Poole is preparing for its 750th anniversary. Leigh Hatts dips into its history while strolling around Europe's largest natural harbour
POOLE IN Dorset is preparing for a summer of celebration to mark its 750th anniversary.

Back in 1248 the local shipowners, fed up with making the 10-mile round trip to consult with the lord of the manor, William Longespee, bagged up 11,200 silver coins and purchased the right to have a local council and a court.

The resulting Longespee Charter marked the point when a minor fishing port became a serious town. But even today Europe's largest natural harbour remains an attractive vantage point for a Sunday stroll while watching ships on the Channel Islands and Normandy run.

A good place to start your walk is opposite the bus station at Poole Arts Centre. On leaving the arts centre, turn left up to a junction. Continue ahead along Kingland Avenue, with the Dolphin Pool over to the right. Bear left at the lodge into Poole Park, where the gateposts are decorated with scallop shells, the badge of medieval pilgrims who embarked at Poole for the journey to the shrine of St James the Great at Compostela in northern Spain.

Follow the park road and soon there is a view of the lake, which was originally just a corner of the vast Poole Harbour. Stay on the road and later, as it bears round with the water, you can see to the left a narrow- gauge railway which this year completes 50 years of service. As the line peels off, keep ahead between the park gateposts to pass under Key Hole Bridge beneath the railway line. Once through the tunnel, go over the stile by the gate on the right into Whitecliff Harbourside Park. Walk over to join the metalled path running along the edge of Poole Harbour. Walk with the water to the left along the waterside towards the signposted Baiter and Poole Old Town. Across the water can be seen Brownsea Island, where the first Scout camp took place 91 years ago. Beyond is the white Studland ferry crossing the Poole Harbour entrance.

Stay on the metalled path as it bears leftwards out on to the Baiter peninsula. Later, pass through a boat yard before reaching a road. Here, go left, but resist the temptation to go in front of the old lifeboat station - the lobster-red building by the fishermen's dock. Instead, take the inland route and beyond the building follow the quayside. Here oysters and mussels are landed ready for the 110-mile journey to London's restaurants.

Keep ahead to Old Orchard and Poole Pottery, which is celebrating its 125th anniversary. Many of London's blue plaques have been made here. Further along, beyond the line of pubs and the tourist information centre, is an extraordinary Anthony Caro sculpture called Sea Music. At the 18th- century Custom House, where you can have a drink in the new cafe bar, turn right up Thames Street. Pass between the Town Cellar and the King Charles pub which recalls Charles X of France who landed here in 1830 to begin his exile.

Ahead is the parish church, appropriately dedicated to St James and rebuilt shortly before Thomas Hardy featured it in his novel, To Please His Wife. Hardy, who has Emily marrying a wealthy Lester living nearby, may have had in mind the Lester brothers who had recently built the splendid Mansion House opposite the church. Go right up Church Street to pass the almshouses and head for the 18th-century Guildhall. Here go right down a path to reach a cross.

Go left up the traffic-free High Street passing the Old Harry pub, named after the notorious Poole-born pirate who not only carried pilgrims to Spain, but also raided its coastal villages. Continue ahead to the railway level crossing and Falkland Square. Poole station is to the left. To reach the arts centre, where there is a cafe, walk through the Dolphin shopping centre to the bus station and find a foot tunnel running under the road. Turn right for the arts centre.


By train to Poole.

By car via A31, A35 or A350.

How to navigate: Use OS Outdoor Leisure, 15 (Purbeck and South Dorset).

More information and free anniversary guide: call Poole Tourist Office on 01202 253253.