Dorset's largest town and industrial centre is the old port of Poole, which boasts one of the largest natural harbours in the world. The River Frome flows into the western end of the harbour. Most of the historic old town is clustered around the harbour area.
The natural harbour was formed around 7000 years ago at the end of the last Ice Age. Archaeological evidence indicates that sea levels have risen considerably over the years, so evidence of the earliest settlements is not easy to come by. The earliest artefact found is the Poole Logboat, a piece of oak dating from the 3rd century BC.
It is believed that the Roman invasion passed through Poole and it is also thought that there may have been a small Norman settlement here. By the early 15th century, Poole became Dorset’s Port of the Staple and there were trading links with various ports in Europe. The town was thriving by the time of Elizabeth I, when it was given county status which it kept until the 19th century. By the 18th century, Poole was the main port for trade with North America.
The main quay is very busy with a mixture of crafts including fishing boats, yachts, powerboats and pleasure cruisers. Many waterside attractions include working potteries, where it is possible to throw your own pot. There is also an aquarium, a waterfront museum and a model railway in addition to numerous gift shops, cafés, restaurants and bars. It also become a popular area for living with many upmarket residential developments overlooking the waterfront.
Today Poole has a thriving town centre with both chain stores and smaller individual shops. There are still a few quaint old cobbled streets and the long High Street is pedestrianised. Both the 18th century Guildhall and a medieval merchant’s house are museums. Inside the large undercover Dolphin Shopping Centre is the bus station and the railway station is also close to the town centre.
Poole holds International Blue Flags for its beaches, which are cleaned and raked regularly during the season. There are dog free zones and various activity areas for water sports and swimming. The two main beaches are Sandbanks and Canford Cliffs.
Sandbanks Beach has over three miles of golden sand on a stretch of naturally lovely coastline. Deckchair and windbreak hire is available here and at Branksome Chine. Canford Cliffs Beach has a steep sandy cliff face which is a haven for wildlife. There are first aid facilities here in addition to toilets and a refreshment kiosk Lifeguards operate on both beaches from the beginning of May until the end September each year. Dogs are banned from the main beaches during these months.
Together with neighbouring Bournemouth, Poole is still a working port town, with ship yards and regular cross channel ferry services to France and the Channel Islands. There are boat trips around Poole harbour, along the coast and to Brownsea Island. It is even possible to go as far as the Isle of Wight. There is also a ferry from Sandbanks across to Studland Bay, near Swanage and a chain ferry to the Isle of Purbeck. Brownsea Island is owned by the National Trust and is one of five islands in Poole Harbour. It is home to the endangered red squirrel.
Other local attractions include the Italian and Japanese gardens at Compton Acres. These boast a deer sanctuary and have marvellous views over Poole Harbour. There are award winning gardens in Poole Park, which also offers a miniature railway, indoor and outdoor playgrounds for children and a café.
The large leisure complex at Tower Park has a ten screen cinema and there are numerous other entertainment venues in and around Poole. There are also facilities not only for water sports by for various other activities including golf and tennis. In addition to all this, there are spectacular firework displays throughout the summer.