Bournemouth sprang into existence from almost nothing to create the archetypal British seaside resort. In less than fifty years a small hamlet with a population of 695 (in 1851) was transformed into a town of almost 60,000, and all thanks to the Victorians and their passion for the seaside. The arrival of the railway in 1870 was a significant contribution to this growth, and subsequent development was almost entirely devoted to the tourism and leisure industries. The first Winter Gardens were built in 1875, and apart from a short period as an indoor bowling green, continued to provide a music venue for the town for decades to come. In 1929 the Duke of Gloucester opened the Pavilion. Initially just a large concert hall, the building was later transformed into a theatre. It has been altered several times since and was awarded Grade II listing status in 1998.
Even royalty caught the seaside bug. In 1877 the Prince of Wales (later to become Edward VII) had a house built for himself and his mistress, the renowned Lillie Langtry. This still lives on as the Langtry Manor Hotel. The resort gained a reputation as a spa resort, thanks to a combination of the clear water of the stream running the length of the Bourne Valley, and the fresh clean air of the pine forests that flanked it on either side. The first hotel to offer spa facilities was the Mont Dore (built 1885), and before long most of the hotels that were springing up in the town and along the cliff tops were offering similar amenities. Today, at the heart of the town the Bourne still runs through beautifully landscaped, and carefully tended public parks - the Upper Gardens and Lower Gardens.
Bournemouth is sometimes dubbed the English Riviera because of its temperate climate. It is positioned in the centre of a half-moon bay and benefits from the protection of the Isle of Purbeck (not actually an island) and the Isle of Wight. With seven miles of beautiful sandy beaches, it is easy to forget you are still in Dear Old England, and not a more exotic location in the Mediterranean.
A true seaside town is not complete without a pier. Bournemouth's has a somewhat chequered history however. The first attempt was a wooden jetty, completed in 1856. It was much shorter than a traditional pier, but the town elders saw the potential, and work soon started on a grander and more permanent project. This was opened just five years later, and received the honour of a full launch ceremony (including a 21 gun salute). The problem was, the pier was still made of wood, and in spite of having the piles later replaced by cast iron versions, it succumbed to rot and the ravages of the sea, and a large part of it was swept away just six years after its opening. Major repairs were made, and the pier continued to be used until its replacement by yet another, temporary, construction in 1877. The basis of today's structure was opened in 1880. Since then it has undergone several major refurbishments, two extensions, and has suffered the ignominy of being partially dismantled by the British Army in 1940 as a precaution against invading German armies. The Pier Theatre was added in 1960.
Naturally, Bournemouth is very proud of its heritage, but at the same time, prides itself on being a modern cosmopolitan town. New constructions such as the Bournemouth International Centre (BIC) maintain a fresh face for the town. This imposing building stands proudly in the heart of the town, and caters for everything from birthday parties to party conferences. Away from the seafront there is a wealth of bars and clubs to be found, and a nightlife scene to rival any similarly sized resort. There is also a wide variety of shops and cafes, both traditional and modern. It is this eclectic mix of old and new; a town embracing the modern world, but with an acknowledgement of its traditions and respect for its roots; that gives Bournemouth its unique position as one of the finest seaside towns in the country.