‘When you walk past empty shops and street drinkers, it feels like Bournemouth has lost its advantage’

Throughout the summer, we’ll be taking the pulse of our most famous traditional seaside towns, examining the efforts being made to regenerate them, and weighing in on whether they’re still worth a visit. This week, Gavin Haines explores Bournemouth.

When I was in my early twenties and struggling financially, I lived for a while in a bedsit in Bournemouth with a ticket seller and a man who had just served a prison sentence for GBH.

Sunny places attract dodgy characters. The house was a mess and sometimes the police would come and bust down the door to search it. Still, the rent was £56 a week, which left me with a few quid after I had received my meagre salary as a junior journalist.

I mention all this in the interests of transparency. I have history in this town. This was my time as a feature writer at the Bournemouth Echo before the internet gutted the local press. And here I am, 16 years later, back in my old stomping grounds, resisting the urge to lapse into nostalgia.

It’s hard not to climb the cliff. As I look out over the glittering bay and its seven miles of golden sand – the chalk cliffs of the Isle of Wight and the Isle of Purbeck in the distance – I’m reminded why I fell in love with this place. The setting is sublime.

Bournemouth was built as a spa town in the late Georgian period, a place where wealthy people went to recuperate. Pine trees were planted everywhere, thought to be good for inflammation. They still stand today, providing a green canopy for the town. Hotels were built. Theatres and galleries followed.

Visiting writers found inspiration in the new resort, including Mary Shelley, who is buried in St Peter’s Church, opposite a Wetherspoons. Robert Louis Stevenson came later.

They helped popularise the place and put Bournemouth on the map.

Two models wearing examples of holiday wear are pictured as they are about to set sail

‘Bournemouth was the place where wealthy people went to recuperate,’ writes Haines – Getty

The resort held its ground as cheap flights arrived; the decline in domestic tourism was less pronounced here than in other coastal resorts. The beaches remained busy.

Meanwhile, the financial services industry brought jobs and prosperity all year round (JP Morgan, Nationwide and Liverpool Victoria have offices here), and seedy stag and hen parties greased the wheels of the night-time economy – and continue to do so.

Students from Bournemouth University follow this programme, which keeps the city young and curious and sent me out into the world with a degree.

What is it really like?

Despite its youth and prosperity, Bournemouth town centre has the weary look of a hungover stag. As you walk past permanently closed nightclubs, empty shops and street drinkers, you get the feeling that Bournemouth has lost its advantage.

The local council – criticised by Transparency International in 2020 for lacking sufficient anti-corruption safeguards (although no allegations of irregularities have been made) – is broke. Earlier this year, officials admitted its financial situation was “as bad as it could be.”

The Square and Bournemouth Parks in Bournemouth town centreThe Square and Bournemouth Parks in Bournemouth town centre

The Square and Bournemouth Parks in Bournemouth Town Centre – John Lawrence

It has had to cut funding for the city’s popular Air Festival, among other things. A new tourist tax is being considered to plug the financial gap. From September, visitors could have to pay £2 a night to stay.

And yet there is optimism in the air. Last year Bournemouth got its first five-star hotel, The Nici, bringing Miami vibes (but not the weather) to West Cliff. The Ivy is set to open a restaurant in the old New Look in another sign of confidence in the town.

Meanwhile, the former Debenhams department store – a large red-brick building in Bournemouth Square – is undergoing a £10m renovation into a mixed-use venue called Bobby & Co, with shops, offices, co-working spaces and – coming soon – cocktail bar The Botanist.

“Bournemouth is a bit sad at the moment,” admits Hattie Dyas, marketing manager at Bobby & Co, as he shows me around. “But I think that will change soon.”

Hattie DyasHattie Dyas

Resident Hattie Dyas admits the place is ‘a bit sad’ at the moment – John Lawrence

South Coast Makers’ Market, located in nearby The Avenue shopping centre, is also trying to redefine the shopping street, with local artisans selling clothes, art and other wares in the old JD Sports.

“People come in and are excited to see something that’s not mass-produced in China,” Emma Fairthorne, the manager, tells me. “It sounds hippy, but they can feel the love that’s gone into it. I think it’s going to be up to the independent retailers to breathe new life into the high street.”

That’s certainly the case in Southbourne, where independent shops, bars and restaurants create a lively atmosphere in the seaside suburb.

What’s not to like?

When you run the gauntlet of themed bars, chain restaurants and big box retailers in the city centre, you can’t help but feel like the city has sold its soul. There’s no localism, not even a proper pub. For that, you have to walk up Poole Hill to the reassuringly traditional Goat & Tricycle.

New developments are often insensitive to the city’s Georgian and Victorian aesthetics. White elephants abound, not least the ill-fated Boscombe surf reef, which should have transformed the city into a surfers’ paradise but instead turned it into a laughing stock.

Another architectural disaster that my colleagues at Echo were concerned with was the Waterfront project. This monumentally ugly cinema complex replaced the Victorian bathhouses on the seafront and partially blocked the view of the sea.

In 2005, the building was voted the most hated building in England, and was finally demolished eight years later.

Do this

Flutist Mik Parsons plays Mozart’s Andante in C major as I enter the Russell-Coates Art Gallery and Museum. “We’re the last bit of culture in the city,” says Eliza Robinson, the gallery’s development officer, as she shows me around. And it feels that way.

Travel writer Gavin Haines at the Russell-Coates Art Gallery and MuseumTravel writer Gavin Haines at the Russell-Coates Art Gallery and Museum

Haines says the Russell-Coates Art Gallery and Museum feels like ‘the last bit of culture’ in the city – John Lawrence

You won’t find anything like this anywhere else in Bournemouth.

The gallery, known for its collection of Pre-Raphaelite art, is housed in a beautiful Victorian mansion on East Cliff, complete with Japanese garden. “Venus is our party piece,” Robinson says, as he leads me to the topless, red-haired goddess painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. “She travels the world a lot, on a rental basis.” Not today. I’m in luck.

Eat this

In a charming Victorian arcade in Westbourne sits Renoufs, a suitably large shop selling a local delicacy: Dorset Blue Vinny, a blue cheese handmade in nearby Sturminster Newton.

Also in Westbourne there is a fish and chip shop of note: Chez Fred. It is always busy because the food is fantastic, the staff are lovely and the fish is served with unlimited chips.

But don’t do this

Bournemouth pier. It looks nice, but you have to pay £1.65 to walk across it. It’s not much, but it’s a matter of principle, the thin end of the wedge. What now, tourist tax?

The entrance to Bournemouth PierThe entrance to Bournemouth Pier

The Entrance to Bournemouth Pier – John Lawrence

Oh… There’s nothing really worth mentioning at the end of the pier, other than a cafe and attractions that will inevitably cost you more money.

From the locals

“We don’t know how good we have it,” says David, a local resident who doesn’t want to give his last name. “We’re lucky to live where we do because of the natural environment around us.

If you’re feeling under the weather one day, you can go to the cliff top and look out over the bay.”

“There are a lot of cool things going on, a lot of festivals in the area [Arts by the Sea being one highlight],” adds Steve Lynch, strumming his guitar in the Lower Pleasure Gardens. He and bassist Jason Bowles are warming up for their Glasto gig.

“The city centre is a bit deserted,” Lynch admits. “People can’t afford to go out like they used to. The drinking culture has changed since I was growing up. You could go out two or three nights a week and still put food on the table. Not for £6.50 a pint.”

From tourists

“The buildings are beautiful. It’s a beautiful city, but expensive,” says Ophélie Laurent, a student from Vendée, France. “It’s beautiful,” adds her friend Matthias Bouliung, “but it’s spread out and I don’t know where to go.”

Down on the beach, Stephen and Jayne Fisher from Newport, Wales, are soaking up the sun. “We’re at an age where we remember going to the seaside as kids and it being amazing. Now it’s a bit of a shame,” says Stephen.

“More investment is needed. There are all kinds of bars and restaurants, but nothing for the people.”

Stephen and Jayne Fisher from NewportStephen and Jayne Fisher from Newport

Stephen and Jayne Fisher from Newport, Wales, believe Bournemouth needs more investment – John Lawrence

Stay here

Housed in a whitewashed Victorian villa on East Cliff, The Green House is an eco-hotel that exudes understated luxury without being preachy.

Set among towering birch trees and swaying palms, it has a destination restaurant on the ground floor – Arbor – promoting local produce from Dorset and the New Forest. I was glad to have a roll-top bath in my bedroom.

There come

The train from London to Bournemouth, through the New Forest and past the docks at Southampton, is scenic and takes less than two hours. There are also direct trains from the Midlands and the North.

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