A day in…Bournemouth and the Isle of Purbeck

By | Category: Travel destinations
Bournemouth beach and pier

Bournemouth as many people would know it – in Summer

A day out on the coast can be lovely any time of year, I figured, and so decided to head down to Bournemouth by train to test this theory in the bleak month of January. Luckily I wasn’t wrong – a place the size of Bournemouth, which also happens to be a university town, has plenty going on even in the midst of the UK winter. Voted Best Coastal Resort in last year’s UK Travel Awards, Bournemouth is enjoying an added boost of confidence at the moment, the beach promenade getting spruced up and numerous festivals taking place throughout 2015.

After briefly checking out the beaches, four of which have been awarded blue flags, and taking in the historic pier, I thought it best to head indoors – it was January after all and there was a stiff breeze blowing. Right on the seafront lies one of Britain’s most unusual galleries, The Russell-Cotes Gallery and Museum, built between 1897 and 1901.

Russell Cotes

The Russell Cotes Art Gallery and Museum ©Russell-Cotes Gallery

Merton and Annie Russell-Cotes were quite an eccentric couple in their day, to say the least, and over the years they travelled far and wide, amassing a considerable international collection of objects, including some very fine art. A visit to this fabulous late-Victorian building is a must when in Bournemouth, whether in summer or winter, although the latter is certainly quieter.

The Russell-Cotes, although very wealthy and prone to rubbing shoulders with everyone from royalty to popular actors, showed a rather charming lack of background knowledge about the objects they collected, something that has resulted in a wonderfully random collection from their journeys – they simply bought what they liked without preconceived ideas. Out of the 78 rooms, a fair few, on several floors, are open to the public. Ambling round, I found the Moorish Alcove, inspired by the Alhambra in Granada, and the Mikado’s Room, inspired by Japan, particularly fascinating. Although there is plenty of permanent art, the gallery also hosts several temporary exhibitions annually. At present until the 8th of March, women are at the forefront in an interesting exhibition entitled Dangerous Women! From Kaufman to Emin, looking at pioneering women artists from the 18th century right up to present day.

Bournemouth has a wide array of places to shop

Bournemouth has a wide array of places to shop

In addition to beautiful beaches and excellent art, Bournemouth also has a wide choice of shopping (Castlepoint is the largest retail park in the UK). Scenic parks and gardens abound, and there are countless activities and festivals, year-round, but despite all the exciting options, I quite fancied venturing further out into the countryside, escaping big city London for the day, as I was. A short drive along the Dorset coast, west of Bournemouth lies the Isle of Purbeck. This is something of a misnomer, as it’s in actual fact a peninsula, not an island, but don’t let this put you off – even in drizzly mid-winter, Purbeck is a lovely place, replete with historic towns and villages, not to mention great country pubs and secluded beaches.

My first stop was Wareham, on an inlet of Poole Harbour, surrounded by the rivers Frome and, ahem, Piddle (that is its name). The history of this pleasant market town goes back some 2,000 years and today’s Wareham is a gateway to the rest of the Purbeck area. The information centre by the quayside provides good tips for exploring the town and surroundings, boat trips go up the Frome from spring to autumn, there’s a small town museum and several cute cafés with river views. By now lunchtime was looming and I was starting to get a wee (inspired by the Piddle, perhaps?) bit peckish. As luck would have it, there are a number of friendly country pubs with good grub in the area.

One of said pubs, The New Inn, in the tiny village of Church Knowle, is only a stone’s throw from Corfe Castle, one of Dorset’s prime sights, so I took a sneak peek at this historic castle ruin from the 11th century, before tucking into a gorgeous lunch of borscht soup for starter, followed by the rich and flavoursome game casserole, at the 16th century former working farm that is the New Inn.

the beach in Swanage © Visit Swanage and Purbeck

the beach in Swanage © Visit Swanage and Purbeck

Another main hub along the coast, in these parts known as the Jurassic Coast (a World Heritage Site since 2001), is Swanage. A traditional Victorian seaside resort, Swanage has great views of the coast and Isle of Wight opposite, quaint shops and good cliff walks along the coastal path. My own interest, however, had nothing to do with any of the above – instead I was there for, wait for it…chocolate. Not perhaps your most traditional cocoa bean growing area, Swanage is nonetheless home to a wonderful gem of a chocolate shop and café, in a small alleyway off the seafront. Chococo’s handmade chocolates come in a wide variety of flavours including the downright exotic and risqué, such as black garlic or blue cheese. Delighted I had some room left after lunch, if only a tiny corner, I proceeded to indulge in a salted caramel hot chocolate and of course a bag of their delicious truffles and ganaches to take home. Working mostly with local producers for their fillings, they even have a special range of Dorset flavours – chocolate heaven.

The afternoon was marching rapidly on towards evening, and what better time to check out a few more pubs in the area. Just north of Swanage, along the coast, lies golden-sanded Studland Beach, home to the wonderfully rustic Bankes Arms country inn. There was an inviting open fire roaring in the fireplace as I made my way to the bar area to try the local beers. The inn dates back to the mid-16th century and has a fine selection of Isle of Purbeck beers from their own brewery, including a red amber ale, an IPA and a bitter. What more could I possibly want? Well, maybe one last pub visit and some dinner.

Bournemouthb as viewed from the Russell Cotes © Russell-Cotes

Bournemouth as viewed from the Russell Cotes © Russell-Cotes

Away from the coast, in deepest Dorset, close to picturesque woodlands, a nature reserve and the New Forest National park, lies Drusilla’s Inn, a traditional thatched rural pub. Cosy, warm and welcoming, the pub also has an unusual “round restaurant”, set in a circular room. And, best of all, after a hearty dinner and a glass of red, I had my very own shepherd’s hut in a nearby field, where I could crash for the night. Bliss.

For more information  about Bournemouth, click here.

For more information  about Dorset, click here.

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