Poole Harbour

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Green Island, one of the islands within Poole Harbour

Poole Harbour is a large natural harbour in Dorset, on whose shore stands the town of Poole. The harbour is a drowned valley formed at the end of the last ice age and is the estuary of several rivers, the largest being the Frome. The harbour has a long history of human settlement stretching to pre-Roman times. The harbour is extremely shallow, an average of 18 inches, with a main dredged channel through the harbour, from the mouth to Holes Bay. The main shipping channel is 25 feet deep.[1]

Poole Harbour has an area of approximately 15 square miles[2] and is one of several which lay claim to the title of the world's largest or second largest natural harbour (including Cork Harbour in Ireland and Halifax Harbour in Nova Scotia).


View across the harbour looking west from Lilliput

In 1964 during an archeological dig by the York Archaeological Trust, the fortified remains of a 2,000 year old Iron Age longboat were found preserved in the mud off Brownsea Island. Dated at 295 BC, the 30-foot Poole Logboat is the earliest known artefact from the harbour. It would have been based at Green Island in the harbour, and carried up to 18 people. It is thought to have been used for continental trade and was estimated to have weighed 14 tons.

Poole was used by the Romans as an invasion port for the conquest of southern Britain, who established the settlement at Hamworthy, now the western half of Poole. A Roman Road ran north from Hamworthy to Badbury Rings, a Roman transport hub.

At the time of the Norman Conquest Poole was a small fishing village. The port grew and in 1433 Poole was made Dorset's Staple Port for the export of wool. Mediæval In the Middle Ages trade through Poole Harbour sailed to and from lands from the Baltic to Italy. In the 17th century the town began trading with North America, in particular Newfoundland, and the town became very wealthy. In the 18th century Poole was the principal British port trading with North America. At the start of the 19th century 90% of Poole's population's employment was directly dependent on the harbour, but this dropped to 20% during the century as the railways reached the town, and deep hulled boats moved up the coast to Southampton, which had a deeper harbour and is closer to London. With regular dredging of a channel, Pole Harbour has regained some importance. The largest ship to enter the harbour is Brittany Ferries' 24,147 ton Bretagne which arrived in the port for the first time on 27 February 2007. The previous holder of the title was the 19,815 ton Barfleur which began operating from the port in 1992.

Geography and islands

Aerial view of the harbour entrance

The entrance to Poole Harbour is from the east, by way of Poole Bay and the English Channel. Entering the harbour, heading west, on either side are the shores of Studland beach (south west) and Sandbanks. Directly ahead are several islands, the largest of which is Brownsea Island.

Following the harbour counter clockwise, heading north-east passes the built up residential settlements of Poole including Lilliput and Parkstone (east). About 4 miles north-west of the entrance of the harbour is the entrance to Poole Quay and the Holes Bay (see below). Directly west of the main part of Poole is Hamworthy. Continuing anti-clockwise, heading west around the Harbour are the settlements of Upton and Wareham, as well as the outlet of the River Piddle. This area of water within the Harbour is known as Wareham Channel and includes other places such as Rockley Sands.

Continuing anti-clockwise, now heading south are the majority of the islands within the Harbour as well as several small channels and inlets. To the east is Arne Bay and the Wych channel. The majority of land in this area is heathland and there are few settlements, as opposed to western part of the Harbour. Directly south is Long Island, Round Island and Ower Bay. Green Island, Furzey Island and Brownsea Island (in that order) are to the east, with Newton Bay and Brands Bay (this area has several oil wells) to the south. This area of water is known as the South Deep. Continuing anti-clockwise comes back to the entrance to the Harbour and to Poole Bay, with Studland beach is immediately south east.

Holes Bay

Holes Bay is a tidal inland lake which lies to the north of Poole Harbour. The entrance to the bay is a small inlet from the main harbour, designated as a harbour quiet area. Access for vessels with a draft greater than 6 feet is only possible when Poole Bridge is lifted, which occurs at several fixed times every day and sometimes on request. Although it is a separate bay, Holes Bay is often considered part of the Poole harbour area. To the north of the bay is Upton Country Park, Pergin's Island and the South Western railway line, which runs west to east on a causeway across the bay.

Holes Bay is the location of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) training school, attached to their Poole headquarters. Uses of the bay include fishing, kayaking and small leisure craft. A large marina known as Cobbs Quay is on the west side of the bay. On its east side the bay runs parallel to the |A350.

Islands of Poole Harbour

Poole Harbour is the location of a number of islands, of various sizes. These islands include:


A quiet corner of the harbour, looking south from Brownsea Island

The harbour lies on a band of weak gravel and clay which is easily eroded by the rivers and sea. This band is bordered by two bands of chalk, the Purbeck Hills and Isle of Wight to the south, and the Dorset Downs and South Downs to the north. The clay extends west up the Frome valley to Dorchester, and would originally have extended east beyond Portsmouth in Hampshire. Before the last ice age the River Frome continued to flow east through what is now the Solent, joining the Stour, Beaulieu, Test, Itchen and Hamble, before flowing into the English Channel to the east of the present day Isle of Wight. A relatively resistant chalk ridge ran continuously from the Purbeck Hills to the Isle of Wight, which the rivers could not break through. When the glaciers of the north of Great Britain melted, the south of Britain sank slightly, flooding the Solent valley and Southampton Water to form their characteristic rias (flooded estuaries). About 7,000 years ago, increased erosion from the sea and the increased flow caused by the change in climate broke through the chalk hills, cutting the Isle of Wight off from the Isle of Purbeck and flooding what is now the Solent and Christchurch Bay, leaving Poole Harbour as the estuary of the Frome.

Marine activity

Car ferry passes through the harbour

Once a major port, freight transport has declined, but the port is still served by regular cross-channel passenger ferries. Coastal trading vessels are also frequent visitors, unloading various cargos on the quaysides at Hamworthy, and fleet of fishing vessels operates from the south end of Poole Quay. There is considerable leisure usage of the harbour, by a combination of yachts and other private craft, cruise boats that ply the harbour, and ferries that provide a passenger link to Brownsea Island. The harbour is managed by the Poole Harbour Commissioners (PHC) who represent all aspects of commercial and leisure activity in the harbour.[5] Their duties include maintaining the shipping channels for the ferries and cargo vessels, enforcing harbour speed limits, improving port facilities and assisting with nature conservation.[6]

In November 2005 the main shipping channels into the harbour and the Port of Poole were dredged in order to accommodate modern ferries at all states of the tide.[7] The project was carried out by Van Oord, and on completion the depth had been increased from 20 feet to 25 feet. Approximately 64 million cubic feet of sand and silt were dredged from the approach channels to the Harbour and port, and much was made available to the local beaches of Poole, Bournemouth and Purbeck for beach replenishment.[7]

Poole Harbour Commissioners define the main shipping channels,[8] which should be avoided by leisure craft, as :

  • The Swash Channel from the Bar Buoy to the Chain Ferry
  • The Haven Channel from the Chain Ferry to 16 buoy
  • The Middle Ship Channel, from 16 buoy to Stakes
  • The Turning Basin, off the Ferry Port
  • The Little Channel from Stakes to Poole Bridge.

Ecology and nature conservation

Looking south-west from Brownsea Island - Furzey Island is centre, with Green Island behind to the left

Much of the north side of the harbour is a built up area, including the town of Poole, and the conurbation which continues 10 miles eastwards along the coast into Hampshire. The west and south sides of the harbour and part of the Purbeck Heritage Coast and are important wildlife havens, as are the five large islands in the harbour which are home to the rare Red Squirrel. The harbour is an area of international importance for wildlife conservation and borders three National Nature Reserves, including the internationally important Studland and Godlingston Heath NNR, and a number of local and non-statutory nature reserves run by organisations such as the National Trust and RSPB, notably Arne. The mouth of the harbour is partially blocked by Sandbanks, a spit on the north, which is built up and part of Poole, and by Studland to the south, which is another important wildlife area.

Four rivers drain into Poole harbour, the largest being the River Frome, which flows from the west through Dorchester and Wareham. The harbour is very shallow in places and has extensive mud flat and salt marsh habitats, as well muddy and sandy shores and seagrass meadows. The area is an extremely popular recreation and tourism area, and local authorities and organisations have to carefully manage the tourism to prevent damage to the habitats.

The south shore of the harbour, include Wytch Heath and Godlingstone Heath is open heathland of little agricultural use. During the 20th century there has been some afforestation with conifer plantations. Around Wareham Forest in the west this has been for commercial forestry, but on the southern shore the plantations conceal the Wytch Farm oil wells.

Three bird species occur in internationally-important numbers: Shelduck, Avocet and Black-tailed Godwit. Other notable visitors include Spoonbill, Sandwich Tern and Whimbrel. Once rare, Little Egrets are now seen regularly and in increasing numbers.[9]

Urbanisation and development

Due to the ever increasing popularity of pleasure boating in the United Kingdom, the harbour has seen a rapid increase in the private ownership of pleasure vessels over the past decade, most of which are housed in private marinas around the harbour. Due to this increase, Poole has seen a rise in the number of maritime-oriented businesses.

With the popularity of watersports such as Water skiing, Wakeboarding, Windsurfing and Kitesurfing, Poole Harbour Commissioners have designated areas within the harbour almost exclusively for sport participation - virtually unrestricted from most regular harbour rules. Poole is also fortunate in that wind conditions are variable; wind conditions can be calm for sports such as Wakeboarding, and a short while later strong for sports such as Windsurfing. Most of these sports benefit from the harbour's generally flat water conditions. As a result, local watersport businesses operate around the harbour.


  1. Jersey Poole Ferry website
  2. Poole Harbour Facts, Poole Harbour Study Group. Retrieved 19 January 2010.
  3. Dorset Coast Digital Archive
  4. National Oceanography Centre, Southampton
  5. "Commerce". Poole Harbour Commissioners. Archived from the original on 2007-11-09. http://web.archive.org/web/20071109001109/http://www.phc.co.uk/Commercial.htm. Retrieved 2007-11-12. 
  6. "Poole Cockle Trail" (pdf). Poole Tourism. 2008. http://www.pooletourism.com/filemanager/Cockle_Trail.pdf. 
  7. 7.0 7.1 "The Dredging Operation". PooleBay.net. 2008. http://www.poolebay.net/PhaseI/dredging.htm. Retrieved 2008-06-03. 
  8. PHC Shipping Channels
  9. RSPB interpretation board, seen 29 April 2007

Further reading

  • Clark, G & Thompson, W.H., 1935. The Dorest Landscape. London: A & C Black.
  • Cochrane, C, 1970. Poole Bay and Purbeck, 300BC to AD1660. Dorchester, Longmans.
  • Hutchings, M., 1965. Inside Dorset. Sherborne: Abbey Press.
  • Poole Harbour Commission, The history of Poole Harbour (accessed 9 November 2004)

Outside links