A few weeks ago, we went to Bournemouth, I say we went to Bournemouth, we actually went to Wimborne but in the two or three days we were there we visited Bournemouth twice and only really slept in Wimborne. I say it was a few weeks ago, Christmas was a few weeks ago, it was a good month or two before Christmas, so perhaps it was a few months ago. Such is the passage of time as you get older. Things that you think happened a short while ago turn out to have taken place three decades ago.
The reason we went to Bournemouth, or Wimborne, is that my mother hails from Bournemouth, or at least Boscombe, and my sister had been keeping in touch with parts of the family that had survived her death many years ago. That surviving branch of the family had finally petered out a year or so ago and my two sisters wanted to make a last visit to the grave and look around some old locations from family history.
I’d only visited Bournemouth once in my life and I was all of four years old at the time. This was the sixties and my memory of the visit is hazy at best, not because it was the sixties (although you might imagine some people have hazy memories for other reasons), but because I was four years old. I remember getting 25 pence a week pocket money, although it might have been five shillings if it was old money and my memories had been converted via decimalization. Then again five shillings might have been quite a lot of money in nineteen-sixty-watsit. I know I dutifully paid my pocket money into my Post Office savings account every week (was I really that disciplined that I paid it all in?). By the time we went on holiday I had a whole four pounds to spend which, in nineteen-sixty-watsit, was a huge amount of money for a four-year-old. Then again perhaps I’m conflating the number of pounds I had with the number of years old I was. It’s all rather hazy and a good example of the reason we ought to be careful of witness testimony, especially with fifty-year-old recollections where the only witnesses would have been four years old at the time.
However, I was interested to go back and see some of these places and see if they, in any, way resembled my memories.
Driving down to the south coast you end up on a slowly diminishing motorway that somehow turns into a single carriageway through the new forest. It’s a bit odd as you are on a motorway one minute then, quite suddenly, you are on a much smaller road with trees and gorse bushes coming right up to the edge of the road. Signs warn of wild animals, deer, new forest ponies, itinerant elephants, etc., that might wander haplessly into your path, thus you are suddenly aware that this isn’t a motorway anymore.
Wimborne, actually called Wimborne Minster, is a wonderful little town, I suspect, protected by the fact that motorways seem to have been outlawed anywhere within fifteen miles. Therefore, the place has a sort of cut off feel. We stayed in a strange little hotel in the town centre that didn’t have all the features you would normally expect of a hotel. There was a reception, up to about four in the afternoon but after that you had to have already arrived or have a key, which, I suppose, meant you’d arrived anyway. There was no lobby, just a staircase up to the rooms and a few more rooms in converted outbuildings that opened directly onto the carpark. It was all very nicely appointed but, by not having a reception or a lobby, let alone the extravagances of a bar or a restaurant, there was nowhere to meet your sister after you’d emerged from your room after having your shower ready for dinner. There was an associated restaurant in a completely different street. The hotel was peppered with notices that assured us it was less than 100 steps away (or 500 steps, or three miles, I can’t remember which). I started to count the steps just to be able to argue with the manager, not that I’d have a chance of encountering the manager in the lobby, but I gave up after about fifteen steps thinking it was a damn fool idea. I suspect the manager guessed I wouldn’t have the patience to count them either. They could have said it was a two-minute walk but, then again, some silly sod on Trip Advisor would complain that it took them three minutes and force them out of business with a negative review. Still, I suppose, it depends how long your legs are however you measure it. Tyrion Lannister, were he real, would have an opinion if he had a Trip Advisor account.
A rather fascinating feature of the hotel, if you can call it that rather than it being a collection of rooms done up with a maid service masquerading as a hotel, was that it had a web cam to which the TV in the room was tuned when I arrived in my room. The web cam was cleverly placed looking across the street at the rather magnificent Wimborne Minster church, after which the town is named, a few hundred yards away. This was nice enough as I could watch the TV and see the locals crossing the street, going about their business, and generally behaving in ways that you might imagine they might not behave when they haven’t yet been reached by motorways. What was more fascinating, however, was that looking out the window I could see the same view. You wouldn’t think a static view form a camera pointing at something so mundane could be so fascinating but, honestly, I really had to tear myself away from the attraction of watching out the window for someone crossing the street only to see the same person on the TV. The moment that someone dared to hop up on the wall and cut across the green only to disappear behind the church, and I was able to see the same on the TV, well… it was like seeing history being made!
Visiting Boscombe, the next day, we managed to find the house that Mum grew up in. I’m sure the front garden wouldn’t have been tarmacked in her day but when you look at the crowded parking it’s easy to understand why people have done this, even if Bill Bryson wouldn’t approve. Once you’ve had a front drive in your life, that enables you to get half a ton of camping gear loaded directly from your front door, it’s hard to give up that facility. Don’t get me started on the joys of replacing a starter motor and being able to leave your tools lying around while you go in for a cup of tea. I’m sure Bill Bryson has never done that. And believe you me, I had to cut the front lawn as a teenager and I hated it.
We stood outside Mum’s old house and took a series of selfies and pictures of each other, many of which were useless as I’d not noticed that, in the bright sunlight trying to see the screen on my phone, I had to lift my Ray-Bans onto my forehead and forgot to put them back before taking the picture. The result was that I ended up with perfect pictures of me squinting at the lens looking like I needed to be wearing sunglasses only with a pair of sunglasses two inches above on my forehead.
With plenty of daylight left we drove down to the beach hoping to park up and stroll along the prom fully expecting to be disappointed by a lack of parking, as so many local authorities are often inclined to be so awkward. Imagine our surprise when we found an abundance of parking within feet of the sand and hardly a car in any of the spaces. Granted it was the end of the season (looking at the dates of the pictures it turned out to be September so not a few weeks ago at all) but even so we were surprised at the availability of parking.
Bournemouth’s beach seems to have changed a bit though. If sea levels are likely to rise in coming years Bournemouth might last a few extra minutes as the level of the sand seems to have increased in the fifty years since I last visited. Back in the sixties the beach sat at the bottom of a sloping sea wall, at the edge of the promenade which, itself, sat at the bottom of the sloping cliffs. Today the beach is at the same level as the prom so much so that the steps that once allowed access for visitors down to the beach, perhaps five or six feet below, are now completely inundated with sand. The stainless-steel railings quite literally slope down into the sand and into apparent oblivion.
Seeing this I was convinced that Bournemouth had the opposite problem that other resorts have, where they find their sand being washed away. If sand is washed away from some beaches, surely, it has to be washed to somewhere else. (I’d been told once that sand washed away from one resort was being deposited by the se at a resort down the coast. Of course, this doesn’t have to be true because the sand could be washed out to sea, why should the stolen sand remain near the shore? Was this a case of inter resort rivalry and an attempt to blacken the rival’s name?) Therefore, not knowing any better I imagined that Bournemouth had a problem with encroaching sand and that it would shortly engulf the prom and, eventually, begin to climb the cliffs. Hence sea level rise might be resisted by the resort for a few extra weeks when the flood comes.
Imagine my surprise when I looked up the problem of Bournemouth’s encroaching sand only to discover that it’s being put there by the local authority. Apparently, it’s all part of the plan to maintain the beaches and, I suppose, they just thought they could leave the old steps and railings in place in case whoever they got the sand from, one day, asked for it back.
On my previous visit I was unable to drive around Bournemouth on account of my being four years old. I’m amazed I remember anything at all and perhaps all my memories are made up. Another reason we didn’t drive around as a family is that we didn’t have a car so we had to get a lift from Hertfordshire in a friend’s Bedford minibus. I seem to remember they dove us down there one weekend and came down to pick us up two weeks later. Were people more prepared to help each other out in the sixties or was this on account of us being part of a community? We were in the habit of going to church so perhaps that was it. I have no idea what other arrangements were entered into.
This time however, we had the use of my trusty Truck so my sister and I had a chance to explore. We drove down the coast to find the old sea shell house, what in the sixties had been a rather tacky but madly eccentric cottage that had had been covered in sea shells on every surface. My memory of it in the sixties is that not only every part of the house was decorated but so was the whole garden. Of course, the only way you can stick shells on anything in the garden is to make it solid and my overwhelming memory is that the garden was largely made of concrete. I remember, even at the tender age of four, thinking it was all a bit sad. There are blurry videos of the place converted from old cine film of people wandering around the garden sort of wondering how they were supposed to react. I think people had to pay a fee to visit the house and view the garden with its home-made water features all covered in shells. Perhaps the owners made a living out of it but they would have had strangers in their garden all the time and would have had nowhere to sit out. Still, I suppose they didn’t have to worry about cutting the grass.
Driving around we never managed to find the shell house and, apparently, it was knocked down some years ago. Now the area where I imagine it was there are smart, modern houses or small blocks of flats, many with swish looking glass balconies and the like. One might imagine that the owners of the shell house lived in it as the years went by, perhaps fashions changed and people were less impressed by a house with shells stuck all over, what with there not being any spaceships or car chases and no chance of a deal to develop it into a computer game, and their income waned. Perhaps the owners eventually fell off the perch and the shell house came up for sale. But who on earth would buy it? No wonder it was knocked down although it’s a sad loss in a sort of I’m happy for it to be in the world so long as I don’t have to have anything to do with it sort of way.
* * *
Rather ironically, I looked up the sea shell house after writing this passage and it turns out I’m wrong about it in almost every way. I decided not to rewrite the last two paragraphs as a lesson to us all about the reliability of our fifty-year-old memories and the assumptions we might base on them.
It turns out it wasn’t a cottage at all but was a substantial nineteen thirties detached house, but that’s not only the first thing I got wrong. The house itself wasn’t covered in shells but the garden was largely paved with concrete decorations, sculptures, shrines and a wishing well. There were two grottos converted from outbuildings that might be where I got the impression the house was covered in shells.
Apparently, they didn’t charge people to visit, the owners were retied so they didn’t make a living from the income. Instead, they donated thousands of pounds to charity… so that’s put me in my place.
The end of the story is rather sad as the shell garden suffered from vandalism as time moved on and people became less respectful of eccentricity. After the owners died the family tried to keep the place going but it was a losing battle, collection boxes were stolen and the wishing well was emptied of its coins, thus ending the charitable donations. The shell garden was dismantled shortly after the millennium and the site was sold for development.
* * *
The day after failing to find the shell house the weather had considerably deteriorated so, naturally, we decided to go to the beach again. Now you might wonder why we made this decision but, honestly, we really did try to find something else to do. We searched the leaflets in the little leaflet holder at the bottom of the stairs in the hotel where the lobby should have been. However, indoor entertainment options were thin on the ground or too far away for us to be motivated to drive. There was an oceanarium so we thought, that should be indoors, or at least underwater, so we’d give that a try.
However, much more interestingly, in an attempt to avoid the inevitable storm we popped into Wimborne Minster on the way, or The Minster which is in Wimborne Minster, if you get my drift; the same that was on TV in my room and that I’d spent a long time watching the locals drunkenly falling about in front of on the previous evening.
Curious about the definition of a Minster, and only knowing of York Minster which is on an utterly different scale, I looked it up. Apparently, a Minster was, historically, a notable church, a sort of church amongst churches. Often the church and the settlement around it was the Minster, as is the case with Wimborne Minster which was once a monastery from Anglo-Saxon times. Hence the name now accounting for the whole town.
Anyway, Wimborne Minster, the church, is rather splendid and it kept us out of the rain for an hour or so. The Minster Church of St. Cuthburga, as it is less flippantly known, boasts one of the few remaining chained libraries and an astronomical clock. I was greatly disappointed that the library was closed on account of there being a funeral later that morning. (Is there a connection? I’m not going to go there.) I’d failed to see the chained library in Winchester Cathedral in 1984 and never got around to returning so I was doubly disappointed this time.
However, the church itself is substantial, larger than a normal parish church but nowhere near the size of a cathedral. It has the standard layout of many churches, a nave and chancel, north and south transepts, chapels to the north and south of the chancel, a crypt beneath the chancel, and all that jazz. If you counted its attributes it would be in the top end of the range for expected features for any church, plus it boasts a second tower at the southern end of the nave. It really is rather outstanding.
The astronomical clock was available to see on account of it being hanging on the wall and not up a flight of stairs where you weren’t allowed in case you didn’t leave before the funeral arrived (or, perhaps, the bloke with the key was on his day off). The clock is rather unlike any other in that it doesn’t have hands and is more like a model layout of the solar system (if you ignore all the planets). So, the earth, as a sphere, sits at the centre of the face (if you can call it a face) with the moon, represented as a sphere revolving around the earth including a dark side and a silvery side (so foreshadowing the existence of Pink Floyd). On the outside of the earth and the moon revolves the sun. Fans of the Copernican system, and you know who you are (I hope), will understand that the sun doesn’t go around the earth but the earth goes around the sun. However, Copernicus probably wasn’t around when this clock was made so they didn’t know that. Right on the outer ring is a circle of numbers representing the hours of the day although it only features 22 hours but, hey, when they got the motion of the planets wrong what’s two hours between friends? There’s so much more that I could say about the clock but I’ll not because it deserves a blog post in itself and there are those more qualified to write it.
Many churches boast an effigy or tw of a medieval knight and Wimborne Minster is no exception with more than one such monument. There’s a knight in very posh armour, when I asked the vicar about the effigies, he wasn’t at all interested in telling me about him. Therefore, I can only guess he’s some Johnny-come-lately what with being buried in 1606. He does look suspiciously like Shakespeare though, which is a bit suspect considering the date. However, more importantly there are slightly less garish effigies for John Beaufort, Duke of Somerset and his Wife Margaret, who were none less than the grand parents of Henry VII.
However, again, and perhaps more significant than Henry VIII’s Great Grand Parents, the Minster is said to be the burial place of King Ethelred, elder brother and predecessor of Alfred the Great. There’s not much to mark the tomb, so it continues the tradition that the more fancy the tomb the less significant its occupant. There’s not even any real evidence that he’s buried there. However, on the wall to the left of the altar, where the vicar kindly drew back the rope for me to have a proper look, there’s a small plaque on the wall that declares that here lies the body of Ethelred. Below the plaque, further continuing the theme of diminishing extravagance, there are a few tiles in a different colour from the normal floor tiles. (The beautiful mosaic floor tiles are a very striking feature of the chancel.) These apparently normal quarry tiles are said to mark the location of a few of the bones of Ethelred although he’s been moved a few times over the centuries so it’s not really known how much of him is there or elsewhere.
On the whole Wimborne Minster is well worth a visit but try to arrange a day when you could have more time, or arrange to be buried there and have a proper look for Ethelred.
* * *
Arriving at Bournemouth sea front after lunch, my family are not known as early risers, the rain was like stair rods. I recently saw a meme of a list of international terms for rain and it declared that in Britain we have cats and dogs, in Finland they have chair legs. Other nations have other terms but stair rods and chair legs must mean the same thing, rain coming down hard and, potentially, horizontally. Being struck by a stair rod, or a chair leg, sort of describes that stinging rain that indicates you really shouldn’t be by the seaside. So, naturally, that’s where we went.
There’s a decent size car park near the pier close to the oceanarium with a friendly homeless man sitting by the carpark pay meter. He seemed a decent sort of chap and he did quite well out of us. It’s a strategy I’ve seen homeless people use before, offering the occasional unwanted hint on how to use the payment meter or saving you the trouble of having to read the massive complicated sign that tells you when to pay and how much. Surely, if the local authority could only manage to simplify the information on these signs, they wouldn’t have to put all these homeless people next to them and they could find them something warmer to do. This poor chap was having to sit next to the sign in the pouring rain in his rather inadequate sleeping bag just to try to stay dry.
The walk down the slope to the oceanarium was fun in a walking into a howling gale with stair rods sort of way. The pier is located at a dip in the cliffs where a small stream flows out to sea. There’s no evidence of the stream on the beach so they must have buried it but, I suppose, what with all that extra sand that was no problem. (The stream may even be the Bourne; I suppose the clue’s in the name.) My vague memories, as we struggled against the stair rods, are of a roundabout at the bottom of the dip but in the last 50 years they seem to have built a bridge across the depression to keep the traffic away. The result is that they have a large space where the roundabout used to be that they have filled up with paved areas and seaside attractions. It’s sort of an improvement as there’s no double decker busses chugging around the roundabout and back up the slope but it’s sort of diminished what with there being no double busses chugging around the roundabout and back up the slope. Of course, it would be massively improved by the lack of a howling gale and rain like stair rods. On reflection it’s entirely possible that I was on holiday in Boscombe and many of these memories, busses and roundabouts in particular, could be mistaken. Just don’t ask me to stand up in court.
The oceanarium was fun in that way that many seaside attractions can be okay even if they are a bit scruffy, as is anywhere that wasn’t opened in the last two weeks. They have cute otters and adorable penguins and a big tank with a tunnel running through so you can gawp at the fish as the fish gawp back at you. Actually, I’m sure the fish weren’t gawping at us as they’re probably bored silly of humans but the sound of the word ‘gawp’ makes it seem like something fish might do. Say it out loud, ‘gawp.’ Don’t you feel like a fish now? HP Lovecraft would be delighted, or terrified, or both.
Ultimately the greatest excitement at the oceanarium came from my sister nearly getting locked in the toilet. I say this but she didn’t think it was exciting at the time. My other sister came out asking for me to fetch someone with a screwdriver to open the door (you know like you are supposed to be able to do with a two pence piece in an emergency), so I passed the distress call on to the guy in the giftshop and wondered if I ought to do more. Apparently, the giftshop guy appeared a few moments later with a fork, which caused some laughter from sister number two and possibly a more negative reaction from sister number one what with being still inside and literally unable to see the joke.
Thereafter we exited the oceanarium in the shockingly deteriorated weather, returned to Wimborne and our collection of rooms that masqueraded as a hotel, and I went to bed after watching the good people of Wimborne on TV.
Thanks for this evocative tale of past and present. It was wonderful to go with you on this journey, albeit virtually. You were doing better than me with your pocket-money. I only got 20p! Still, it got me the half-penny sweets I wanted so I didn’t complain. Looking forward to reading more of your work.
Thanks so much. I’ve only just spotted your comments. If you want more of this there’s more like it in my travelogue In SatNav We Trust. I hope you enjoy it.