Travel UK: Fresh but definitely not flirty

A brief visit to Christchurch will uncover this Dorset town's quiet charm.
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The Independent Culture
Fresh air - that's what Dorset is best for, especially near the coastal town of Christchurch. The idly curious can browse the shops, visit the Red House Museum, take afternoon tea, and have their photographs taken beside the town ducking stool, or in the stocks beneath the castle mound. But for those of us with the legs and lungs for a hearty stroll, it is best to get out of Christchurch itself and on to its watery margins.

The Dorset town that used to be in Hampshire and used to be called Twynham is now a quiet neighbour of bustling Bournemouth. It sits at the confluence of the Avon and Stour rivers, which flow into a harbour that in turn flows with a fierce current into Christchurch Bay, slap bang opposite The Needles at the westernmost tip of the Isle of Wight, on the other side of the Solent.

Christchurch's beautiful situation is perfect for improving your health. Stand at the quay, fend off the over-familiar swans and decide which way to go around a circuit of the harbour. I favour the anti-clockwise route. Cross over by ferry to the village of Wick on the Bournemouth side of the Stour. From here you can pick up the well - signposted Stour Valley Way out towards Hengistbury Head.

Hengistbury, excavated by archaeologists as a settlement in the Iron and Bronze Ages, is now a nature reserve. The view at the top of this sandy hill is spectacular. Look back along the Dorset coast to the apartment blocks of Bournemouth and beyond to the Isle of Purbeck. Turn right to look down on Christchurch harbour and how it is almost closed up, pincer- like, by the spit of land that pushes out of the end of the Head.

The shallow harbour is ideal for novice sailors, sailboarders and potterers in small craft. The view of the 900-year-old Priory Church which gives the town its name is only spoilt by a development of marine houses, all white wood and showy atriums, at the feet of the handsome Norman and Perpendicular grey mass of the priory.

The church is worth a visit when you get back to the town. It has the feel of a small cathedral inside and houses some curious attractions, such as the Miraculous Beam and the Loft Museum. This is not, as my son was disappointed to learn, a museum about lofts, but a room over the lady chapel that used to be a school for novice monks; it now holds information about the Priory.

The same son was also disappointed to learn that he wasn't allowed to climb the 176 steps to the top of the tower. "You have to be over 10," I told him. He went off instead and performed aerial tricks with his Yo- Yo frighteningly close to some delicate medieval carvings.

When you come down the path off Hengistbury Head, approaching the entrance to the harbour and roughly at the half-way point in the walk, you set foot on a narrow spit of beach. A huddle of huts occupies the sand, some facing in towards Christchurch and others looking out at The Needles. Aficionados of beach huts may like to know that these are in the de luxe category: they sleep families and have kitchens. With some pretension you could refer to them as "chalets". I am told by one of their owners that they change hands for more than pounds 25,000 each.

There's a little community out here on this narrow strip of sand. A land train, the Noddy Train, not only provides pleasure rides for summer visitors, but operates all year to transport hut dwellers back to the car park on the Bournemouth side of the harbour. Given the right weather, after a day on the sand I would rate this as one of my great train journeys of the world.

To get across the harbour entrance you have to take a ferry from opposite the beach cafe. To complete the anti-clockwise circuit go over the short distance to Haven Quay at Mudeford, where you can buy fresh seafood and have a drink at the pub. However, a direct return to Christchurch by ferry can be made from the same jetty. Take a leisurely putter back in a wooden motor launch to the priory, looking out for heron and other birds lurking in the reeds of the river Stour.

Crossing to Haven Quay means that you get to walk more through residential streets in Mudeford than through marshland. But it is worth going out on to Stanpit Marsh, another nature reserve. From here you have a fair trudge back into Christchurch, but there are several good pubs for food along the way.

With small children, the boat journey back up the river is a treat. On a warm weekend the ferry a meanders past waving sailors in all sizes of craft. Drift on past the priory stop and alight at the end of the route at Tuckton Tea Gardens. During the summer (which officially begins hereabouts at Easter) you can sit back next to a putting green in a restful, old- fashioned, typically English kind of riverside setting.

Christchurch tourist information: 01202 471780