Sailing to Brownsea Island reminds me of Poole Harbour's beauty and a strange history

A few miles away from the built-up backdrop of Poole in Dorset are some of the most sheltered and unspoilt anchorages you could find.

The expanse of shallow water and channels to the south of Brownsea, Furzey and Long Islands are sheltered by the high hills of the Purbecks and the quiet heathland of the Arne Peninsula.

Tucked away here, you can see nothing of Poole or Sandbanks. You could be in another world. The nearest comparison I can think of is how the short meander up the St German’s River, a tributary of the Tamar, takes you straight from dockyard and industrial Plymouth into a tranquil rural backwater.

Until our catamaran test last week I hadn’t sailed in Poole Harbour for years. The large tidal reaches are still relatively lightly visited. For sailors coming out of the Solent on a holiday cruise, the temptation is to hoof it west to get the bit past Portland Bill and across Lyme Bay out of the way.

Oddly, though, I’d never actually set foot on Brownsea Island before. This intriguing little island, owned and run by the National Trust, is where Lord Baden-Powell held his first ever Scout camp in 1907. 

It’s also famously one of the few remaining homes of the native red squirrel. I went for a run here one morning last week. I didn’t see any squirrels but I did almost jog into a small fawn before I noticed it. It was less than 2m away and although it eyed me warily it didn’t move as I tiptoed past.

Our test boats were anchored off Pottery Pier at the west side of the island, and I was intrigued to see that the entire shoreline is still covered with broken bits of pipes, chimneys and pots.

The Branksea Clay & Pottery Company was set up in 1853 by an ex-Indian army officer, Colonel William Petrie Waugh (the island was then known as Branksea). On a trip there with his wife he had discovered fine-grained, white china clay, a deposit that an eminent geologist declared could be ‘worth £1,000,000′.

Colonel Waugh’s coup was to buy the island for £13,000.

He set about building a huge pottery as well as a 3,000ft brick embankment and sea wall as part of a land reclamation scheme that created 100 acres of extra arable land.

But the plan to manufacture fine porcelain did not work, and after lots of trials it was concluded that the clay on Brownsea just wasn’t suitable. So instead production was switched to far less lucrative products such as sewage pipes, bricks and chimney pots.

This was a large scale operation and by 1856 there were nine kilns, one of which could fire 18,000 bricks at a time. These were all shipped across to Poole from Pottery Pier, which was connected to the brickworks by a horse-drawn tramway.

Yet the venture depended on large bank loans and didn’t make enough money to repay them. In 1857 Colonel Waugh fled to Spain and was declared bankrupt. In shades of modern times, the debts at the bank mounted and (unlike today) the bank itself was eventually declared bankrupt.

The pottery was put up for auction, didn’t even meet its low reserve price and in the late 1880s it was closed for good.

It’s incredible to think that the western shore of Brownsea is still littered with pottery pieces and chunks of glazed bricks a full century and a half afterwards. The debris nearest the pier is worn by the sea, but further south the puzzle pieces of chimney pots and pipes look as if they were broken and discarded yesterday.

The photo below shows how there is so much pottery on the beach it looks like the aftermath of a Greek wedding. Or a major domestic.

 Brownsea Island 2