It is now a premier wildlife reserve set in a tranquil environment. On the island there is a large population of red squirrels, as well as a number of sika deer. The island is built up on a mud bank and sand and a brackish lagoon has built up as well as a large area of woodland and two freshwater lakes. This environment has made it an ideal site for many birds and there is a large population of Sandwich Tern and Common Tern, Avocets, Herons, Little Egrets and of course the peacocks.
As previously mentioned a large amount of the fame of Brownsea Island is down its links with the Scouts. As any scout knows it was from the 1st August 1907 that Robert Baden-Powell set up the first Scout camp for twenty two boys, and it was from this small start that the worldwide scouting movement started. Since 1963 there has been a permanent camping site for Scouts on Brownsea Island. Every year you can find scouts from all over the world taking the ferry to the island.
Although not confirmed many people also like to think that Brownsea Island is the basis for Kirren Island from the Famous Five Adventures. After all Kirren Island was an island in a bay with a castle on it, although Corfe Castle is acknowledged to be Kirren Castle.
Aside from the wildlife many people also visit Brownsea Island for the open air theatre that regularly plays host to a local production of a Shakespeare classic.
As an island, the main method of transport to Brownsea Island is by ferry, and several firms operate regular ferry crossings from both Poole Quay and Sandbanks. This transportation is important to remember, and although admission to Brownsea Island for an adult is GBP4.90, and for a child GBP2.40, an additional cost is incurred in taking the ferry. This additional cost is normally GBP4.50 for and adult, and GBP3.50 for a child. In general the island is open to the public from early March until the beginning of November although it is best to check with the National Trust before taking the trip.
All in all Brownsea Island is one of the most relaxing and peaceful of tourist attractions to be found in Dorset, and for a relatively small amount of money it is possible to spend a whole day cut off from the hectic society we live in.