Sitting unobtrusively at the back of a small grassed area, adjacent to the moorings at Quomps is an Iron grilled "kissing" gate. The notice informs you that you about to enter "Hengistbury Head. Nature Reserve and Ancient Monument".
Hengistbury Head is actually about a mile away. The unassuming gate leads you into a beautiful meandering footpath that tranverses bogs and ponds with wooden bridges while keeping you roughtly alongside the inner side of the reed bed that separates the river from the land. The only criticsm is that you rarely see the river even though it is always quite close. But the natural rugged path has its own charm and is a wonderful uncluttered ramble. It is certainly one of the best and least well known ways of approaching Hengistbury Head.
The path varies in quality but is easily managed by most people. If it has been raining there may be surface water and mud. Wearing flip-flops or light sandals risks the attention of stinging nettles and brambles but a ordinary pair of shoes is usually ample enough for this path.
The path leads you across some of the low marsh land that surrounds the river. Small bridges have been built, where necessary, over the reed beds and ponds. This land is geologically speaking quite new and has been deposited by the twin rivers within the last 10000 years. Cattle are kept on the marsh. If you leave them alone they will return the favour.
In the 18th and early 19th centuries these marshes and the paths that cross them were heavily used by local smugglers. They brought ashore huge quantities of contraband (mainly wine, brandy and tobacco) at Hengistbury Head and then shipped it out safe houses in Christchurch, Wick and Mudeford. While walking along this lonely path you are, historically speaking, keeping some dubious company!
Today we forget how important the river was to people before the age of steam. The only way for goods to be shipped into small towns like Christchurch was, (with rare exceptions), by sea and river. Christhchurch Quay was responsible for recieving and unloading everthing from coal and building materials to wine and cloth.
In the 1790's smugglers used to land their contraband off the beach at Hengistbury Head. The goods were then loaded onto horses and into covered wagons hidden between the twin ramparts of the Double Dykes. Finally the entourage of wagons, pack horses and often twenty of thirty strong, used to set off across the marshland and heath to places of safety in Christchurch and surrounding areas.
It is quite probable that the path pictured above on the right formed one of the main arteries for the transportation of this illicit cargo during the late 18th century.
Sometimes by peeking through the hedges and undergrowth you are rewarded with tremendous views across Christchurch Harbour down towards Mudeford Quay. Often the bulk of the Isle Of Wight can be made out topping over Mudeford sandspit.
Picture (below left), a view across Christchurch Harbour from the footpath. Notice in the distance the distinct outline of the "Black House" at the end of Mudeford Spit. This building today, is a pair of Holiday cottages but in the past it has been a coastguard
lookout and and also formed the base for local small ship building. Ships of over 100 tons were built alongside its
harbourside wall well into the 19th century.
The outline of Hengistbury Head grows ever nearer as the path winds through its coarse. Hengistbury Head is an ancient and enchanting place. Heavily damaged by uncontrolled mineral exploitation in the 1840's, Hengistbury Head is today, protected due to its abundant and diverse wildlife and its deep archeological significance. This was one of the countries premier trading ports in the Iron Age. More information, including details about Hengistbury Heads geological and historical importance can be found at the Hengistbury Head Website