A Day at Brownsea Island National Trust

Before I start nice descriptive things, here are some Top Tips and Things To Bring to Brownsea Island.

If you want to skip to the nice descriptive things, click here.

Water bottles. Stay hydrated. There are drinking water taps to refill water bottles, including one at the campsite.

Food. There are lots of lovely places to picnic. (But no barbecues or fires.) Kids get hungry, and are a real pain in the ass when that happens, so best to be prepared. You don’t want a hangry meltdown when you’re half a mile from the café.

A towel. Even if you’re not visiting on a glorious sunny day, there’s a good chance the children will want to go near the water, which will means in the water. Even if it’s just dipping their hands in. If it’s warmer there will most likely be paddling.

Appropriate footwear. You can wear sandals or flip flops if you really must, but the paths are stony and rough. A decent pair of shoes or boots will be better, especially if you venture off the paths. Wellies might be good for the kids if it’s too cold to paddle barefoot.

Sun cream. If it’s sunny, of course. You might not want to spend hours lying out on the beach, but you’ll still need it spending the day outdoors.

A basic first aid kit. Plasters and antiseptic, that kind of thing. There are tons of things to climb, so scraped hands and knees happen in this kind of terrain. We saw two toddlers faceplant within ten minutes, and they both grazed their hands. I really hope their responsible adults had some antiseptic.

Talcum powder. This is a beach essential in hot weather. It works some kind of witchcraft to remove that annoying sand that sticks to every bit of exposed skin.

Baby carrier or all-terrain stroller. The paths are fine for fairly sturdy strollers, though you probably wouldn’t want to head into the woods with one. A carrier, on the other hand, can be taken everywhere.

Camera. Can’t miss those magic moments.

Binoculars. There are lots of animals and birds on the island to spot.

No dogs are allowed on the island. Sorry, but them’s the rules. It’s a nature reserve, and there’s an awful lot of creatures that would be highly distressed by the presence of man’s best friend, no matter how well-behaved. (Assistance dogs are allowed though.)

Accessibility. Despite its moderately rugged terrain, Brownsea Island has pretty good facilities for anyone who is less mobile:

There is a special boat that enables wheelchair users to access the island.  There are all-terrain wheelchairs available at the entrance, and also a free electric buggy service that can whizz you round the island if you’re not up to tackling the paths on foot. All these services require prebooking, but it’s fantastic that they’re available.

At 5pm you turn into a pumpkin. OK, that’s not true, but the last ferry off the island is at 5pm, and I really don’t know what they do if you miss it, and I’m kind of scared to find out. Probably make you sleep in a cave.  Or perhaps they have some kind of Running Man thing going on, where shadowy strangers get to hunt careless tourists who have been left behind on the island. 

Boy, that escalated quickly. OK, let’s lighten the mood and talk about our visit to the island. (No hunters, promise.)


There’s something magical about islands! That Famous Five atmosphere of adventure and exploration while remaining safe and self-contained.

By the way, did you know that Brownsea Island is actually in one of the Famous Five books? It features in Five Have A Mystery To Solve, renamed Whispering Island.

Brownsea Island off the coast of Dorset is perfect for a day’s adventuring for families and children. 

It has a multitude of natural habitats, including beaches and woodlands, and a thriving wildlife population. It’s also the home to one of the few communities of red squirrels in the UK.

Brownsea also has a fascinating history, including being the site of the very first Scout camp. Its continuing connection with the Scouts  offers extra facilities for Scout and Guide groups, and splendid eco adventuring, camping facilities, and an Outdoor Centre for all visitors. You can even hire a little holiday cottage and stay overnight in comfort.

The island is owned and maintained by the National Trust, with all of the usual facilities such as a café and shop.

Like all NT properties, the island is free to visit for members. Unlike other NT properties, getting there isn’t so easy!

To get to the island you have to take a ferry.

They leave from Sandbanks and Poole Harbour. As the ferry company is private and not connected with the National Trust, you have to pay. It’s slightly cheaper to sail from Sandbanks, with a shorter journey. The longer Poole-Brownsea trip includes a little tour around the islands.

Ferries from either place leave every half hour, so you never have to wait around for long.

Parking is also not provided for members. There is a reasonable amount of on-street parking on the mainland near the jetties, but again, you have to pay.

We visited Brownsea in the May Half Term.

The weather was not as we would have wished it, grey and blustery, and rather damp.

On the plus side, it meant parking was easy to find, within a few minutes walk of the jetty.

A Day at Brownsea Island National Trust

We travelled from Sandbanks, so the crossing cost us £7 adult and £5 child.

The yellow ticket kiosk is easy to spot. It’s important to remember that the Sandbanks kiosk only accepts cash, though if you’re going from Poole you can pay with a card.

The ferry company isn’t officially part of the National Trust, but they still handed out a NT map of the island.

A Day at Brownsea Island National Trust

This gives you a very useful overview.

There are suggested trails, plus highlights such as the play area and picnic area.

Nearly half the island is given over to a nature sanctuary and lagoon, to which there is no public access, but there is no shortage of places to explore.

A Day at Brownsea Island National Trust

The crossing from Sandbanks is very short, around 10 minutes. This is what you see as you arrive at the island jetty.

The white doors on the left are the entrance, where you show your membership card (or pay the entrance fee), and on the right are some of the little cottages you can rent.  They look idyllic right on the water, we’d love to come back and stay one day!

The cafe and shop are very close to the entrance, so if you can resist your children’s pleas for immediate ice cream, head straight past them and on to the main path across the centre of the island.

A Day at Brownsea Island National Trust

You’ll pass the memorial to Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Scout movement. It’s pretty cool that the connection with the island has been maintained for all these years. In fact, there was a Scout troop that arrived at the same time as us, clearly heading out for a night under canvas.

This path will take you past the church (no pic but super pretty and still in use!) through woodlands all the way to the end of the the island. The woods are on the left, and the nature reserve on the right. There are plenty of other paths, or just strike out into the wild!

The paths are fairly flat, though there are a few slightly hilly bits along the way if you feel like clambering around a little.

A Day at Brownsea Island National Trust

If your kids – or you! – enjoy climbing on logs, you will have no shortage of them here.

All along the path are fallen and cut trees, perfect for balancing, climbing, and exploring. There are lots more off the path, so you can spend an awful lot of time clambering about, not to mention playing with sticks. Lots of imaginative play opportunities!

Quite quickly we decided that fresh air, log climbing, and walking had made us hungry, so we stopped to picnic. There is a proper picnic shelter on the island, but you can basically plop a blanket down wherever you like and eat.

We found a nice spot just by the ruined vinery which was conveniently shaded by trees. It was raining in a rather desultory way, but the leaf cover was enough to keep us, and our food, dry.

The trees really made a lovely sound in the breeze. I totally understood why Enid Blyton named Brownsea ‘Whispering Island’ in her book, because it really did seem like the trees were whispering to us.

I should have taken a picture of our picnic seat, but I forgot because hungry.

But I did get this video of Little C bouncing around on some stone blocks by our lunch spot.

A Day at Brownsea Island National Trust

You can just see on the right a sort of semicircular seat where we sat to eat our lunch, and on the left the ruins of the vinery are just visible.

Our original plan had been to turn off the middle path and find the lily pond, but feeling energized after lunch, we headed to the official Natural Play Area.

A Day at Brownsea Island National Trust

The entire island is more or less a natural play area, but in this rather large clearing there were some slightly more organized things to climb on.

Lines of upturned logs for stepping, and long lines of logs for balancing.

(Helpfully these logs had lines carved into them for better grip. Rain makes wood slippery, as I found out later when I slipped on a large tree trunk and very nearly fell on my ass.)

As well as lots of climbing and balancing, the play area has another cool thing.

A Day at Brownsea Island National Trust

Who doesn’t love a rope swing?

You can also just see there are a bunch of branches for making dens. There were actually a couple of women huddling in one of the dens drinking tea out of a flask. (I didn’t take a picture of them because it would have been mean, but it did look quite funny. Especially as their kids were charging around in the drizzle completely unconcerned about the inclement weather.)

After exploring this area for a while, we decided to head down to the beach.

The path you see in front of the swing takes you directly to the Scout Stone, which marks the site of the first Scout Camp, along to the campsite, and down to the beach.

The campsite is a good place to take a break, as there are loos and drinking water, plus a little shop.

The Scout troop we saw earlier were sitting under the trees eating their lunch and being harassed by a couple of peahens.

Yes, the island has peacocks and peahens. The hens aren’t that interesting to look at, but then we saw this guy, who was regarding the antics of the hens with a superior look.

A Day at Brownsea Island National Trust

We managed to get really close to him! Sadly he didn’t spread his tail (I guess he wasn’t in the mood to show off for the ladies) but it was pretty amazing anyway, I’ve never seen a peacock close up. We stood and gazed for several minutes, and he didn’t move.

OK, so off to the beach.

A Day at Brownsea Island National Trust

The beach has sand and stones. It’s not exactly a sandcastle beach (not that we had the weather for it) but there is a lot of cool stuff to look at and explore.

Something else interesting about the island. The 19th century owner discovered there was a lot of clay on the island, and decided it would make his fortune. Unfortunately he discovered it was only good for basic pipes, and so went bust.

The pottery that made the pipes has completely disappeared, but you can still see a whole lot of broken pipes strewn on the beach itself. (Why did I not get a picture of some?)

And there is something children will love…

A Day at Brownsea Island National Trust


Right in the beach is gooey, squidgy clay. You can grab handfuls of it and shape and play with it. It is very messy but a lot of fun. One of those muddy tactile things that children love to do.

A Day at Brownsea Island National Trust

And then when they have thoroughly coated their hands in the stuff, they can wash off in the sea.

The beach goes halfway around the island, and you can walk all the way along until you get to the bit that is attached to the castle area, which is privately owned by John Lewis. The whole thing is about a mile and a half to walk from one end to the other.

Sand, shells, clay, old bits of pipe, seaweed, lots of things to see and play with and get messy.

Among the things we saw we a whole lot of jellyfish.

A Day at Brownsea Island National Trust

They were massive, and there were loads of them. And yes, they were dead. I’ve got no idea why there were so many washed up. They were obviously pretty fresh though. The tide was out, so I assume they had been beached very recently.

So, interesting but kind of yucky. I looked them up, and apparently these are called Barrel Jellyfish or Dustbin Lid Jellyfish (seriously) and they are considered harmless to people. But as a general rule, it’s best not to mess with jellysfish, because some can still sting even after they’re dead.

When you’ve had enough of the beach, it’s a bit of a climb back up to the woods.

A Day at Brownsea Island National Trust

There are a few paths and staircases, though some are unsafe and have been closed. You might have a bit of a walk to get to one that’s open. You could try to scramble up, but I wouldn’t recommend it. You can see where there has been a fair amount of erosion, and you wouldn’t want to slip and land back on the rocks.

If you have tiny ones, keep a sharp eye on them around the edges. There are various viewing points around the edges of the island, but it is a wild environment, so be smart and don’t let kids loose too close to the edge.

Follow the path back towards the entrance and you’ll come to the Visitor Centre. This is another good place to take a little break.

A Day at Brownsea Island National Trust

You’ve got some nice displays giving you the history of the island, along with a few artifacts.

For the kids, you’ve got colouring, and some hands-on nature stuff to look at such as pine cones and skulls.

A Day at Brownsea Island National Trust

There’s also the opportunity for a little dress-up!

When you’ve caught your breath, it’s a short stroll back to the entrance for a well-earned cup of tea and possibly a cake.

A Day at Brownsea Island National Trust

The café is nice, as are most National Trust cafés. Home made cakes, ice creams, and if you’re early enough, warming soups and baked potatoes.

It’s not exactly cheap, but the quality of the food and drinks is always pretty good.

A Day at Brownsea Island National Trust

There are plenty of tables and chairs, with a lovely view out to the mainland. The big windows make it nice and bright, even on a grey day. There’s even a terrace with outside seating, which would be gorgeous in the sunshine.

Before you can get out to the jetty to pick up the ferry you are funneled through the shop. It’s a cunning ruse to encourage you to buy the usual National Trust things like floral tea towels, overpriced jam, scarves that only a certain type of  middle-aged woman wears, plus the kind of toys children desperately want and then forget about after they’ve had them for ten minutes.

Exiting onto the jetty, the ferries that return you to the mainland run every 30 minutes.

Remember there are two ferries, one to Poole and one to Sandbanks, so make sure you get on the correct one! 

Then it’s another short boat ride, and off you go to the car.

Conveniently, there are public loos very close to the Sandbanks jetty (and probably at Poole as well) so you can make the essential pre-car-journey pit stop.


So, it was a lovely day!

We didn’t spot the famous red squirrels, but we did see a sika deer, which also live on the island.

A Day at Brownsea Island National Trust

This guy (gal?) was grazing quite happily on the grass near the church, though he didn’t like us getting too close.

Trees were climbed, jumped, and balanced on, rocks and shells were collected, jellyfish were grimaced at, clay was squidged.

Ice cream was eaten (Little C) and coffee was drunk (me) and picnic was consumed.

I do have one reservation about Brownsea Island. Not about the island itself, which is beautiful, but about the cost of visiting.

National Trust membership is really good for families, as it gives you more or less unlimited free access to lovely houses and gardens for a pretty reasonable amount of money. Apart from travel costs, you don’t have to pay anything. Use your card regularly and you get fantastic value, particularly at school holidays.

Brownsea Island, on the other hand, requires a fair amount of extra outlay. Parking for 4+ hours (which you need) costs £10, plus £12 for just the two of us to ride the ferry. So that’s £22 on top of normal travel costs. It means Brownsea is not the usual cheap National Trust day out, so bear this in mind.

On the other hand, it is a lot of fun, and while it’s unlikely to become a regular haunt (a pity, as I’d go back regularly if I could afford it!) it is worth it for a special day out.

I also really want to spend the night in one of those cottages.

Despite the rain and the wind and the, er, dead jellyfish, Brownsea Island is a beautiful place to get your Famous Five vibe going, and spend a day playing on a real island!


Thanks for reading! Feel free to pin this for later. Leave a comment, and let me know what you think of Brownsea or the National Trust in general!

Visiting Brownsea Island National Trust Dorset Days Out

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