Tea Gardens & Tolstoy, at Tuckton in Dorset
Along the river Stour estuary in Dorset, it’s not unusual to see a flurry of activity at any given time.
It could be a synchronicity of oars from Christchurch Rowing Club on a Saturday morning, or a chorus of quacks and cackles from a medley of local wildfowl at Stanpit Marsh at sundown. Or perhaps ramblers taking in the views from the Stour Valley Way, the long-distance footpath that runs along almost all the river’s course.
I’ve driven around this area for a few years now, and thought I was reasonably familiar with what this lovely part of the south has to offer.
But one scorching spring day last year, I decided to explore some of the little lanes on the riverside edge of the village of Tuckton, adjacent to Christchurch, where I discovered a cluster of waterside activities, a quaint little eatery and, via the wonders of the internet later that evening, a ‘novel’ nugget of history.
Tuckton Tea Gardens
Set down a small grass bank from the roadside, among pretty lawns and rose trellises, lies the Tuckton Tea Gardens café. Housed in a green wooden building to blend with its garden surroundings, the café provides hot and cold light snacks, including soups and cakes and no less than 14 varieties of the local speciality, New Forest ice cream. I’d had no idea of its existence, but I now know it’s a popular gathering spot for a bite to eat before a leisurely stroll or as a respite after a more energetic hike or cycle ride – so be prepared for it to be busy at the height of the summer season.
There are nice views across the river, which, on a day like this, can be enjoyed even more from the alfresco seating outside the café. As I walked on towards the riverbank I was met by a series of classic leisure-time scenes; dogs splashing about retrieving tennis balls from the river, kids running around on the grass squealing, couples nuzzling up against each other, teenagers huddled in small groups around their bicycles and multiple generations of families enjoying a picnic together (well, mainly enjoying, there was a small squabble over the ketchup).
On Water and Land
Along the riverside, pleasure boats bobbed languidly on their moorings and small transfer ferries splut-splut-spluttered their human cargo along from point A to B. Self-drive motor boats and rowing boats are available for hire on an hourly basis – a great way to explore some of the riverside nooks you won’t get to see from the ferry. At £20 for half-hour in a motorboat holding up to 8 people, it’s hard to think of a reason not to try it (but I’d probably want someone with me with a little experience of this type of thing as I’m not very water-savvy).
The café itself offers barbeque river cruises during the summer months, which consists of an hour’s cruise along the Stour followed by a barbecue buffet (£20 adults, £13 U-12yrs – see Headland Pal boat above, one of four)
Full information on the waterside options can be found here. If you feel more comfortable with your feet firmly on the ground, keep walking eastwards and a footpath set slightly back will lead you cross-country over open marshland and onto Hengistbury Head, a mile away. The footpath is one of the final stretches of the Stour Valley Way.
It had been a treat to discover this low-profile and tranquil little enclave, but more surprises were to come after the event, when I got home and researched the Tuckton area online.
The original hamlet goes back as far as the 13th century, and it remained in the tithing (an old English territorial division) of Tuckton and Wick until it was eventually absorbed into the borough of Bournemouth in 1901. An unremarkable fact, perhaps, but I was then shocked and bemused to discover an unexpected connection to one of the most revered authors of all time…
For those who don’t know, Russian writer Leo Tolstoy is widely regarded as a literary giant and a master in the style of realism. He’s the author of Anna Karenina, the saga of social morality within 19th century Russian aristocracy, and the megalithic War and Peace, his masterpiece about the impact of the French invasion of Russia in 1812 across the social spectrum.
Literary Realism – where the trials of life are depicted as a backdrop to social commentary, in contrast to the heartswell of powerful emotions typical of Romantic literature. Basically, the nitty-gritty as opposed to hearts ‘n’ roses. Images above: Tolstoy in his office, by Tschaff, War & Peace by smlp.co.uk and Anna Karenina film poster by Susanlenox
Many of the ideas expressed through these, his most famous works, were further explored in his later life, as he became increasingly immersed in developing his ethical and spiritual belief systems. His non-fiction book ‘The Kingdom of God is Within You’ is acknowledged to have strongly influenced Gandhi’s approach of non-violent resistance.
But what has this to do with Tuckton?
In 1897, Tolstoy’s literary agent Vladimir Chertkov, who was a staunch advocate of Tolstoy’s beliefs and moral views, was exiled from Russia, along with several other Tolstoyans. After a period of time in Essex, they moved to what was then Tuckton House (in Saxonbury Road), setting up the publishing company Free Age Press, to print and distribute English versions of Tolstoy’s works.
Above: Vladimir Chertkov (image by Art Gallery ErgsArt) and modern-day Tuckton
After the Tsar issued an amnesty in 1908, Chertkov and most of the other members of the Tolstoy Colony (as it was known) returned to Russia. Sadly, Tuckton House is no more – it became a nursing home in 1929 and was demolished in 1965. Today, the site is taken up by standard residential housing – there’s no marker or plaque to denote this peculiar and intriguing point in history, which is a shame.
And so what began as a simple little detour into the unknown turned out to be an unusual journey of discovery I hadn’t bargained on.
What else to see and do around Tuckton
Tuckton literally backs onto the edge of the popular town of Christchurch, known for its famous Priory and Norman castle ruins.
Around the corner lies the famous natural landmark of Hengistbury Head, with its Nature Reserve, walking/cycle paths and Visitor Centre. A land train connects it with nearby Mudeford Sandspit, and there are ferries across to Christchurch.
The boho boutiques and bistros of the suburb of Southbourne are less than a mile away and the well-to-do resort of Bournemouth itself just 15 minutes further west.
Note: Tuckton Tea Rooms are closed each January