Thursday, 14 July 2011

Showing our true selves at Brownsea Island

Here's an oddity. Brownsea Island. With castle. Strange place.

It's one of those islands off Dorset that the wealthy have simply bought and sold to each other, probably with small change, in much the same casual way that I buy secondhand books.

What they've bought and sold has been for centuries the home of hermits, a site of royal defences, and the tucked-away private playground for MPs (how surprising).

Without intention, each successive private owner has helped turn Brownsea Island into a nature haven. Apart from the MPs, it has been owned by art collectors, merchants, bankrupts, and the socially phobic.

The last owner, Mary Bonham-Christie, found it the perfect place to express herself. She turned out the farm herds to roam free, so I guess she qualifies as a member of ALF before ALF was invented. When she died in 1961, this rich person's play island was part of a death duty deal, so the nation had to stump up the cash to buy it.

So now this private island is ours, courtesy of the National Trust.

Nowadays, it is maintained as a nature reserve. No cars. No bikes. No shops (except the sacred commerce of the NT tea rooms). No paddling round the lagoon, either. The Dorset Wildlife Trust kick you out on behalf of those very scary terns with the very sharp beaks that look like kitchen knives.

Oddly enough, the island still brings out the character of people.

The Baden-Powell fans use it as a place of pilgrimage. They show how they are eager to develop their service, high ideals and fellowship by means of tracking each other, making mattresses out of ferns, and pretending to hunt whales in Poole harbour. The nature huggers meanwhile touch their inner spirits (or argue about the ice-cream) through the many quiet shaded strolls. And with no regular evening access for the public (the last boat out is 5pm), the squirrels enjoy it as a rest home. (Reds only. The greys haven't yet invented aqualungs.)

But, as the island does belong to us all ordinary folk of the nation, I had the bright idea of accidentally-on-purpose missing the last boat out.

I discovered that if you want to stay over as a tourist on Brownsea Island, you mostly can't. If you are scouting in an organised manner they allow you, so long as you promise to ibdibdob and woggle. You can stay in the castle only if you work for John Lewis and join their five-year waiting list for the cheap hotel rooms, or you could try the NT cottage if 2K is a reasonable holiday rate. What you can't do very easily is blag a free night out from the nation by claiming you have a dodgy leg and can't run for the boat.

Tiger helpfully pointed out I was probably not the first person to try that, and the NT were probably used to that sort of nonsense.

But as I say, the island sort of invited it. The place seemed to bring out something in us all. Squirrel and Tiger rolled around delighting in everything: woodland, wetland, heath, beach, and world war two crater aka the dragonfly pond, showing their true characters as generous, inspired and sympathetic to the world about them. Shark, showing how she is honourable, principled and committed, added that the best way to stay here would be work as a warden to improve their wetland and harbour conservation.

Of me, I like to think it revealed my little sparkle too. An unscrupulous weasel worder trying to freeload off the nation to bag a gratis night's stay surrounded by some very pretty scenery.