Christchurch is a small historic town on the south coast, once an important trading port and famed for its smugglers of the 18th and 19th centuries. Today it is home to a large population of retirees and visitors, many of whom come for the pretty streets, historic sites and sailing. With plenty of free sites to visit, Christchurch is a great place to explore.
Depositing two teenage boys in the jungle-like depths of the New Forest for a day of shooting lots of other people in camouflage with air guns, I found I had a few spare hours on my hands. With traffic home backed up on such a hot and sunny day, I decided to head in the opposite direction and take myself off to the seaside town of Christchurch.
Christchurch barely scrapes by not to be considered as part of the Bournemouth-Poole conurbation. The vast mass of modern apartment buildings which now surround the once genteel Victorian homes and hotels of traditional Bournemouth elegance, is spreading rapidly as the lure of golden beaches, huge piers and attractions for the masses means that the city is growing at an alarming rate.
Merging with the industrial trading port of Poole, the two have converged into an overpopulated metropolis, while Christchurch sits quietly to the east of the sprawl, separated only by the narrow River Stour as it meanders down to the English Channel. All I really knew about Christchurch is that it is home to a Norman priory and a large harbour filled with boating enthusiasts - the bright lights and loud clamour of Bournemouth overshadow their calmer and more serene neighbour.
Googling ‘Christchurch car parks’, I picked one at random, put it in my Sat Nav, bumped down the potholed rhododendron lined lanes of the Forest and headed out on the traffic-filled dual carriageways to the sea. Turning off on an empty slip road while everyone else continued on to the sunny delights of the beaches, I passed through typical suburban outliers - ageing malls of takeaways and hairdressers, council houses and multiple mini roundabouts, before reaching the centre of the town, where the roads narrowed, the buildings bowed and curved, and old towers could be seen rising above the uneven rooftops. I parked and headed in the general direction of one of these edifices, ending up at a crumbling tower on the top of a small hill.
The Norman Castle
The site was clearly a motte and bailey castle, looking like a text book version drawn by a child, a square keep on an artificially high mound complete with brilliant green grass against the blue sky and a winding path leading up to it. A thoughtfully placed sign confirmed that this was indeed the remains of a Norman castle, the stone keep built in 1310 as a replacement for a wooden one which had been built in 1074.
There wasn’t a great deal to see, just the decaying remains of two stone walls with empty doorways, but it was an excellent vantage point to look out across the centre of the old town, a pleasingly haphazard mishmash of homes, gardens and outhouses of the type that you will never find when civic architects get their hands on urban planning.
Beyond the trees I could see the tower of the Priory rising over a rather regimented looking graveyard, where a woman clutching flowers was sitting alone on a bench, head in her hands. On the other side of the hill was a large bowling green with another ruined building just beyond. Leaving the high ground, I headed off to explore this other set of ruins.
Crossing the bowling green, I admired the ornate white clap board clubhouse which was filled with twinkling fairy lights and white confetti. The grounds were pretty, with a few palm trees dotted around the vast bowling green, which itself looked rather rocky and unloved. I sat on a bench for some quick research on my phone and discovered in the local paper that the clubhouse had been sold off as a wedding venue, much to the consternation of the local boules team, who were outraged at being ousted and at their pitch being left untended and rendered unusable.
The article said the green was 18th century and was once one of the best pitches in the country: the comment section bounced between boules players lamenting its loss and angry people demanding to know why the council should pay for its upkeep. I could just imagine the anger in the town meeting where that had originally been discussed.
Next to me and vivid against the blue sky was the ruin, a substantial building of grey stone with a chimney towering above it.
The Norman House
The building has all four walls remaining in varying degrees, one full size, and is right next to the river with beautiful views over the reeds and rushes. It is completely open and free to explore. I had the place to myself and was surprised at just how ornate the building was. Another handy sign informed me that this was once a Norman house and is in fact one of the few remaining examples of domestic Norman architecture left in the country. The tall, circular chimney which towered above me is particularly rare and one of only five left in the country.
Built in 1160, the ground floor was a storeroom with a grand hall above it on the first floor and a solar for the family next to it. There was a crenellated wall walk where archers could defend the nearby bridge and in the 13th century a storeroom was added over the river so that boats could offload their produce easily and without tariff.
They are rather atmospheric ruins, with clearly defined features such as fireplaces, windows and doorways, one of which led out onto a small balcony over the river. The windows are particularly well defined, with delicate frames and one with a coved recess, and it is surprisingly easy to imagine how the house may have once looked when it was inhabited.
I may have been the only person in the place, but the incessant cooing let me know I was not alone, and I soon noticed that the holes left by the joists for the first floor were filled with pigeons who were nesting, their black eyes watching every step I took in case I made a move for their young. I decided to leave them to it and headed back across the controversial bowling green towards the Priory.
Christchurch Priory Gardens
I walked under a lovely arbour of bright green leaves and peered through the wrought iron gates of the Garden of Rest, where the woman clutching the flowers was still on the bench, gazing over the stones. There was a notice next to the gate; instructions for who was allowed to be interred there, what your memorial stone was to look like, what it had to say and what flowers you could leave. It all seemed incredibly strict, and the rows of identical memorial stones with identical stone vases looked regimented and indistinguishable.
Everything that had made them unique as individuals had been stripped from them for the honour of being buried under the shadow of the priory. I far preferred what I saw as I walked through the older graveyard. Here in random profusion were wonky gravestones filled with details of lives lived and families left behind, cursive fonts adding a flourish that recent burials were denied.
Contemplating the rigidity of modern death as I wandered through the priory grounds, I saw a rather unusual monument standing alone under some trees. Well over three metres high and about five metres wide, it was ornately decorated on one side but flat and whitewashed on the other. A sign informed me that this was the mausoleum of a Mrs Perkins who had died in 1793 at the age of 47.
She had apparently had so great a fear of being buried alive that the mausoleum has been specifically designed with a host of features to prevent this from happening, including being originally sited next to a boy’s school so they could hear her cries and rescue her if her fears came true.
One has to wonder what happened to her to make her so afraid; perhaps she had just read too many early Gothic novels, or maybe she was just a little odd, a contemporary writing that, “Mrs. Perkins had a fine face and majestic form, but her charms were external, for oddities, whims, and caprices made up her character”.
The Red House Museum and Gardens
Over the Priory wall I saw a sign for ‘The Red House Museum and Gardens’ and intrigued, headed straight for it. It was indeed a red brick building with not one but two blue plaques. I was welcomed by a friendly volunteer who explained the layout and told me that it was free to enter, a rare thing these days.
Well, it is a fabulous museum, and one I would urge you to visit. The building has gone through several incarnations, one of which was as a workhouse for the impoverished. It is now a museum of local archaeology and history with a firm focus on its time as a workhouse.
With wooden floorboards, flagstone floors, a loud ticking grandfather clock, a huge Victorian range and much more, it is a homely and atmospheric place to visit. Objects are arranged matter of factly in old fashioned display cases with simple black and white signs telling you what they are. There is no fancy lighting, no screens or sounds competing for your attention, no shiny chrome surfaces, just the ticking of that wonderful old clock and an eclectic mix of relics from both the building and the wider city.
The archaeology galleries were upstairs, where a local artist had clearly been given the brief to draw ancient and modern together, producing some fascinating pictures, such as a Saxon family mourning around the grave of a loved one, next to a baffled workman from the 1970s scratching his head when he found the grave centuries later. It was a clever idea and a great visual for the kids. There is a lot in the museum for kids, lots of hands on stuff to do, to try on and to play with.
Windows in many of the rooms looked out over the garden, oil lamps and vases on the windowsills, with real geraniums and succulents amongst them, providing a domestic touch to this unassuming building. This is a museum that hasn’t been overly curated or modernised and I seriously hope it stays that way; it is informative, educational and non-judgemental.
Having seen the gardens from the windows, I just had to take a look. Not particularly big, I was delighted by what I found. They are truly beautiful walled gardens; beds filled with colourful roses, alliums and irises, an immaculate lawn, a woodland walk, palm trees, and the constant buzzing of insects and bees. Amongst the greenery are random bits of stone decoration, mill stones, old lampposts, a part of the Bailey Bridge which a volunteer told me they were very proud of in Christchurch, and some dinosaurs, clearly there for the children but looking quite at home peering through the undergrowth of this typical English country garden.
I sat under the pergola on a bench dedicated to a friend of the museum who had given so much time and money to its upkeep, and said a silent thank you to him and others like him who keep these places going against the odds.
I decided it was finally time to head to the Priory, having only admired the outside so far. Again it was free to visit and I was given a leaflet by kind volunteer to help guide me around. It is small for a priory church but pretty and I loved the simple Norman arches of the nave, which was only slightly ruined by the screens arranged down the aisle and the plastic sheeting hanging amongst the seats.
The priory looks like a church which gets a lot of use but not much income, with random everyday objects tucked into every corner. The carved wooden miserichords were covered in signs asking people not to touch them until funding could be found to repair them, and the main quire was hidden behind a hanging rail of red choir robes - I took a peek through to see voting boxes and piles of paper on Formica tables.
One of the tiny chapels was filled with mops, brooms and signage, and I was slightly confused by a flannel stuffed high up in a hole in the wall. I was still pondering the flannel when I saw a wall memorial to a Fanny White-White, which perplexed me for the rest of my visit. Why would you double barrel the same name?
There were some pretty stained glass windows and a large memorial to Percy Shelley, sculpted dying melodramatically in his wife’s arms after he drowned in Italy.
After a couple of hours of history, I decided to visit the town centre to buy some lunch. There are some really pretty buildings and houses, lots of shops with Instagrammable frontages of plastic plants, twinkling lights and colourful displays, unfortunately hidden behind the rows of cars lining the roads.
There is an admirable if somewhat dilapidated 1930s Art Deco cinema, and colourful bunting flapping in the breeze, but I could not get over the sheer volume of litter. Christchurch has the biggest street bins I have ever seen but I don’t think anyone was using them. Receipts floated past me in the gentle breeze, cigarette butts littered the ground, cans and bottles lurked in every corner, the ripped pages from a rather insalubrious magazine were trampled underfoot across the high street.
I wandered down narrow side streets, always a favourite occupation of mine, and there are lots in Christchurch to chose from. Amongst other delights I found some ghost advertising signs, pretty old buildings and a random graveyard unattached to a church which was filled with wildflowers and scaffolding.
I saw a sign for the ‘Ducking Stool’ and just had to investigate, thinking maybe it was an old pub. It turned out to be a full size, sturdy wooden ducking stool on the banks of the river, sandwiched between two buildings and surrounded by nettles. Another helpful sign told me that Christchurch had had a ducking stool since the mid 14th century - this one was installed in 1986 as part of a centennial festival. I wanted to sit in it out over the river but felt a bit daft as I was on my own, so instead I stood next to it and watched the fish swimming by.
I headed for Christchurch Quay to eat my sandwich, now warming slowly in my bag, a place which I vaguely remembered as being a quiet green with pretty river views of sailing boats bobbing about on the water. Well, I had picked a bad day for it, which I realised as I approached and could hear the sounds of a man bellowing over a tannoy competing with the revving of engines, and see people walking around licking enormous melting ice creams. It turned out to be a car show with scores of vintage cars parked on the green and lots of people peering intently into bonnets discussing engines.
I found a bench with my back to it all and ate watching the boats, trying to pretend that there wasn’t a noisy car fair behind me. I chuckled to myself as I watched the people on board a tiny boat called ‘Loose Nuts’ wielding wrenches as they tried to start their spluttering engine. Unfortunately they eventually achieved it and a cloud of diesel fumes soon headed my way. They left their engine running and I was enveloped, so I donated my sandwich to the seagulls and wandered back to my car.
As I pulled out of the car park, I unwittingly joined the mass exodus of vintage cars from the fair and I left the town as part of a procession: Cadillacs, Thunderbirds, even a Dolorean with the bumper sticker informing me that the driver always drives at 88mph ‘just in case’. Flanked by gleaming cars all around, I felt very ashamed in my far newer yet far grubbier car.
I drove back out past the mini roundabouts, on to the dual carriage way filled with cars of hot and sandy people leaving the beaches of Bournemouth, and back down the solitary track bordered with purple rhododendron and unfurling bright green ferns. The sound of gunfire got louder and men in camouflage scurried past me as I pulled into the car park to collect two sweaty teenagers and take them home.
My afternoon bimbling around Christchurch had been entirely free (except for parking) and I had thoroughly enjoyed exploring this ancient and venerable old town.