Story by David A. Laws. Images from vintage postcards.
“To plunge or not to plunge, that was the question!” – Winston Churchill. Dashing onto a rustic footbridge traversing the steep-sided, wooded ravine of Alum Chine, the youth climbed up onto the handrail and jumped towards an overhanging fir branch. His younger brother Jack and a cousin watched in horror as the bough snapped. Eighteen-year old Winston Churchill plunged 30 feet to the ground. For three days in 1892 the prolific author (43 book-length works in 72 volumes) and future prime minister of Great Britain lay in a coma followed by three months of bed rest to recover from a ruptured kidney and broken thigh. Modern visitors to this site in the resort town of Bournemouth on southern England’s Dorset coast ponder how close this prank came to changing the course of history.
Another young man who walked this same wooded valley also changed the world. In his case, the world of children’s literature. Five years before Churchill’s fall, author Robert Louis Stevenson (RLS) and his wife Fanny lived in a house overlooking Alum Chine. Although plagued by ill health, RLS produced two of his best-known works, Kidnapped and The Strange Case of Dr. Jeykyll and Mr. Hyde, while living there. Enemy bombing resisted valiantly by Churchill destroyed the house in 1940.
Both men visited Bournemouth for the same reasons that the rich, the famous, and everyday tourists like me still come to town: rest and relaxation. Today rock stars and popular media figures live in ocean-view, cliff-top mansions hidden behind dense green foliage. For the rest of us, the tourism board promotes its Baywatch-style lifeguards, beach volleyball games, dining, nightlife, parks, and gardens as a seaside resort with something for everyone.
The Literary Chines of Bournemouth
For centuries, Bournemouth’s ocean-front setting overlooking the English Channel was dismissed as worthless common grazing land. Tumbling streams carved narrow, steep valleys, called chines in local parlance, through the low, crumbling cliffs on their course to the sea.
The arrival of the railway brought wealthy Victorians from their polluted inland industrial cities seeking clean air and water. By the end of the 19th century hundreds of hotels sprouted along the cliff tops looking down on the chines that, planted with public gardens, became a trademark of the town. Many literary residents and visitors have walked these secluded green corridors carved through the heart of a dense urban environment.
In one of the earliest references, Jane Austen’s Sanditon (1817) is a fictional seaside resort that is striving to build a reputation for sea bathing in a beneficial maritime climate that sounds remarkably like Bournemouth. By 1891, Thomas Hardy’s Sandbourne in Tess of the d’Urbervilles was now established as a “Mediterranean lounging place on the English Channel.” In Notes from a Small Island, the typically irreverent, contemporary travel writer Bill Bryson, who worked for two years as a subeditor for the Bournemouth Daily Echo, opines “Bournemouth is a very fine place.”
My exploration of the literary connections of the chines of Bournemouth began in the Upper Gardens. Cutting through the center of town, this section of the former Bourne Chine is no longer recognizable as a stream-carved wasteland. Beginning in the 1870s, the borough council planted the narrow creek-side banks with exotic trees, shrubs, perennials, and bulbs from around the world. Paved pathways, waterfalls, tennis courts, and pavilions installed for the amusement of Victorian-era visitors, described by Bill Bryson as “genteel to a fault,” remain popular today.
I followed in Bryson’s footsteps through the arboreal corridor of the Bournemouth Tree Trail. Several examples of North American species, Giant Sequoia, Douglas Fir, and Swamp Cypress, thrive in meadows that bloom with English wildflowers in spring. Farther downhill, the boardwalks and winding gravel paths became paved and the plantings more formal, with rose borders, heather beds and a Rhododendron Walk and rock garden. Many trees were identified with plaques to mark their dedication by and for royalty and local notables.
Suddenly the hum of traffic overcame the rush of the creek. I looked up and realized that I had reached the center of a busy downtown. Beyond the paved pedestrian square, Lower Gardens bustled with tourists on their way to the beach. All the trappings of a traditional British seaside resort are concentrated where the Bourne meets the beach. A bandstand, restaurants, hotels, concert halls, movies, and shopping crowd the seafront.
The landmark pleasure pier dating from 1880 extended the sidewalk out over the ocean. Although a theater, street entertainers, souvenir stores, and a pub vied for my attention, I wanted only to enjoy the view. On this clear Fall day empty golden beaches stretched for miles on both sides of the pier, but as a prim sounding Scotsman leaning on the railing watching the waves commented, “In the simmer ye canna’ see the sand fa’ the naked flesh.”
West across Poole Bay, the Purbeck Hills plunged into the sea at the dramatic white chalk stumps of a headland known as Old Harry. To the east, a lighthouse and the sharp pinnacles of the rocky outcrop of The Needles on the Isle of Wight marked the entrance to The Solent shipping channel leading to Southampton where, many years before, I had partied on the RMS Queen Mary on the night before her departure for Long Beach.
A couple of miles east, Boscombe Pier jutted out into the bay. The pier marks the foot of Boscombe Chine and another series of public gardens with formal flower beds, and grassy recreation areas. Sir Percy Florence Shelley, the son of romantic Victorian poet Percy Bysshe Shelley who drowned near Naples, owned the former Boscombe Manor House, now a National Health Service center overlooking the chine. His mother Mary Shelley, author of the classic Gothic novel Frankenstein, is interred in an appropriately macabre touch together with the heart of her husband (rescued from a funeral pyre on the Italian beach), in a family vault at nearby St Peter’s Church.
Beach chalets lining the base of the cliffs reminded me why, in spite of its charms as a resort, Bournemouth will always be challenged to compete with the sunnier climes of Continental Europe. Families rent these small wooden huts as a convenient place to change and store beach gear, but as it typically rains one out of three days in Britain, they are often filled with tea-sipping holiday makers anxiously searching for a break in the clouds. In The Kingdom by the Sea, travel writer Paul Theroux “lingered at the shallys to look inside and examine the furnishings (here a toaster, there a potted plant).”
I headed west along Undercliff Promenade, a wide, beach-level, paved footpath where Theroux pondered the literary “ghosts of Henry James, [French poet] Paul Verlaine, Tess d’Urberville, and half a dozen others haunting its chines.”
Beyond Durley and Middle Chines, I reached the entrance to Alum Chine named for early attempts to mine alum, a chemical compound used in tanning and dye making. A small garden held Chusan Palms and other sub-tropical plants that survive in this temperate spot on the same latitude as icy Newfoundland.
I strolled up the central path shaded by a dense canopy of live oak, chestnut, sycamore, laurel, pine and fir. Gnarled roots of giant beech trees bound the sides of the narrowing ravine. My feet swished through a carpet of rich red and gold autumn leaves.
Three short foot bridges cross Alum Chine. The lower bridge, an elegant suspension design, was built in 1903. The second arched span, St. Ambrose Bridge, was built in 1922 to replace the rustic structure that some believe young Churchill jumped from in 1892. I stood close to the spot where he would have struck the ground. Looking up, I recalled the decision process Churchill described in his 1930 memoir, My Early Life: A Roving Commission, “Would it not be possible to leap on to one of the trees and slip down the pole-like stem, breaking off each tier of branches as one descended until the fall was broken? To plunge or not to plunge, that was the question! In a second, I had plunged, throwing out my arms to embrace the summit of the fir tree. The argument was correct; the data were absolutely wrong. It was three days before I regained consciousness.”
The third bridge, a beam and post design, carried a plaque noting that Robert Louis Stevenson lived at Skerryvore overlooking this chine from 1884 to 1887. He named his home at 61 Alum Chine Road after a famous lighthouse in Scotland built by his uncle, civil engineer Alan Stevenson. Writing to poet Edmund Gosse in 1885, he said, “I shall call my house Skerryvore when I get it: SKERRYVORE: c’est bon pour la poéshie” – meaning it is good for poetry. Although RLS signed himself as “The Hermit of Skerryvore,” the Stevensons entertained frequent visitors. Artist John Singer Sergeant, painted him pacing the drawing room with an ethereal, ghostly image of Fanny sitting nearby. Another American ex-patriate, author Henry James, was such a regular presence that Fanny christened their large, deep-blue armchair as the ‘Henry James Chair.’
I loitered for a while under tall trees shading a stone replica of the lighthouse and foundation stones remaining from the World War-II bombing that are preserved in a small memorial park near the foot of Robert Louis Stevenson Avenue. My walk back downhill to the ocean took me through Branksome Dene Chine that begins in the neighboring borough of Poole. Notorious in the 18th Century as a regular route inland for smugglers, a number of local historians suggest Branksome as an alternative site for Churchill’s fall. Even though his 1930 memoir also identifies this as the location, the Alum Chine version of the story is more widely repeated today.
Branksome Chine also has literary connections. Author of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, J. R. R. Tolkien spent his last years in a house near the head of the chine until his death in 1973. Although better known for their five short years in Corfu, members of the Durrell family, including Gerald and Lawrence, spent many more years in several houses in Bournemouth and Poole close to the chine.
In his satirical poem “The Town Clerk’s Views” decrying the modernization of ancient places, John Betjeman, Poet Laurate of the United Kingdom from 1972 to 1984, wrote:
- Bournemouth is looking up. I’m glad to say
- That modernistic there has come to stay.
- I walk the asphalt paths of Branksome Chine
- In resin scented air like strong Greek wine
- And dream of cliffs of flats along those heights,
- Floodlit at night with green electric lights.
Despite Betjeman’s fears, leafy beeches, maples, and resin-scented pines still shield Branksome Chine and Bournemouth’s other gentle wooded valleys from the threat of floodlit glare from green, or any other color, electric lights.
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IF YOU GO
Bournemouth is 100 miles south west of London. It is well served with railroad, intercity and local bus services, and a busy regional airport. As a conference center, destination resort and touring base for the picturesque Thomas Hardy Country and New Forest areas to the north it offers accommodation choices from expensive, upscale hotels overlooking the ocean to humble B&Bs inland.
The Bournemouth Tourism website accommodation pages list hundreds of establishments. The “Things to do in Bournemouth” page offers plenty of places to play and visit, whatever the weather, including the numerous public parks and gardens.
Fascinating insights into Churchill and RLS’s early days! And I love the vintage postcards! Thanks for a great read. I would love to visit Bournemouth and I would most likely take your article with me to gain the most from my walk through the area.