[Updated July 2021]
Now that summer is here, and going abroad has its challenges, many of us are heading off on a staycation or thinking about planning an autumn break in the UK. Some of our favourite places to visit are in Dorset. We’ve visited many times and I’d like to share with you some free and cheap things to do in Mudeford and Christchurch.
We’ve had a few lovely weekends in Mudeford, venturing out to Christchurch, Highcliffe and nearby Poole and Bournemouth. We tend to spend a bit more on accommodation and balance the cost out with free and cheap activities, whilst still supporting the local economy by eating out.
Here are some of the things that we have enjoyed, along with our recommended places to eat. You will also find a link to the review of a 5 star Bed and Breakfast in Mudeford.
I hope you’ll find this information useful if you’re starting to plan a staycation in Dorset this or summer or autumn.
Free & Cheap Things to Do in Mudeford & Christchurch
Avon Beach is 2 miles long from the quay to the end of the beach. Having come here as a child and again when my kids were small, it is lovely to see that some places don’t change a bit in 40 years. Even the Ice Cream Parlour still selling the rum n raisin ice cream that I had as a child (which always made me feel very grown up as a 10-year-old).
The beach is a mix of sand and stone with a boardwalk and beach huts running along much of it. The sea attracts many windsurfers but it is still ok for paddling. It’s great at low tide as you can walk out to the sandbanks.
There are a couple of cafes, a gift shop, a fish & chip takeaway, the Ice Cream Parlour and toilets. It does get busy at this end of the beach, but there’s plenty of space if you walk a bit further along.
Mudeford Quay is famous for crabbing. You can purchase bait and fishing accessories here and join many other families competing over how many they catch. You can now buy bait with pouches rather than hooks which I’m very pleased about. BE WARNED – the water here is deep with very strong currents.
There are a couple of eateries on the quay (see my recommendations below), the RNLI centre, a fresh fish shop and the ferry to Mudeford Beach. The quay car park is £1.70 an hour, with 2 other car parks nearby at either end of Avon Beach.
From the quay you can catch the Mudeford ferry across the short stretch of water to Mudeford Beach, which is a peninsula boasting the country’s most expensive beach huts. Can you believe they sell for up to £300,000 and have no running water or electricity – yes seriously!
Mudeford Beach has a café, a gorgeous soft sandy beach on one side and the harbour on the other.
Hengistbury Head, Dorset
If you want to do more than enjoy the beach, you can walk one of two routes across Hengistbury Head Nature Reserve. Alternatively get a ferry from here to Christchurch or take the land train.
We have walked both routes – the flatter harbour side is marsh land where you can see water birds, plants and boats; and the more strenuous route takes you up over the cliff tops. This has an abundance of wild flowers and shrubland and beautiful views over the sea. Even with cloud you may still be treated to stunning 360 degree views of the Spit, Isle of Wight, Bournemouth and Christchurch.
Hengistbury Head is also the breeding ground for the natterjack toad, one of Britain’s rarest creatures. Keep an ear out for their raspy cry as they try to attract a mate in spring. These noisy critters can be heard a mile away!
At the bottom of the trail is the thatch-roofed Hengistbury Head Visitor Centre which is well worth stopping at for half an hour. There are lots of interactive displays with film clips and artifacts to look at, a cute gift shop and the most gorgeous English country garden complete with a beehive, pond, chamomile lawn and carved wooden seating. In fact, you’ll find many beautiful carved benches along the entire walk to Christchurch. It is free entry to the centre, although donations are welcome.
We like to carry on walking towards Christchurch, using the Priory in the distance to keep our bearings. If you want to try this route, walk past the land train station, adjacent to the golf course, and then through the lower nature reserve until you come to Wick. Here you can get another ferry across the water or continue to walk to Tuckton Tea Gardens where you can stop off for tea and cakes, before a walk over the bridge into Christchurch.
Once in Christchurch, spend some time along the quayside. There’s a lovely green perfect for picnics with a children’s splash park and playground and places to hire boats. You’ll find masses of ducks, swans and other water birds here so take some spare bread if you have some. They always seem very grateful.
Christchurch town is steeped in history. There’s a famous dunking stool dating back to the 14th century, and an old water mill that is mentioned in the Doomsday Book. The mill is one of 19 blue plaque sites in Christchurch – you can get free directions for a walking tour of the blue plaques from Dorset Life. Other treasure hunt trails are also available at a cost.
Christchurch Priory dates back to the 11th century and is free to enter, though do check the service times. It’s well worth a look if you like old architecture.
If art is your thing, Christchurch town has several gallery shops for your viewing pleasure. For those of you who like to shop on a budget, there are at least 10 charity shops in the High Street, and a market on Mondays.
After you have finished enjoying Christchurch, you will have covered a fair few miles and may like to make your return journey to Mudeford by ferry. There are two companies: United Ferries by the main quay which takes 25 mins back to Mudeford Beach or Wick Ferries which is a bit further back along the water. Wick Ferries have the option of a direct sail or a longer one via Tuckton for the same price. It is a pleasant trip back and interesting to see Hengistbury Head and surrounding areas from the water.
Please do check operating hours before planning your day. We travelled mid July this year and found that none were running, possibly due to lockdown restrictions. We ended up getting the X1/X2 bus back to Mudeford.
A different view of the area can be seen from the other side of the harbour with a walk around Stanpit Marsh. You can park at Mudeford Recreation Ground free, walk to the left of the Scout Hut and follow the big loop around back to the car park.
This is a 30-40 minute walk with constantly changing scenery, from a country footpath to open shrub land to marshes with views of Mudeford Beach, Hengistbury Head and Christchurch. There are lots of species of birds, wild plant life and horses to be seen. A great spot for photography and in some areas picnics. There is also a small Visitor Centre.
TOP TIP: Do wear insect repellent.
If you’re staying in Mudeford or Christchurch, you can also go exploring in the opposite direction to include Highcliffe and Milford-on-Sea.
Highcliffe Castle is a stunning 18th century Grade 1 listed building. It does have a small admission fee, but you can enter the grounds and gardens for free. The outside of the building has stunning architecture and worth a look around even if you don’t go in.
There is currently an outdoor art gallery throughout the gardens showing some amazing photography pieces. Special events are held throughout summer including an outdoor theatre, and of course, you can also stop off at the on-site Highcliffe Tea Rooms for a sweet treat or snack.
Leading off from Highcliffe Castle is Steamer Point Nature Reserve which offers the chance to have clifftop and inland walks in the shade, again this is free to enter. It’s perfect for a picnic or just to shelter from the sun. This can be accessed from the beach or the road.
On our last visit to Mudeford, we stopped off at Milford-On-Sea which is located just outside the New Forest. We were expecting to just find a stony beach, but were pleasantly surprised to spot a lighthouse and castle in the distance. Hurst Castle was built by Henry the VIII, and used as an artillery fortress and prison – with Charles 1 being one of its infamous inmates! Hurst Point Lighthouse is located a bit further up on the spit to guide vessels through the Solent.
This beach also offers great views of the Isle of Wight Needles, and you can catch a ferry from nearby Lymington to the Isle of Wight if you fancied a day trip.
There are plenty more nearby places with free attractions such as The New Forest, Burley, Bolderwood, Bournemouth, Boscombe and Poole. These will be covered in other posts.
Where to eat in Mudeford & Highcliffe
Whilst you’re enjoying your free or budget day out, you’re going to need to eat. If you are staying in a self catering caravan or holiday home, you could always prepare a picnic if you’re trying to be mindful of cost. There are plenty of supermarkets nearby for supplies.
It’s nice to give back to the local economy though, and there are an abundance of independently owned cafes and restaurants around Highcliffe, Mudeford and Christchurch. Here are a few takeaways and eateries that you might want to explore.
Lees at China takeaway, Mudeford
Delicious Chinese food can be ordered in shop or online for collection or free delivery. We had it delivered to our B and B within 40 mins. It cost around £20 for duck pancakes, chicken chow mein, and large chicken fried rice. They provide a good service and we would use them again.
The Haven House Inn, Mudeford Quay
Situated on the quayside, this pub offers the usual home cooked food at normal pub prices (£30 for 2 meals and drinks). We had rib eye steak and steak and ale pie. Both were delicious with very good size portions. As I didn’t want peas, I was offered a side salad at no extra cost. There is seating inside and outside (dogs allowed inside but children aren’t). We highly recommend The Haven House Inn. There is also an adjoining cafe, but we didn’t eat there.
The Globe at Highcliffe
We have eaten here so many times now after discovering their Sunday Roasts for only £8.99. You get massive portions of good quality food with unlimited yorkshire puddings and roast potatoes. They also serve traditional pub style meals all day throughout the week, and have early bird offers at selected times. We can also recommend the smothered chicken, mixed grill and ribs. Good serving staff too.
Where to eat in Christchurch
Ye Olde George Inn, Christchurch
We ate here for Sunday Roast on another occasion and both the beef and turkey roasts were amazing at around £10 each. They were hot, tasty, and despite looking small initially, were more than enough. Indoor and outdoor seating is available here.
I previously recommended Indulge Yourself, an eat-in and takeaway tea and cake shop. I’m gutted to see that it has now closed. It did the best carrot cake, cookie & cream cheesecake, milkshake and tea. I wonder if they were another victim of lockdown.
You can see lots more photos from around Mudeford and Christchurch on my Facebook.
Where to Stay in Mudeford:
If you are looking for somewhere to stay, read my review for Bure Lodge B & B Mudeford. I can highly recommend it.
If you have any other recommendations of local attractions or more free and cheap things to do in and around Mudeford and Christchurch, please comment below.