The Dorset Lakes of Poole Harbour

26 August, 2019 | Of Local Interest

by Harry Alexander, Chair of DLRA

The term ‘Dorset Lakes’ is relatively synonymous with the name of Poole Harbour: this apparently became a very popular alternative during the Romantic Movement towards the turn of the Century, which then carried over into the Edwardian period. Locally, there had been naming of several areas associated with name of Branksome viz from a poem ‘Branksome Hall’, within a novel by the romanticist Sir Walter Scott.

Travelling to this part of the country was either by the railway or by motor transport, with many tourists enjoying charabanc rides to Dorset’s ancient ruins of Corfe Castle, and the picturesque villages with their cottages made of flints & with thatched roofs; accompanied by their Ward-Locke Pocket Books, Tour Guides, and picture postcards! There were popular tourist routes to our beaches, bays and coves especially throughout The Purbecks, where a glorious viewpoint on the road to Studland from Corfe Castle, provided a stopping place for charabancs, with a panoramic sweep of Poole Harbour.

Today, this ‘pull-in’ which is invariably busy – is shared with the ice-cream seller’s van. The Harbour reflects the beautiful formations of clouds & the changes in the weather. Its waters also change with shifts in the direction & speed of the wind, and the tides! This can often be a dramatic & quickly-changing scene, and the individual depths can be identified by the various onlookers, within the far stretches laid out below with the maze of channels, inlets, Poole Harbour’s low cliffs, marshes, mudflats and sandbars…  

Within these waters the numerous large pools at low tide retain deeper colours even with a receding tide when compared with their surroundings, some of which dry-out. Easily recognisable as being like a ‘lakeland spanse’ connected by narrow waterways! Herein lies the likely origin of the term of Dorset Lakes which well-describes the scene. If the sea-level dropped, what might remain would be the Channels and Dorset Lakes.   

From the populous side of Poole Harbour, Evening Hill has a comparable perspective/ slightly less expansive view that nevertheless resulted in the name of Dorset Lake Avenue, with its art deco seaside villas stretching towards the Salterns area and Lilliput Parade. This gave rise to Poole’s oldest organisation for local people – formed as early as 1925, i.e. Dorset Lake Residents Association (DLRA) covering the hinterland of our shoreline.

Again, another view exists over at Hamworthy Common with its near-neighbourhood of Lake:  Lake Shore & Lake Estate; and Dorset Lake Shipyard that is now the Lake Yard. Five of the Harbour’s largest Lakes can be seen from Hamworthy Common vantage point, as well as various other features of the vast tract of our world-famous natural harbour, with its Wareham Channel leading to the quieter waters of Lychett Bay & Holton Mere. Likewise, out from our Evening Hill there is Parkstone Bay, the Blue Lagoon & Salterns…

These types provide a perceptible contrast to the notion of the numerous Dorset LakesFor a Bay is a concave sweep of shore with its high & low watermarks, and a strandline, whereas a Mere is dominated by marshlands/mudflats which are inundated at high tide. Again, there are similar Salterns dotted around the Harbour, which once provided beds exposed at low tide, trapping the seawater that when evaporated leaves its salt-residue, that at in old times were worked as a commercial, valuable enterprise of salt production. The Lagoon is an inlet protected by a natural peninsula or in our case a man-made mole.

In some instances, due mainly to the vagaries of early map-making, some elements are interchangeable – esp. our local board-sailors paradise of Whitley Bay, aka Whitley LakeAlso, mistakes in naming can be perpetuated over the years, with Poole’s prime example of today’s Holes Bay which should be Longfleet Bay: The Holes element was originally the reference to many caves in the low-cliff-face at Whitecliff that through error was switched with the long fleet, which extends from Old Poole past Pergins Island, as far as Creekmoor (fleet = long inlet with mudflats)… With its corrupted name, Poole’s Longfleet Bay was later truncated by the railway to be Poole Park Lake, that has assumed a more usual definition!

With a different emphasis/meaning of Lake our Dorset Lakes (aka Poole Harbour’s Lakes) describes the identifiable feature of areas of the Harbour’s waters set back from channels that do not dry out at low tide, vary considerably in size, and are relatively different from other recognisable parts of the tract with exposed marshes, mudflats, sandbars & the like. There is somewhat of a symbiosis with Dorset’s countryside that is variously likened to a patchwork quilt or jigsaw, even stately-homes with interlocking patterns of rooms/pieces: So that as you pass from an integral place to another, there is a distinct change in scenery.

To fishermen/anglers, pleasure/leisure boat captains alike and sailors, those distinct parts are complemented by the position of the Harbour’s islands, and chalk hills of the Purbecks which can funnel or deflect prevailing winds and also cause sudden gusts to catch you out. These winds often present interesting challenges to a multitude of dinghy & board sailors!

Away from the busier channels, mud, marsh and gravelled shores, our Lakes variously offer less crowded, gentler, quieter, relatively safer, shallower parts – with such evocative namesThe origin of the names of our Lakes is often intriguing and obscured by the passage of time: The Dorset dialect name Wych is usually linked with a dairy farm, but likely not Wych Lake (though there is a local Wych Farm). Wych possibly arises from bends in the Wych Channel  likened to bendy qualities of wych/witch elms that are abundant along adjacent shorelines. North Haven & South Haven Lakes are self-explanatory being north & south of the Haven. Other names are likely associated with or related to special local profiles – Goathorn Lakeor distinctive man-made features e.g. Summerhouse Lake; and even activities – Target LakeWhiteground Lake has a bottom of fine particles of white sand, whilst Blood Alley Lake has twin narrow entrances and tight-angled turns, flanked by a Brownsea shoreline of dumped reddish pottery shards, with a channel marked by poles, commanding a cautious approach.  

On an opposite side of the Wareham Channel to the Lake area (Hamworthy), extending to Arne Bay lies Balls Lake, which likely owes its name to small ‘lumps of clay’, that are rolled by the tides (4-a-day) and posited alongside the stronger waters of a network of channels. Once, these were scooped-up & collected together as a worthwhile, supplementary cargo, whereas today the locality is covered by the bountiful and prized beds of cultivated oysters.

There are also the wonderfully named Earwig Lake, Stone Island Lake, and more to discover.

How many can you find?

The Dorset Lakes of Poole Harbour map by Aimee

Download our WW2 Chart highlighting the Lake Names… with some additions (pdf, 1Mb file size)

Harbour photo courtesy of Michael Harpur at