Brownsea Island's half century haven marked

Brownsea Island
Image caption The 500-acre (200-hectare) island was gifted to the National Trust in 1962

A Dorset island once off limits to the public and left to decay is celebrating 50 years as a nature conservation area which has become a haven for red squirrels.

Brownsea Island in Poole Harbour famously hosted Lord Baden Powell's inaugural Scout camp in 1907.

It was also the location of a blooming daffodil industry in the early 1900s as well as a less successful clay business in the mid-to-late 1800s.

But for more than three decades it was closed to the public and allowed to return to nature by its former owner, the recluse Mary Bonham-Christie, who lived there from 1927 until her death in 1962.

The 500-acre (200-hectare) island, which opened to the public on 15 May 1963, was gifted to the National Trust in an overgrown state - covered in invasive rhododendron plants which threatened the red squirrel population.

Its Tudor castle landmark was also discovered with a tree growing up through its centre.

"The whole area would have been covered with rhododendron and where it's so dense and thick it means nothing can grow through," said Claire Dixon from the trust.

"The first job was really about clearing that so you could actually see the island and enjoy all the open space."

The final rhododendron plant was cut down on the island in September 2011.

Originally built as a defensive blockhouse by Henry VIII to protect the area from French and Spanish invasions, Brownsea Castle on the island is now leased by the National Trust to John Lewis Partnership.

The firm restored the building over a number of years for use as a corporate retreat for current and retired employees.

Duncan Fisher, from the partnership, described the restoration programme as "massive".

"It was in a bad state of repair - part of the roof was missing and there was actually a tree growing up through the centre of the building," he said.

"Over the years what we have done is take each area in turn and have completely renovated it to a modern-day standard."

'Went bankrupt'

The building, which was destroyed by fire in 1895, was rebuilt by wealthy stockbroker Charles van Raalte and his wife Florence in the early 20th Century.

Some of its original Victorian features remain, including some wooden panelling in the stairway.

Mrs van Raalte set up a daffodil farm on Brownsea Island in 1908 and supplied flowers to markets around the country until 1925.

William Waugh, a former colonel in the British army, and his wife Mary also thought they had struck gold on the island when they bought it in 1852.

Image caption Brownsea Island is a dedicated nature conservation area and home to about 250 red squirrels

"She got her umbrella stuck in the sand along the beach and when she pulled it out she saw clay," said Ms Dixon.

"The business did not go well," she added. "Unfortunately the clay wasn't as good as they thought and ended up being used for sewage pipes and bricks - and in the end they actually went bankrupt."

Brownsea is now a haven for red squirrels, with about 250 living on the 1.5-mile (2.4 km) long and 0.75-mile (1.2 km) wide island.

Former John Lewis Partnership employee Desmond Jarvis, from the Isle of Wight, has holidayed at the castle almost every year since the early 1960s.

"A lot of the rooms were pretty basic [then] - you ran water for the bath and it was a deep brown colour," he said.

"The children were given free range [of the island] was like Enid Blyton come to life," he added, describing the island as "paradise".

"If you were lucky you got a front bedroom - they're the prize bedrooms because you've got this wonderful view of the harbour."

To mark the National Trust's 50-year ownership of the island, three volunteers, Richard and Sandra Yeoman, and Lewis Parkyn - who have worked on Brownsea since it opened to the public in 1963 - have been awarded the freedom of the island, giving them a lifetime pass.

Image caption Brownsea Castle was originally built between 1545-47 by Henry VIII as a coastal defence
Image caption Former island owner and recluse Mary Bonham-Christie lived in the castle until her death in 1962
Image caption The building is currently used as a corporate hotel by John Lewis Partnership
Image caption Some of its original Victorian features remain, including some wooden panelling in the stairway

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