Chilling Out in Christchurch

PUBLISHED: 11:05 26 April 2011 | UPDATED: 19:15 20 February 2013

Highcliffe Castle

Highcliffe Castle

From a coffee at sunrise amongst the beach huts of Mudeford Sandbank to a sunset paddle up the Stour, Susanne Masters explores this pretty harbour town

When Christchurch left Hampshire and joined Dorset in 1974 it took on the role of Dorsets most easterly coastal town. Initially its population was dominated by affluent retirees, but with its excellent schools, the New Forest, and the sea on its doorstep, it has now become a place for families and is a popular tourist destination. The newly revamped Bournemouth airport can whisk you away to foreign climes or, to avoid the areas notorious summer traffic, the train station is less than 10 minutes from town.
From a distance, the medieval Priory church dominates Christchurch, as it looms over the meadows. Originally part of a monastery, the 11th-century church is famous for its Miraculous Beam. Legend says it was set there by Christ, in the guise of a carpenter, after a roof beam that was cut too short was found perfectly set in place, and a mysterious carpenter who had been working on the church disappeared.

Simple Pleasures
Christchurch has grown up around the ruins of Christchurch Castle, which includes a mound-top keep with wonderful views across town. Next to it is the roofless Norman House. Dating from around 1160, it provided comfortable lodgings for the lord of Christchurch. Its a lovely spot for a riverside picnic.
Follow the river downstream to Place Mill on Christchurch Quay, in the pretty Priory Quarter. Listed in the Domesday Book, this Anglo Saxon mill is now an art gallery featuring exhibitions by residentlandscape and wildlife artist Chrie Wheatcroft and Japanese embroidery by Robert Fielder and Ellen Schmidt. (Open April to Oct, Tues-Sun from 11am-5.30pm, free entry).
Christchurch Harbour, where the Stour and the Avon converge, was once the most important harbours in Saxon England. Today, pleasure boats and yachts gently rock on their moorings and seagulls and swans vie for scraps. On either side of the harbour entrance is Mudeford Quay and Mudeford Sandbank, with its delightful shabby-chic beach huts.

Hidden Treasures
Red House Museum and Garden in Quay Road was originally built as a workhouse in 1764. This red-brick Georgian building is now the local museum and hosts an ever-changing programme of displays, lectures and workshops for children and adults. At their website,, you can download a range of podcasts including a history tour of Christchurch. Their pretty walled herb garden often hosts gardening events. In May this includes Grow Your Own Herbs Workshop with Diana Guy (7 May) and Victorian Herbs with Jane Arnold (10 May). Booking essential for both 01202 482 860

Shopping Trips
Kikis Boutique in Church Street is discretely upmarket but with a twist of fun. Clothes and accessories include Havaianas Brazils favourite and funkiest flip-flops and some very pretty charm bracelets. If you walk along Wick Lane dont be surprised if you smell lavender on the wind. At number 2, Lavender & Bay is amply supplied with organic lavender products from nearby Hampshire. Owner, Tracy Richards has an eye for exquisite handmade items including frames and decorative objects created by local artists from beach-combings.

Hot Tips

Sunrise at Mudeford Sandbank: Well-known for its pretty beach huts, which can change hands for six-figure sums, Mudeford Sandbank is a delightfully laid-back spot. Take the ferry from Mudeford Quay across the river mouth to reach this heavenly haven or approach from the Bournemouth side. During summer it can be busy, but get there at the crack of dawn and you will be greeted by the scent of honeysuckle drifting down from the heath and people enjoying a cup of coffee on their beach hut steps. Why not take a flask and join in?

Sunset Kayak: Christchurch Kayaking can take you on a guided evening paddle (30 per person) in Christchurch harbour and on the River Stour its a great way to see the local wildlife. or 07548 750 008

Surfing and Beach Combing: Head down from Highcliffe Castle to Highcliffe beach. The waves here have come all the way from Brazil and offer decent surfing, and for fossil hunters the mud slipping down the hill between Highcliffe and Barton-on-Sea offers rich pickings. Check tides to make sure you have time to get back to the beach as the soft mud is not safe to walk on.

Cruise along the Stour: River cruises come and go from Tuckton Tea Gardens on the bank of the River Stour. The cafs riverside gardens are a peaceful spot to watch the world go by, possibly enjoying one of the 14 flavours of locally made ice cream, or hire a boat to explore the area. or 01202 429119

Express your arty side: The Clay Studio in Castle Street is the perfect place to unleash your artistic talents on a range of pottery. Give a piggy bank a coat of tiger stripes or stencil some geckos onto a plate. Though busy in the school holidays the studio has many adult regulars, and Thursday is girls night.

Food for Thought
Situated in the historic quarter of town you cant miss the brightly coloured faade of Cheese & Alfies at 10 Church Street. Owner Mike Calvert has some delightful gourmet twists on old favourites such as Boston Baked Beans and the all-day cooked breakfast, called the Pan, arrives in a sizzling pan. The kids menu was selected by Mikes own discerning offspring, and for those who like to loiter, all chairs are augmented with books.

Focus on... The Museum of Electricity
Housed in an old generating station, this unusual museum, which originally supplied the electricity to the local tram network, was started in 1982 by Sir John Wedgewood to serve as a company archive for Southern Electric. But as people started to visit, they began donating old domestic items. This has resulted in an impressive collection of domestic and industrial electrical items from the first pop-up toaster to a wind-up radio.
Alongside these are interactive exhibits and demonstrations showing how your own body is capable of producing electricity. The centrepiece is the last Bournemouth tram, which dates back to 1914, powered originally from electricity produced in the building. Nostalgia rules in the Domestic Gallery, which has original televisions, radios, cookers and vacuum cleaners.

The Old Power Station, Bargates (BH23 1QE), opens from Easter to the end of September on Mon-Thurs from 12 noon-4.30pm (also Friday during school holidays). Admission free. More details or 01202 480467

Family Fun
The Quomps, between the Priory and the River Stour, has free child-friendly entertainment including a play area and newly redesigned splash park. For bucket-and-spade fun Friars Cliff beach, with its view across the water to the Isle of Wight, has a safe swimming area, caf, toilets, shower and parking. Signposted from A337 Lymington Road

Whats On
16 April 21 May
Christchurch Arts Guild Annual Exhibition, Red House Museum, Quay Road
17 May
Priory Evening Tour. A chance to see parts of the church not normally open to the public, 6.30pm. Booking essential. 01202 485 804 or
June & July
Highcliffe Outdoor Theatre,
Taming of the Shrew (29 June), The Canterbury Tales (13 July) and Great Expectations (27 July). 01425 278 807 or visit
1-3 July
Christchurch Festival. Live music performances, with festival proceeds going to the Christchurch Mayors charities. Weekend tickets 5.

Christchurch Tourist Information,
49 High Street. 01202 486695,

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