It is easy to see why iron-age people selected Hengistbury Head as the site for a fort. It forms a promontory jutting dramatically out into the English Channel and is topped by a hill providing 360-degree views over the surrounding heathland and water. It has been a special place throughout history, with evidence of it having been occupied in the stone age and used for bronze age burials before being developed into a fortified settlement in the iron-age. It is now perfect for a walk to enjoy the views and learn about history and ecology.
There is a large car park at the end of Broadway, at Bournemouth's eastern extent. From here you can select which of the paths through the wide variety of habitats appeals. Follow the well-maintained path to the top of Warren Hill for the best views, including Christchurch Harbour and the ghostly white chalk cliffs of the Needles at the western end of the Isle of Wight looming 8 miles out to sea.
It is not only a special place for history and archaeology, but for nature too. A walk around the network of paths around the headland takes you through open heathland and dark woodland, past reedbeds and saltmarshes and over dunes. The variety of habitats means that there are the perfect conditions for a wide range of vegetation and this small area hosts 500 plant species, which is a quarter of all Britain's plant species. Visit on a spring evening and you might hear the mating calls of the UK's rarest amphibian. Natterjack toads gather around their pond to call, creating a distinctive chorus, audible for up to a mile.
Descending the hill, you can continue the walk along the sandy spit that extends northwards across the entrance to Christchurch Harbour. Only a hundred metres wide and surrounded by water on both sides, this beach is dotted with hundreds of cheery wooden beach huts. These are equipped for overnight stays although have no running water, so toilets and showers are in communal blocks. They are privately owned but some are available for rental from the owners between March and October.
Take your binoculars; the location makes Hengistbury Head an important touching down point for migrating birds in need of a rest. In total over 300 species visit or live here. Follow the paths skirting the wetlands inside the harbour to spot wading birds such as oystercatchers and redshanks.
At the end of the spit, you reach the mouth of the River Stour and River Avon. It is possible to catch a ferry from here to Mudeford Quay and the sandy beaches to the east. Cars are banned from the spit, but if you are heading back and you are already tired, you can hop on the land train at the Mudeford Spit terminus, and it will whisk you back to the car park in style.
There is a free Visitor Centre on the track back to the car park, which has a wealth of information about the archaeology, geology and ecology of the area, and a selection of drinks and ice cream for sale.
Back at the car park, the Hiker Café offers a final opportunity for refreshment. Be on guard though, some of those birds that call Hengistbury Head home are after your lunch. Starlings with pointy beaks and no fear hop around on the grass waiting for a chance to jump onto a table and help themselves to leftovers.