The Pines of Bournemouth

 

 

 

 

Section of town logo showing pine treeThe pines of Bournemouth have been perhaps its most distinctive feature since the town's early days. It had the nicknames 'Evergreen Valley' and 'Forest City of our Southern Shore'. The town's heraldic crest has a pine atop it (formally, 'a pine tree proper on a green mount'). This is a memento of the area’s identity as a health spa, when the presence of pine trees was thought to help cure respiratory ailments and be generally invigorating.
Once, the landscape was dominated by pine and fir forest which marked the beginnings of the British "Wildwood". (See our historical-background guide, An Introduction To Britain's Lost Wildwood.) Yet the pines you see today are not a natural feature, but part of a massive landscaping programme throughout the 19th Century to transform the gorse-covered heathland to plant pines and other coniferous evergreen trees.


Meyrick Park in early Bournemouth: today, the entire area around the sports grounds is planted with trees.
The town's Victorian epithet, 'Forest City of our Southern Shore', was the result of systematic plantation of pines and firs on once open heathland.

Early travel references to the Bournemouth area always characterise it as a bleak, empty heathland – the south-eastern corner of Hardy’s ‘Great Heath’ in novels such as Return Of The Native. Future Poet Laureate Robert Southey, walking west across Bourne Heath from Christchurch in 1800, describes the scene as “desolation.” Later in the 19th century, photographs still show the area largely devoid of trees.
There are fleeting references to a few conifers existing naturally in the poor-quality sandy soil. The existence of trees in large numbers on the same poor soil in the New Forest across the Avon Valley showed the idea of creating man-made pine forests here was feasible. In fact, Hardy’s ‘Great Heath’ was not in fact unchanged ancient heathland as he wrote, but was tree-covered, first by pines and fir trees, then mixed coniferous and deciduous woodland. Early farmers routinely burnt off this native mixed woodland to clear the land for grazing.
Recently, the American travel writer and humourist Bill Bryson wrote of the issue of disappearing woodlands. He wrote of how he joined the Woodland Trust 30 years ago, when he was living in the New Forest while working for the Bournemouth Echo. He notes, "In the 30-something years that I’ve been admiring the British landscape, an awful lot of it has disappeared. Go back even further — around 7,000 years — and almost all of Britain was covered in forest. Now just 3% is made up of ancient woodland.”

 

Talbot Heath

 


The once-extensive Talbot Woods, after which the local electoral district is named, have given way to heath again. Pictured is the start of Talbot Heath, stretching between Coy Pond, Bourne Valley and the Arts Institute.

Pines on hillside


Pine forest cover remains on hillsides too steep for building.

 

Some coastal woodland has actually been lost to tidal erosion eating away the cliff and causing landslips. Where the Pier is now, the stumps of a now-sunken forest have been found, lost to the sea as the cliff retreated. The main chine or chines were also wooded, their sheltered position allowing species to survive that could not have done so on the open heath. The first history of the town, by Mate & Riddle in 1910, says that Lyell's Principles Of Geology, written circa 1830, refers to a pine forest where the pier was built being submerged due to a landslip. (The sea actually came up the central chine until the pierhead was built.) It adds that farther up the chine were remnants of an old oak, alder and birch wood, the trunks “bearing traces both of fire and axe.” It quotes the unnamed writer of an early guidebook that “The peasantry have a tradition that the forest was burned down during the reign of Stephen” i.e. the civil war period of the early 13th century. This may refer to the mediaeval practice of burning down woods that often harboured both wolves and outlaws.

There had been at least one earlier unsuccessful attempt at tree planting on the local heath. Mulberry trees had been planted in Boscombe Manor grounds in the 1600s as part of a national attempt at creating a silkworm-harvesting industry. (A few relics survived until around 1800.) The pine trees of today only appeared in numbers after the local Inclosure Acts and land awards of the 1800s - officially to grow corn for domestic and military use after a serious drought in 1801. (Britain was then entering the era of the Napoleonic Wars.) Corn was used not only as food, but in distilling. But in 1805, when the local land awards were made, the Napoleonic War threat had receded (after Trafalgar), and it was not corn but conifers the new owners planted. This was a part of a trend that went with the Inclosure Acts of the 1800s across England. On one of his famous 1820s ‘Rural Rides’ inland to survey the Hampshire countryside, pioneer journalist (and keen gardener) William Cobbett objected to the new trend, complaining ‘plenty of fir trees and other rubbish have been planted recently’.

 

Swampy land in Bourne chine

Remnants of the original swampy bottomland of Bourne Chine can still be seen - the track in the background is a boardwalk over a rush bed.

Caledonian or Scots Pines

 

Caledonian or Scots Pines 

 

 

  These conifers were of various subspecies. Caledonian or Scots Pine was planted, from Bourne Mouth east to the now-vanished Mount Misery [present-day Clifton Road], and in Talbot Woods. Then Maritime Pine was tried when the ground proved slightly dry for the Scots Pine, and imported varieties — Austrian Pine, Monterey Pine, White Pine. In the main however, they were not an alien species like the Himalayan rhododendrons now growing in the chines, but mainly British native species. They are often all referred to interchangeably as “Scotch pines” and “Scotch firs,” and there is an old explanation they were originally planted in the early 19th century by homesick early Scottish settlers. This was perhaps to go with all the local heather, early accounts mentioning a sea of purple heather. One local legend is that the first belt was planted at Hurn Court, from seeds taken from the Highlanders’ final defeat at Culloden near Inverness in 1746. The first trees seem to have been a generation later: according to a Christchurch Council webpage, "Scots Pine and Maritime Pine were introduced to Dorset heathlands for forestry as early as 1783."

 

The conifer plantations were cultivated not for “deal” timber or paper, as in today’s tightly-packed Forestry Commission inclosures full of saplings, but to build up a seaside spa along the coastal heathlands — an outcome of the era’s enthusiasm for large-scale landscaping. For when allowed to grow freely to full size, the gnarled Caledonian pine can be picturesque. Painters like Constable found pines an inspiring feature, adding a touch of wildness to a scene, and there was a market for rural paintings featuring pines. Evergreens also had a more appealing perennial symbolism for invalid visitors than the broadleaf trees which “die” every autumn.

 

The Upper Central Pleasure Gardens by the watertower built in 1897.

The Upper Central Pleasure Gardens by the watertower built in 1897.

The Lower Pleasure Gardens today, looking south towards the Square.


Pine trees on the Westcliff seafront, as painted by Nancy Bell, 1916.

 

The scent of the pine resin was also promoted as a natural remedy for the pulmonary complaints common in the new cities of the Industrial Age. A 19th century History Of Hampshire says of Bournemouth “it is to the valuable medicinal properties of these trees, combined with the invigorating sea air, that the town owes its origin.” Doctors promoted the town, sometimes by writing books about it. The Duke Of Argyll was sent to stay at the new Royal Bath Hotel for his health by a doctor-friend who was author of the book Notes Of A Wanderer In Search Of Health. He says that, in 1846, the Bourne Mouth chine itself (where the Lower Central Gardens are today) was ‘one long, marshy, rushy hollow.’ However from there, a large fir-wood stretched east to Boscombe, and he would ‘take interminable walks through these fir woods without meeting a single human being.’ (A remnant of Boscombe’s ‘Hinton Woods’, now Boscombe Grove, remains by Grove Road.) Within ten days, the Duke reported, he had become ‘perfectly well’.

More and more pines were planted. The ‘marshy, rushy hollow’ of the 1840s would soon be transformed into today’s Pleasure Gardens, beginning with its ‘Pine Walk,’ planted on the east side of the chine for invalids to stroll along. By the turn of the century, the town had the nickname Evergreen Valley, the local newspaper referring to this in 1910 when commenting on the population increase, from 10,000 to 78,000 in only a decade: “The increase is striking testimony to the popularity of the Evergreen Valley as a health resort.”
The town’s central chines were landscaped with a variety of trees, particularly in the Central Pleasure Gardens, where trees from around the world, both coniferous and deciduous, have now been planted. (There are sign-boards explaining this.)

 

Meyrick Park

Woodlands above the east side of Meyrick Park

 

Pleasure Gardens

 

  Some earlier mixed woodland areas which still existed when the area was a smugglers’ haven in the 18th century have since disappeared. The Ward Lock Red Guide To Bournemouth says of the wood that stretched up to the present University campus: “Talbot Woods … alas, are no more if we except a small, railed-in remnant graced with the name of Pug’s Hole – a name that seems reminiscent of Puck, but which is actually a reminder of a smuggler who rejoiced in the name of Pug and used this wood in which to hide his contraband goods.” Yet Pug’s Hole does survive [pictured below] as an enclave just north of Branksome Wood Road, where the ground is too steep for building on.
Left: The town's central chine was landscaped into Central Pleasure Gardens. Pictured is the Upper Gardens.
The wooded enclave of Pug's Hole today

 

  The wooded enclave of Pug's Hole today
Left and above: The wooded enclave of Pug's Hole today

The pines became part of the area’s identity, celebrated also in literature. Writers would set novels, plays and films in the exclusive spa-resort of “Pinebourne,” a name you can still see on some older houses. Hardy, who lived here in the 1870s, refers to Bournemouth as "a fascinating, pine-scented phenomenon." Youthful Romantic poet Rupert Brooke, staying here with his aunts, was impressed by the sound of the "moaning pines." The consumptive young DH Lawrence, in Bournemouth in 1912 to recuperate, wrote “The town is very pretty. When you look at it, it’s quite dark green with trees.” Just before he died of TB, the diplomat and writer James Elroy Flecker (1884-1915) wrote to a friend in 1913 that his poem “Brumana” was about how he found boyhood inspiration among Bournemouth’s cliff-top pines on holidays here in the decade around the turn of the century: “…dark militia of the southern shore / Old fragrant friends – preserve me the last lines / Of that long saga which you sang me, pines / When, lonely boy beneath the chosen tree/ I listened, with my eyes up on the sea.” After a 1960s visit, Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman wrote: I walk the asphalt paths of Branksome Chine / In resin-scented air like strong Greek wine.
For many visitors, the presence of the pines would be clearly the most remembered detail of their stay.
 

 

Central Pleasure Gardens today, with a mix of trees.
Today, the pines have been displaced in much of the Central Gardens in favour of a variety of trees from all over the world. The remaining pines survive however along the path up the chine and in the upper reaches, at Coy Pond and beyond.

Coy Pond Path through woods by Meyrick Park golf course
Left: Coy Pond, "relocated" upstream to the Poole boundary after the original in the Lower Gardens opposite Town Hall was filled in.
Right: The path through woods south of Meyrick Park golf course.

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