Hengistbury Head, once a bustling settlement during the Stone Age, Iron Age and Roman period and now a peaceful nature reserve. Stroll along the beach with views across the sea to the Isle of Wight and round to Christchurch Harbour. Return via Warren Hill and through the ancient landscape looking over to the Purbecks, deeper into Dorset and to the tree tops of the New Forest.
Distance: 4 miles/6km
Duration: 1-2 hours
Ability: Easy. With sections across the site that are wheelchair accessible.
Max Height: 120ft.
Min Height: 0ft.
Total climb: 120ft.
Terrain: Footpath, path and beach.
Map: OL Explorer 22 New Forest.
Start Point: Hengistbury Head Car park. (Postcode: BH6 4EN, Grid Reference: SZ162910, What Three Words: steep.lost.drop).
How to Get There: From Poole or Bournemouth, head east, whether on the coast road or on the B3059. Hengistbury Head is well signposted and when on Broadway, continue to the entrance to the car park on the right (payment required).
Toilets: Toilets are available in the corner of the car park.
Dogs: In accordance with the Countryside Code and any notices on route. Extra care is required due to it being a sensitive nature reserve.
Hengistbury Head is a sandstone, clay and iron ore headland jutting eastwards into the English Channel towards the Isle of Wight. Embraced by the land is Christchurch Bay that leads to the narrow entrance of the Solent. The Head consists of an unspoilt, south facing pebble and sand beach with cliffs rising to Warren Hill. On Mudeford Sandspit sit the famous, colourful beach huts before meeting the entrance of Christchurch Harbour at The Run. On the northern edge, facing the interior of the Harbour, is the small bay of Barn Bight and the lower flat lands of Barn Field.
The area is rife with wildlife from natterjack toads to skylarks, as well as a number of British reptiles. Cattle and sheep graze the ground preventing the dominance of grass and enabling the growth of more wildflowers. The northern forest is said be possibly one of the oldest in the county, having not been touched for centuries.
Hengistbury Head is not only a beautiful environment but it is an area that has played an important role in history. The site contains evidence of multi-periods from as early as the Palaeolithic right through to the Roman and, because of this, it is one of the best known case studies in British archaeology.
In 1930 the site was bought by Bournemouth Borough council for £25.000. In the Second World War it was used by the army, filled with defences and a radar station was installed, all cleared by the 1950’s.
The site today is a National Nature Reserve, a site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), a Special Area of Conservation, an Environmentally Sensitive Area, a site of Nature Conservation Trust as well as a National Monument. It attracts over one million visitors a year requiring careful management of the sensitive area.
From the car parking spot, walk towards the beach and turn left on the pebbles. Here you meet the first of the impressive ancient earthworks. In the Early Iron Age a settlement was established on the headland. These earthworks, or Double Dykes, were created at the same time as a way to protect the settlement. The ditch is on the external side of the rampart making entry difficult. Before erosion it is thought that the earthworks would have extended further south. Nevertheless, the banks are still prominent and still fulfill their original objective of dividing the Head from the rest of the country.
Follow the base of the sandy, elephant like cliffs that rise up to Warren Hill, aiming for the Long Pier (or Long Groyne) on the Head’s eastern corner. On a clear day, far across the expanse of sea, the little pins of The Needles can be seen. Jutting from the higher headland they mark the western point of the Isle of Wight,
Behind, the coastline sweeps around Poole Bay marked with the golden beach lying under the cliffs and buildings of Bournemouth. Further around the sandy beaches turn into solid chalk cliffs and the pinnacles of Old Harry on the Isle of Purbeck.
During the Victorian era, between 1848 and 1872, human activity at Hengistbury Head had a devastating impact. Tons of boulders, known as ironstone doggers, were removed from the shoreline, sea bed and Warren Hill. They were either used as ballast for the return journey to Southampton on the boats that brought coal to Christchurch, or, shipped off to iron smelting works in South Wales. For thousands of years, these hard rocks had formed a natural defence, protecting the headland from the destructive force of the sea. The removal of such a substantial amount of doggers weakened the headland and within just a few decades, around one third of it was lost.
Since the 1930’s, efforts have been put into saving the headland involving the construction of breakwaters and groynes. Although they have slowed the effects, almost half of the Head has been lost.
However, erosion is pretty much unstoppable. The development of Bournemouth cliff’s concreted promenade and groynes, which started in the early 20th century, only sent the sea’s energy down the coast to the Head. Maps show a further 25 metres of cliff was washed away from 1915 to 1962.
Walk to Long Pier until the water appears below you. The Needles and their 33m high Lighthouse sit on the horizon ahead, while the land continues to curve around to the north wrapping the whole of Christchurch Bay, protecting it from the worst force of the sea. It would have been, and probably still is, a highly welcomed by any passing ship.
Curve around the headland and you either have a choice to take the harder, slightly higher path or the beach, climbing over the groynes.
Stay on the beach as the colourful line of beach huts appear, resting on the sand dunes, all with sea views. Skim past the steps on the left, that will later take you up to Warren Hill, and continue along the beach with thick, soft sand underfoot. More than 300 huts populate this little strip of sand, all privately owned with no running water or electricity. However, this does not slow down demand for the little coastal properties, despite their shed like appearance, they can reach prices of over £300,000!
In 1693 efforts were made to make access to Christchurch Harbour easier. A channel was cut through the sand bar out to sea, using the iron doggers to create a pier. The plans proved unsuccessful as a combination of weather, sea and other natural forces did not agree with the design. However, parts of the pier, now known as ‘Clarendon’s Jetty’ or the ‘Long Rocks’ are still visible today, just under the water on the right hand side.
Continue to follow the beach all the way to the end of the sandy pinnacle to meet The Run. The narrow channel can really be appreciated and it is understandable why efforts were made to make it more accessible. Even on a calm day the water peaks and troughs and the waves clash as the Harbour and sea combine.
Turn around, following the edge of the spit towards The Black House. The Black House is a local landmark and is often associated with smuggling tales. It was built in 1848 when smuggling was slowly petering out; nevertheless, this does not necessarily mean that is was completely exempt! It was originally used as a boat builder’s house but today is a set of holiday flats.
Continue to follow the path, passing the Black House on your left along with more beach huts looking out over Christchurch Harbour. The banks of the northern harbour are decorated with smart, white, million pound properties along with the much older Christchurch Priory tower rising above the trees. The skyline of Bournemouth appears in the far west, over Sandpit Marsh, and on the southern edge sits Warren Hill.
The shallow, natural harbour of Christchurch is filled by two rivers, The Stour, that has travelled right through Dorset, and The Avon, that runs up the county’s eastern boundary. However, as you travel up Warren Hill, there is evidence to suggest there was activity here even before the harbour was formed.
The harbour was created over 7000 years ago when the sea levels slowly rose. Prior to that it was a small but wide river valley, filled with thick forest and wild animals. A scattering of tools and pottery that have already been found puts forward the theory that people were making Warren Hill’s little wooded hilltop a home.
The rise of the sea meant easier travel. The water provided quick links to Europe while in turn Christchurch Harbour became the first port of call to those visiting ancient England. It is also suggested that the Bluestones, used in the construction of Stonehenge, were transported through the harbour and up the River Avon to Salisbury. Not long after Stonehenge’s development, the River Stour led to a number of Iron Age Hillforts including Badbury Rings, Buzbury Rings, Crawford Castle, Hambledon Hill, Hod Hill and Banbury.
By 100BC, the late Iron Age, Christchurch Harbour had become a substantial international port exporting goods such as iron, silver, bronze and even Italian wine. This perfect landscape, providing evidence of settlement, activity and trade, leads to the theory that it could have been the first ever urban settlement in England.
When the Romans arrived, little changed, trade was already occurring between the local tribes and the Romans. The harbour was working efficiently, with the help of the natural landscape, and so the Romans used it just as equally, but in the company of more exotic goods. A Roman ship was discovered in the harbour in 1910. The person who discovered it sent a few artefacts to The British Museum, but died in World War I, before he could show anyone where it was!
Christchurch, unsurprisingly, played its role in smuggling life too, much of the town being involved. The rivers not only restricted access into the harbour by land, but provided an easy escape route up stream. On the River Stour, as far north as Blandford, The Crown had a wharf where the local landowner and Sheriff of Dorset Richard Rodgers, alongside his friend and explorer Sir Walter Raleigh, commanded the river for these illegal exploits, even Queen Elizabeth I turned a blind eye. In 1664 an effort was made to make it possible to navigate the River Avon to Salisbury, but it was abandoned in 1730.
The shifting sands of the harbour gave locals, with the knowledge of its movements, an advantage over the inept and fearful officials. But they tried. In 1784 the Battle of Mudeford occurred in the harbour, a fight of fire between the smugglers and officials that lasted for 3 hours. The smugglers managed to escape but lost their boats in the process.
The harbour today is much more peaceful. Both otters and seals have been seen, while it is decoratively filled with the colours of gently bobbing yachts and small fishing boats.
As you approach the beach huts, keep to the left to then take the steps up Warren Hill. (Alternatively turn right, if you don’t fancy the climb, to return to the visitor centre). When you reach the top, turn right, unless you want to appreciate the last sea view to the Needles on your left. Join a footpath making your way through the heath and across the ancient landscape towards to Quarry Pond.
No evidence of settlement in the Bronze Age has been found and therefore it can be assumed that the area during this period was only being used as a cemetery. At least eleven barrows are on Hengistbury Head and those that have been excavated have unearthed axes and urns. One particular mound seems to be of a high status female, buried with precious possessions that match burials further inland on the South Dorset Ridgeway. Iron Age coins have been discovered in abundance, so much so it can be assumed that the coins were once minted here.
To the north the views stretch across the harbour and its marshy edges while to the south is just the blues of the sea, all the way to France. When the path splits, turn right to go down the steps, arriving at Quarry Pond.
The Iron Ore rich doggers weren’t only quarried during the Victorian period or utilised in the Tudor sea defences but also for the ancient Christchurch Castle that sits in ruins across the harbour. The castle, built in the 11th century, used some of the doggers for its foundations, the orange tinted boulders still visible at its base. This pond is just one of the quarries from the Victorian era, now filled with water, and it has become an important part of the nature reserve.
Take the left hand path to circle the pond and walk on up the hill. Continue to follow the path heading for the coastguard lookout. Behind you the views open up again, back over the Head. The small entrance of The Run looks tiny in comparison with the rest of the harbour, while on the edge sits Christchurch itself and the vast amount of tree tops behind, marking the beginning of the New Forest.
Pass the lookout, a compass and the trig point to then descend the hill. At the bottom sits the Rammed Earth sculpture, made by Briony Marshall. It was created by compressing a number of layers, collected from Hengistbury Head, to remind people of balance, change and the ‘vastness of time’.
Continue straight ahead and when the path splits, fork right. Turn right at the next path and then left to head to the visitor centre. The £1m Visitor Centre has been built with a grass roof and insulated with straw. It is filled with information about Hengistbury Head and has its own wildlife garden to help generate awareness of the Head’s sensitive nature.
From the visitor centre, head past The Hikers Café to return to the car park and your vehicle.