The setting for: SANDMAN
'My novel 'SANDMAN' is set in and around Christchurch Harbour in Dorset, England. Yes, it is a real place, and all the scenes of the novel take place in a real setting — although specifics are usually slightly adjusted; more specifically, private buildings mentioned do not exist (eg private houses or specific beach huts). However, public buildings mentioned — such as cafés — are the real thing, such as the Hiker café and the Beach House café.
Why did I choose this setting? There were several good reasons. Firstly, I like to write 'atmospheric' fiction because this has more presence: hopefully I can make it seem more real because, as a writer, I can better visualise it. Secondly, there is a very special atmosphere on Mudeford Sandbank and I wanted readers to appreciate and enjoy that. (As Stevie imagines it in the novel, it is rather like an island — although not exactly 'deserted'.) Thirdly, this novel is about a stalker, and the environment of a stalker is important; I needed to bring his surroundings to life, so what better way than to use a real-life setting? Lastly, I wanted to show how tranquility might only be a heart-beat away from tension or fear — and despite its many visitors at busy times, this area always has a tranquil air.
Providing you keep away from steep cliff-edges, the most dangerous thing likely to happen to you around Hengistbury Head and Mudeford Sandbank is getting sand in your shoes; so don't be afraid just because several of my characters in SANDMAN become very scared (including teenage Leah and her beautiful mother Sasha); take it with a pinch of 'sea-salt'. Please remember this is fiction. There are endless murders in and around pretty Buckinghamshire villages in Midsomer Murders for Detective Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby to solve, yet people still live in them. It's the same with Oxford, for Inspector Morse, but the terrors are constrained to Colin Dexter's fictional world. Why did Dexter choose Oxford? Quite simply, because he lived there and could bring it to life on the page. I live in Dorset and know the Hengistbury Head region well, hence my choice of this setting.
On this page I offer readers who do not know this beautiful area a good overview of it. So let's take a walk together while I relate it to some of the scenes within the novel. I hope you enjoy the wonderful views! Take your time.
Below are two sections:
Something for everyone, in fact!
The main walk
I'll assume you park at the far end of Broadway, as reached from Tuckton, near Bournemouth. Walk across to the Hiker cafe (where Paul met Carol Davis before their first trip together out to Mudeford Sandbank). There's an information board there which will tell you some of the fascinating history of the area you are about to visit. You may well be tempted to buy some refreshment at this point, and since there is a good climb and walk to come, it might not be a bad idea.
When you're ready, head straight towards the sea along the track. Double Dikes, ancient earth defences that protected an early settlement on the far side, are to your left. When you reach the cliff and have breathed the clean sea air, turn left to head towards the hill. On your left is Barn Field, where you can sometimes see cattle grazing. The barn way across the field is what gave the field its name; it is now a ranger station. Fig. 1 shows the view towards what is correctly called 'Warren Hill' — although, to locals and visitors alike, it is normally just know as 'Hengistbury Head'. Hengistbury Head is really the eroded headland, but to avoid confusion, I shall also refer to the entire hill as Hengistbury Head.
When you're near to it, Hengistbury Head does not look particularly imposing, although if you look across Poole Bay to it from afar it's a different matter. Fig. 2 shows that view inland, across the water meadows and Christchurch Harbour, towards the charming little town of Christchurch. Christchurch Priory can just be seen as the white tower near the centre of the picture. If you're there on a clear sunny day you may be able to glimpse the glint of its large golden fish wind vane on top of the tower.
From the top of the hill you can appreciate how the Double Dikes were an effective protection for the flat land beneath you, site of an ancient Iron Age settlement — when Hengistbury Head and the dikes probably projected some 500 yards or so further out to sea. Sea erosion is a big problem around here and it is hard to imagine that long ago this land was once a mile or so inland. The Head, together with Mudeford Sandbank, a long sand spit that extends from the Head itself, provide good protection for picturesque Christchurch Harbour — and protects the little town of Christchurch from flooding.
One of the links at the bottom of the right-hand panel of this page will take you to a website with all the history and geology of this area. Several burial mounds that date from the early part of the Bronze Age have been discovered on Hengistbury Head. These tumuli contain the cremated remains of individuals, and other items found include pottery and animal remains. It is believed that part of Hengistbury head was essentially an early bronze age cemetery, perhaps for the local rich. The Iron Age settlement was in the area shown in the foreground of Fig. 2.
The harbour itself is fed from the River Stour and the River Avon, which converge in Christchurch and flow together out to sea on a course that is actually parallel to Mudeford Quay just across the water from the sandbank — by virtue of the sandbank. The narrow opening to the harbour is very tidal (and dangerous). On top of the Head is an unmanned coastguard station (and a spectacular view). If you take the main path across the Head, you will see the Isle of Wight facing you. (If you take the little left-hand track, you will pass near the spot where budding actress, Carol Davis, studied her script, and see her view over the green Holm Oaks in the nature reserve towards Christchurch Harbour and the distant Mudeford Sandbank, the sand barrier between harbour and sea. Fig. 3 shows this view.
The left-hand track will lead you down to the lake Carol discovered (Quarry Lake), just before the drama of her attack. [If you cannot walk very far then continue left, downhill from the lake; this track takes you to the service road to Mudeford Sandbank and turning left takes you on a quick and easy route back to the Hiker café. (This is the track down which Carol fled after her attack, meeting the little land train on the service road at the bottom.) Otherwise, I suggest you carry straight on and climb up the steps onto the top of the hill again, to walk to the end of the headland, where both these routes meet up for the wonderful view across Mudeford Sandbank itself.
Even if you take the main route across the Head, you will still encounter the gravel scar that is the seaside end of the iron quarry that is now the lake. It has been dammed with ironstones to provide this wonderful wildlife habitat, turning a dreadful scar on the landscape into a place of beauty (at least at its northern end). In the 19th century this was the location of quarrying for ironstones (otherwise known as 'nodules' or 'doggers'). You can still see large ironstone nodules on the cliff-edge if you take the beach route around the end of the Head (when the tide is kind).
Fig. 4 depicts the view from the end of the Head, looking down onto Mudeford Sandbank, but nothing but the real thing can really prepare you for its beauty: set off by the colours of the many beach huts (Stevie's favourite view). Mudeford Sandbank, by the way, is often just referred to as the 'spit' or 'sandbank'. After enjoying the view from this viewpoint, noting the Isle of Wight just across the waters of the Solent, descend the steps to Mudeford Sandbank itself.
Mudeford Sandbank and Mudeford Quay
Mudeford Sandbank is somewhat notorious for having some of the most expensive beach huts in the world (read: article). In the good times, a figure of £120,000 was actually achieved for a beach hut and prices often nudged or hovered around six-figures: amazing when you consider their relatively small size, their lack services and that owners need to use wind turbines and solar cells to generate their own electricity. With the tough crunch times of 2009, sales were not at such heady heights (see article from Mudeford Sandbank News).
Let us continue our walk along the beach, to the right of the sandbank, walking past the sea-facing beach huts. Keep an eye on the hut names, many of which are quite humorous. After quite some way, watch out for the gap in the concrete flood protection wall, wider than most and just after it angles out nearer to the sea. This leads through to the Beach House café. The view back along the huts on the seaside of the sandbank is shown in Fig. 5. (This shows some of the sand dunes which were convenient for the stalker in the novel; at the time the events took place, there were even more dunes than this.)
Now, how about an ice-cream, or perhaps a coffee sitting on the veranda of the Beach House café, shown in Fig. 6? (This is the vantage point from which the two girls conversed with Stevie and then observed the drama he provoked.) Fig. 7 shows the view inland from the veranda, across the harbour, with the landing stage used by the Mudeford Quay ferry is shown in the foreground. (This is the place Stevie often landed his boat. In its earlier incarnation, the glazed wind-shields did not separate the veranda from the beach road, and that was the case in the novel — or else the conversations between the girls and Stevie could not have happened quite so conveniently.)
If you want to find the Black House and the end of the sandbank, just walk on as far as you can. From there you will see Mudeford Quay, just across the waters of The Run. These waters here can be very dangerous, and it may flow in either direction, according to the tide. Or you could take a ferry from the landing stage near the café across to Mudeford Quay (where you can visit a pub, find another café, buy sea-food from a kiosk, or visit the lifeboat station. Fig. 8 shows the view looking back from this quay towards the Black House (the place where Paul meditated in his great moment of turmoil, and the waters on which a major drama takes place).
Time to return, and this time why not take the easier, flat route via the service road (down which Sasha took her night-time exercise). Fig. 9 shows the harbour facing beach huts (one of which was that used by Paul and his family — although I had no specific hut in mind, so no good looking out for it). Fig. 10 shows the service road which runs alongside then (looking towards the end of the sandbank and the location of the café). Now you have two options: a 20-minute walk (with good legs) or take the little land train (sometimes used in the novel). The land train is depicted in Fig. 11. It does not stop anywhere between the sandbank terminus and the Hiker café so make your decision here! (Look for a notice about its timetable.)
On the way you pass through the trees (scene of more high drama in the novel), the nature reserve, and then finally end up right by the Hiker café, adjacent to the car park.
Fig.12 shows the riverside walk at Tuckton (where Leah was stalked), but you will not see this unless you add on the extension to this main walk, as described below.
An extended route from Tuckton
If you would like a considerably longer route and are making a day of it, park in Wick Lane just off Tuckton Roundabout (or in the car park a little way along this road). Or if you arrive by bus, get off at Tuckton Roundabout.
Nearby Tuckton Tea Gardens offer refreshment and boat trips, and the latter includes a ferry linking Wick Ferry, Christchurch Quay (both on the opposite side of the river) and Mudeford Sandbank itself. Wick Ferry links Wick (on the same side you start) and Christchurch (adjacent to the Captain's Club Hotel). This gives you lots of options including boat trips and visiting Christchurch itself. Here are some suggestions. If you are not a walker at all, take a return ferry journey to Mudeford Sandbank from Tuckton and enjoy a beautiful trip along the river and across Christchurch Harbour (scene of much activity in the novel).
Walking to the Hiker Café from Tuckton via Wick village along the riverside walk
(Leah was stalked on the riverside walk and the Vincents built their new house in Wick.) Follow the riverside walk shown in Fig. 12 until you are opposite the open green area on the far bank, just past the Captain's Club. Turn right and walk to the road, then left along the road and through the village of Wick, with its picturesque green. Follow the road until it turns sharply right. Go ahead to the path by the tall wire fence and either turn left or right. The left-hand route, behind some houses, leads to a field and you can branch right and walk towards Hengistbury Head on footpaths near to the river meadows; or turn right, following the high wire fence until you reach the school grounds, then left and straight on along the green area adjacent to the golf course.
Both these walks end near to the end of the Broadway road and here you will find the Hiker café, start of the main walk described above. This is a great place for refreshments. (You can also cheat here and take the land train to Mudeford Sandbank if you are not up to a 20-30 minute walk.)
Walking back from Mudeford Sandbank to Tuckton
After the main walk to Mudeford Sandbank, walk along the lower service road from Mudeford Sandbank back to the Hiker café. (Across the harbour, in the distance, you will see the houses at Stanpit, one of which is the fictional home of Stevie Clarke; it does not really exist). If you're tired, take a break and use the land train (Fig. 11) for this trip. You can then retrace your steps back to Tuckton.
There are three options I would suggest. Follow the little lane opposite the Hiker that leads towards the harbour and the activity centre. After a short way, adjacent to the gates of the activity centre, you can either fork left, through a small gate, for a walk that takes you adjacent to the water meadows and comes out, eventually, on the riverside opposite Christchurch, or follow the lane to the left, through the large five-barred gate. The latter walk branches to offer two further alternatives: a track up an incline to the left for the grassy walk back the way you came adjacent to the golf course, or straight ahead (muddy at times), which joins the grassy walk further on.
Fork back right after the school and follow the track all the way to a field, then cross the field heading slightly left to join the first option, a path taking you left to the river bank opposite Christchurch. Whichever route you take, just follow the riverside path back to Tuckton after Wick Ferry.
Return to Tuckton by boat — optionally stopping over at Christchurch
Take the ferry from Mudeford Sandbank back to Tuckton Tea Gardens. If you want to stop over at Christchurch, explain this to the boatman and get out at Christchurch Quay. From the Quay it is only a short walk across to Christchurch Priory and the town itself. (Paul took Carol on the riverside walk from the old mill at the quay, between the mill stream and what later becomes the River Avon. Cross the little humped-back bridge by the mill and then go left by the millstream if you want to follow this further route into town.)
After visiting Christchurch, you could either take the same ferry back to Tuckton or cross the river via Wick Ferry and then walk the short distance back to where you started along the riverside walk again.
I hope you enjoyed one of these adventures — and now appreciate the special magic of Hengistbury Head and Mudeford Sandbank. I don't think you'll ever forget it, for it's atmosphere is so unique. Reserve at least half a day for this little jaunt — and more, if you want to bathe on the wonderful beaches.
If you've read 'SANDMAN' then this article should really bring the novel to life. If you haven't, then why not? You can buy it in local bookshops (or order it if it is out of stock), or you can buy it online right now: just click here for details!
Pictures of the area:
Head - history and geology
Contact me if you have a complementary website you would like to see linked here