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A day in… Christchurch

PUBLISHED: 20:20 24 April 2013 | UPDATED: 21:04 24 April 2013

Christchurch Priory and town

Christchurch Priory and town

Archant

This riverside town has a cliff-top castle, pretty beach huts and a beautiful natural harbour

Situated at the confluence of the rivers Avon and Stour, the charming town of Christchurch is a Dorset delight just waiting to be explored. Its spectacular 11th century Priory Church, castle ruins, shops and cafes, not to mention a picturesque harbour, beaches and nature reserves sees the town attract over 1.5 million visitors a year.

Wonderful wildlife

Christchurch’s natural harbour dates back some 7,000 years to the end of the last Ice Age when sea levels rose. Today it is home to over 300 different bird species. The Christchurch Harbour Ornithological Group has recorded the Dartford warbler, song thrush, skylark and kestrel here. Other wild residents such as otters, water voles, natterjack toads and seals have also been seen in and around the harbour.

Visitors to Christchurch can learn more about its wildlife, not to mention its unique flora and fauna, by heading to Stanpit Marsh Local Nature Reserve on the north side of the harbour. The 65 hectare site is a mosaic of unusual and rare habitats including salt marsh with creeks and salt pans, freshwater marsh and reed beds. Pop into the Visitor Centre to find out more.

A stroll along the quay

Just a short walk from the High Street is Christchurch Quay - a lovely open space alongside the river. A large grass area known as the Quomps is the perfect place for the whole family to play games or simply relax with a picnic. A children’s play area and splash park (open May to October) makes the quay popular with little ones, who will no doubt also enjoy feeding the swans and other birds by the water’s edge; for those looking to explore the river you can hire kayaks or take a boat trip. This lovely waterside area also hosts Christchurch’s legendary Smooth Jazz festival Stompin on the Quomps (3 August).

Towards the west end of the harbour quay is the Captains Club Hotel (Wick Lane), offering panoramic river views. For those visiting Christchurch for a day, the hotel’s Tide Restaurant offers award-winning food made with fresh local produce, with alfresco dining possible during the summer months. The CC Spa, the hotel’s award-winning spa, has facilities including a hydrotherapy pool and sauna and offers treatments including massages and aromatherapy.

Another great spot for al fresco dining is The Jetty at the Christchurch Harbour Hotel & Spa (95 Mudeford), perched on the water’s edge The Jetty excels with its locally sourced menu which features plenty of local fish and shellfish. The hotel’s spa offers a wide range of holistic treatments and there is a hydrotherapy pool, crystal steam room and salt grotto; small wonder it was selected by The Sunday Times Travel as one of the Top 10 Coastal Hotels in the UK!

A selection of river cruise services operate out of the Quay while the Mudeford Ferry, which runs approximately every 15 minutes in the summer, journeys between Mudeford Quay and the beach at Mudeford Sandbank where you will find possibly the prettiest and most expensive beach huts you have ever seen. On the sandbank, the Beach House Cafe offers panoramic views of Christchurch Harbour, with a selection of hot and cold meals and drinks. The cafe’s breakfast offerings come highly recommended, while the funky Boathouse (Quay Road) is another must-visit establishment, boasting a menu every bit as exceptional as its views.

Exploring the High Street

Christchurch High Street has a good mix of chain and independent shops, restaurants and cafes. Bookends (67 High Street) is an independent bookshop which also stocks toys, art supplies, sports memorabilia and has an art gallery and picture framing service on its top floor. Heartizans (58 High Street) deli and cafe produces food and drink using local produce from Dorset and Hampshire.

The Regent Centre (51 High Street) is contained in a beautiful 1930’s Art Deco cinema building which houses a 450 seat theatre, cinema, concert hall and art gallery. Live performances throughout the year see leading acts from the worlds of music, comedy and theatre come to Christchurch. Nearby Saxon Square features a host of well-known national brands such as Argos, Boots, Caffe Nero, Costa, Thorntons, Toni&Guy, New Look and WH Smith.

A weekly market is held every Monday between 8am and 4pm, with around 50 stalls stocking fresh produce, clothing, household products and plants. For foodies the Christchurch Food and Wine Festival (10-19 May) is a gourmet’s heaven as it features a multitude of mouth-watering events in the town’s restaurants, pubs and hotels, as well as a vibrant food market and cookery demos by local and celebrity chefs.

Step Back in Time

Follow the High Street onto Church Street where you will find the recently opened Hatch Gallery which has some exciting exhibitions this summer including sailing images by Olympic artist Jeremy Houghton in May. Continue along this street to get to the town’s Priory Church, which has been a venue for Christian worship for over 900 years. The church hosts regular services and events, including organ recitals and other musical concerts. The ruins of Christchurch Castle, which in parts date back to 1160AD, can be accessed via Castle Street. Here you will find the‘Constable’s House’ with its unique architectural features including a Norman chimney.

The town’s various museums and galleries include the Red House Museum and Gardens (Quay Road) a former parish workhouse with a garden and tearooms; and the restored Anglo-Saxon watermill Place Mill (Christchurch Quay) now home to an art gallery featuring local artists.

A few miles east of Christchurch is Highcliffe Castle (Rothesay Drive). Dating from the early Victorian period this romantic castle on a cliff-top overlooks Christchurch Bay and the Isle of Wight, and is a popular wedding venue. The Grade I listed building features the Romantic and Picturesque style of architecture, though the medieval masonry and stained glass which came over from France makes it appear a lot older. Access to a sandy beach below (Highcliffe Castle Beach) is via a gentle footpath. The beach plus the 14 acres of surrounding parkland and an excellent tearoom makes Highcliffe a superb day trip destination.

To the beach…

Mudeford Sandbank next to Hengistbury Head is famous for its fabulous beach huts which can change hands for six figure sums. The beach tends to be quieter as it can only be reached by foot or bike. In the summer months take the ferry from Mudeford Quay or Christchurch Quay or the Land Train from Hengistbury Head. Avon Beach is the main beach for Christchurch and has views towards the Needles and Isle of Wight. The beach area next to the car park is designated for water sports. A short walk away Mudeford Quay offers a pub, cafe and boat trips.

Friar’s Cliff is quieter than Avon Beach and has the popular Avon Beach Cafe café, Nearby Steamer Point is a designated water sports area. A tree-lined cliff-top walk runs from Friar’s Cliff to Highcliffe Castle where you will find Highcliffe Castle Beach. Park at the castle and take the gentle sloping path down to the golden sands. n

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