Liz Gill and her family enjoy a wide variety of activities in this charming south coast town
At the height of the summer staycation panic a pretty little coloured beach hut on Mudeford Sandspit sold for £330,000. It was an eye-watering price given that facilities are communal and the huts can only be slept in overnight from March to October.
The new owner, however, was paying for that most valuable of all real estate commodities – location. For the spit stands at the mouth of Christchurch Harbour with the nature reserve of Hengistbury Head on one side and on the other a five minute ferry ride to six miles of beautiful beaches plus a choice of a quick drive or leisurely boat trip to the town itself.
Christchurch has long been overshadowed by its showier big sisters Bournemouth and Poole but now this small but perfectly formed town is taking its place in the sun as a lovely place to visit in its own right.
In fact its compactness is an asset. An hour or two’s stroll round the historic centre can take in the ruins of an 11th century castle and constable’s hall, narrow lanes of coloured houses, a high street with a good quota of independent shops (and a lively market on Mondays) and a replica ducking stool suspended over the mill stream. Reserved for ‘scolds’, the chair can still be sat in but fortunately it’s now immobilised. The Red House Museum covers the town’s history going back to Anglo Saxon times and includes stories of piracy and smuggling which in the 17th and 18th centuries was its most lucrative industry
The climax of the tour must be the extraordinary church which has the longest nave of any parish church in the country and is larger than 21 cathedrals. Its size is due to the fact that it was once a priory but it escaped the worst excesses of the Reformation because the prior at the time was a chaplain to Henry VIII. Special pleading meant the monks were still turfed out but the building was bequeathed to the village.
Knowledgeable volunteers can point out items of special interest including a Pugin altar table, two Millais paintings, a monument to the poet Shelley whose wealthy family had a box on the first level and, most importantly, the ‘miraculous beam’. The story goes that a timber beam for the roof of the nave was cut too short. All the disgruntled workers went home except for one – a silent bearded carpenter who stayed there and prayed throughout the night. In the morning he was gone but the beam was not only the right length but already in position. It was enough to make the town change its name from Twynham meaning the place where two rivers meet – the Stour and the Avon – to Christ’s Church.
One small fascinating detail for me as a left hander was a carving on a misericord – the little supports in the pews which the monks could rest against during the long services – showing a mason who had fallen to his death, still holding a tool in his left hand. Such masons were valued for their ability to work the opposite sides of a stone and were accordingly paid more.
The building which now houses the cafe and gift shop was once the grand home of a generous benefactor of the church. In a mixture of the sacred and profane though, his wealth came from smuggling, and he used the weather vane on top of the tower to alert his men to the approach of excise officers so they could hide or escape through the warren of tunnels beneath the town.
From there a short walk takes you down to the Stour dotted with canoes and kayaks and lined with boats including those for hire. We were on a three generations holiday so a half hour session tootling upstream and down was just right for the attention span of little ones who can then have the extra excitement of taking the ferry out through the spectacular natural harbour to Mudeford Quay for a spot of crabbing.
For family thrills per pound this is great value.You’ll have change from a tenner for the kit of bucket, line with net and bait or ‘chum’ as fishermen call it – usually scraps of fish or bacon though one couple boasted they’d brought fresh prawns. I’d thought we might wait for ages for anything to happen but in fact this is sea creature catching on speed. The lines had barely hit the bottom before the crabs were clutching at them. The challenge then was to haul them up and into a bucket before they cottoned on and let go.
The ones that got away were met with groans of disappointment from Edie, four, and two year-old Ted, the successful catches with whoops of delight – alongside envious or superior glances from your neighbours depending on whether they’d hauled in more or fewer. There was fierce competiton here as well as fun.
This was catch-and-release, of course. The little guys are too small to eat and watching them scuttle to freedom down the slipway was a sweet end to the activity but for those who want bigger versions on a plate there’s a plentiful supply of delicious sea food and fish dishes in the cafes, bars and restaurants in the town and beachside. The hard decision is choosing whether you want to take away from a stall, eat at a family friendly place which also has delicious grown up dishes like The Noisy Lobster or treat yourself to romantic fine dining overlooking the harbour at The Jetty at the Harbour Hotel.
This is where my daughter Anna and her foodie husband Alex had a cooking demonstration with seafood specialist chef Marc Carella.There should have been a catch component to the morning but the sea was too rough that day to go fishing so they contented themselves with a great combination of lessons, tricks of the trade, local knowledge – Marc is a keen fisherman himself – and recipes to try at home.They learned how to fillet and descale a fish, schuck an oyster, dress a crab, kill a lobster humanely and make a mackerel ceviche. And then sample most of them at a leisurely lunch.
I experienced a different use of shell fish with a lava shell massage in the hotel’s spa. A sachet of essential oils, marine algae, sea kelp, magnesium, iron, lava gel and lava rock is inserted into a hole in the highly polished tiger striped shell. These then react together to give off heat and the smooth warm shell is used as a massage tool to soothe muscles and tackle tension. I felt deliciously pampered and relaxed.
On another day we combined traditional seaside pursuits of bathing, paddling, sand castle building and shell searching with a visit to Highcliffe Castle, a stunning Grade 1 example of Romantic and Picturesque architecture built on the cliff top by Lord Charles Stuart de Rothesay in 1836. When his wife first saw it she said she hoped it would fall into the sea but she grew to love it and its grounds – there’s a trail for children – as did various VIP visitors including Gladstone, Edward VII and Dame Nellie Melba. Department store founder Harry Gordon Selfridge rented it for six years before losing most of his money on gambling and womanising. He is buried in the village beside his long-suffering wife.
Our last trip was to Hengistbury Head. Although only 118 ft above sea level this nature reserve offers wonderful 360 degree views along the coast, out to the New Forest and across to the Isle of Wight. Its varied habitats including woodland, wetland, heath and scrub, are home to 500 plant species, a quarter of the UK’s total number.
All these attractions plus ones we did not even get to try like watersports, rib rides, bird watching and boat rides along the coast make Christchurch ideal for a grandparents, parents and grandchildren holiday, particularly in accomodation designed for both togetherness and separate space.Our family suite at the Captains Club hotel had three bedrooms and a massive kitchen-dining-sitting room area with floor to ceiling windows giving views out over the river. There is something particularly soothing about watching early morning rowers skim over the water before going down to your full English.
Christchurch is a two hour rail journey from London Waterloo.
The suite at the Captain’s Club Hotel costs £659 per night in high season (July and August, Christmas and New Year) and £527 in low including breakfast for up to six people. The sleek and modern hotel also has two bedroom suites and 19 rooms with a family friendly restaurant offering modern European cuisine from breakfast to dinner. www.captainsclubhotel.com
The Catch It and Cook It and Eat It Experience is £65 per person. The 60 minute lava shell massage costs £80. There is a wide range of other treatments. Menus from The Jetty restaurant can be viewed online www.harbourhotels.co.uk/christchurch