Western Gazette, 16th May 1958
A reproduction of the original article by Benjamin B. Pond
Some Memories Of Shell Bay
The entrance into Poole Harbour is only four hundred yards in width, yet the coastline of this wonderful harbour is no less than ninety-six miles. North Haven, now better known as Sandbanks, is on the north side of this narrow entrance, whilst South Haven is on the opposite side and also has a new name. Shell Bay it has become and so it will remain, at least until the last shell is picked up.
But the thousands of visitors who collect these shells will never cease to find them, for the storms each winter are sure to deposit many more of them upon this lovely shore.
I can recall, earlier this century, when one or two fishermen started a ferry across the harbour mouth on fine days, with rowing boats, and it was these ferrymen who gave South Haven the new name of Shell Bay – to entice any visitors to go across and search for shells.
A Hard Row
Yes, I well remember those days. I worked a rowing boat ferry myself between the two Havens at one time, and what a hard row it was across that 400 yards of water, if the tide was ebbing hard. Five knots it ran, and if it hadn’t been for a back-tide on South Haven side – Shell Bay as ’tis now – we should never have made it. We were lucky to get a dozen passengers a day in those days at threepence a head.
When motor-boats began to run I packed up and went on with the fishing, and during 40 years I have seen great changes at Shell Bay. Came the floating bridge and the slipways; I had the first pedestrians ticket to be issued from the Shell Bay side. After that I often advised the crew as to the tides and other matters.
I saw the harbour mouth widen by 40 feet on a rough night in November, 1927, when the Point was swept away and a tearoom completely vanished. The day following that awful night part of the shore was lowered three feet, exposing a bed of peat, and upon this black peat was a number of silver coins, 15th and 16th century.
With the coming of the floating bridge one might have thought that this vast area of heath and woodland would be overrun by the many thousands of day trippers. But no, they seem to concentrate on the shore at Shell Bay, or along the three mile stretch of sand in Studland Bay, and those making their way to Swanage keep to the New-road, which is nearly four miles in length and built over swamps and heathland.
Meeting Place Of Smugglers
Thousands of lorry-loads of Purbeck stone were used in making a foundation for this road-way; even the stone of the ancient Inn which once stood at what was then known as South Haven went into this construction. This old inn, once the meeting place of smugglers, fishermen, and deserters from the King’s ships, had walls two and a half feet thick, yet it collapsed owing to the rabbits which burrowed beneath it. The four cottages, known as Gotchabed, or Go-to-bed, suffered a like fate, and the once level jetty of slabs and stone has been turned over and over by trippers when searching for crabs and winkles.
Back along, before South Haven became known as Shell Bay, smugglers came ashore heavily laden by night, and it was during darkness that the best hauls were made with the seine nets.
Always inland and westwards stretches the vast heathlands, interspersed with lakes, swamps, and woodlands. Three miles from South Haven, and in the midst of all this wild and lovely scenery, I made my home in a small shanty, and so came to know just how well off I was with only shillings and coppers in my pocket.
Being interested in birds, I recorded over 140 different kinds, and many were waterfowl around Littlesea Lake. This attractive sheet of water is over a mile in length and half a mile wide, and at the north end the black headed gull used to nest. One season there was as many as 3,000 nests, packed so close together on the marshy ground that a sort of small depression formed between every three nests.
These gulls no longer breed around this lake; times have changed – changed very much since real Dorset butter was put aboard the brigs and schooners as they came down harbour from Poole, bound for Portsmouth. There were many small farms and holdings on the North side of the Purbeck Hills, and there was no good market for their produce in those times, because the stone quarrymen and fishermen could not afford much in the way of ham, eggs, or butter.
Mutton and venison also came down to South Haven, on the backs of horses and donkeys, but the poorer croftsmen had to convey their produce by wheelbarrow, a journey of from five to eight miles as the case might be. It was the women folk who usually pushed these heavy-laden barrows over the rough heath and loose sand. Upon reaching the Point, as it was called, a ship’s boat would collect this produce, take it aboard, and sail for Portsmouth to supply the King’s men-o’-war.
The wheels of these barrows were two feet in diameter and had either four or eight spokes, and even today, one may come across one of these broken wheels, charred and blackened by one of the many heath fires that have since swept across this undulating land.
Then came a period when it was no longer safe to venture in these regions. It became the hiding place for men who escaped from the Navy, and the press-gangs at Poole and Weymouth.
These fellows robbed the villagers in the outlying parts of South-East Dorset, and at last, two companies of soldiers from Dorchester were sent to round them up. But the gang escaped capture by boarding a schooner at South Haven and sailed westwards down channel. They did not get far. The ship drove ashore in West Bay in a south-east gale, and every man perished.
And so the export of butter from this lonely shore came to an end, no doubt much to the regret of those in the officers’ mess at Portsmouth.