Part of Town Common SSSI, this highly protected area of heathland and coniferous woodland provides commanding views over the entire borough.
St Catherine's Hill is a 35 hectare area of heathland and coniferous forest.
It is located to the north of Christchurch and is bordered by Town
Common Nature Reserve and the Wessex Way (A338). The Hill is home
to a large number of important wildlife species including the Dartford
Warbler and the Sand Lizard and is designated as a SSSI, RAMSAR, cSAC
and SPA. The site forms part of a larger area of sensitive heathland that
is jointly managed for nature conservation by Christchurch Countryside
Service, RSPB, Dorset Wildlife Trust and The Herpetological Conservation
Other parties involved include the Hardy's Egdon Heath Project, a Heritage
Lottery funded organisation who contribute towards management works such
as tree thinning and rhododendron removal and the Urban Heaths LIFE Project
who provide supplementary wardens for the site over the summer months.
At 163ft (53 metres) above sea level. St Catherine's Hill is the highest
area of Christchurch and also boasts some of the most spectacular views.
Because of its commanding views of the surrounding area, St Catherine's
Hill has most likely been used as a look-out and beacon since prehistoric
times. Eleven tumuli or barrows surround the ridges as monuments to the
succeeding Bronze age settlers and Iron Age farmers may have built the
enclosure just to the south west of the radio mast. In the medieval period
it was called Rishton Hill, taking its name from the village that stood
where Hurn Road is today. A chapel to St Catherine was built on the hill
and was undoubtedly used by the villagers until its destruction in the
The Chapel site might originally have been a
Roman Signal Station and was certainly used as a beacon from medieval times
until the Napoleonic Wars; to be lit a the first sign of invasion, alerting
inland beacons at Burley and Malwood. The Hill has also been used as a military
training ground. In the last century the Royal Horse Artillery and Dragoons
from Christchurch Barracks exercised here and it served again in both World
Wars for practice in trench warfare and as a grenade throwing range.
There are several rare and protected species present on the hill. These
include the sand lizard, Dartford warbler, Nightjar and smooth
snake. The viability of these species all depend on the habitats provided
for them by open heathland and are threatened mainly due to the loss of
such habitats across the UK.
Over the last 200 years, Dorset heathlands have been built over, ploughed
up and planted with conifers to such an extent that the area would now
be almost totally unrecognisable to one of it's 18th century inhabitants.
The earliest maps to record the extent of the heathland were made in the
mid 18th century and show the heathland stretching continuously from the
Purbeck Hills to the River Avon, broken only by the valleys of the Rivers
Frome, Piddle and Stour.
It has been estimated that this expanse of heathland (about 100,000 acres)
had changed little since the bronze age. Factors such as agriculture, forestry
and urbanisation had begun to change the heath by as early as 1811. An
Ordinance Survey at this time revealed that 25% of the heath from 1760
had already been lost. An intensification of these same factors meant that
by 1960 only a quarter of the original heathland area remained.
The factors that brought about the loss of so much of Dorset's heathland
over the last few hundred years continue to threaten the area. Some of
the greatest threats to the St Catherine's Hill heathland today come from
the spreading of invasive species across the site. Rhododendron aggressively
shades out native heathland species and also changes the soil composition
to prevent other plants from growing.
Scot's Pine and Maritime Pine were introduced to Dorset heathlands for
forestry as early as 1783. More pines have been planted since then throughout
the region as they are the only successful heathland forestry crop. Since
1984 it has the policy of Christchurch Borough Council to remove these
three species, along with birch, by selectively thinning across St Catherine's
Hill. Incredibly, between 1961 and 1997, tree cover increased on the site
from 25% to 75%. It is now our aim to gradually restore the
level of heathland cover of the hill.
Legend maintains that during the Saxon period, monks planned to build a
Priory on the summit of St. Catherine's Hill. Twice the monks laboured
all day to carry building stone to the summit only to find that the stones
had been moved, during the night, down to the land between the Avon and
Stour Rivers. On the third night one of the monks had a dream in which
he was instructed to build in the valley bottom. On finding the stone again
by the river, building was begun on the present site of Christchurch Priory.