THE new visitors' centre at Hengistbury Head welcomed the public through its doors for the first time today.

Based in the thatched barn near the Iron Age double dykes at the main entrance to the headland, the £1 million centre was opened by Bournemouth mayor Rod Cooper, and visitors were invited to take a look around.

Boasting an array of exhibitions and interactive exhibits, as well as cameras set up to track the peninsula's many bird species, the centre proved a hit among its first visitors.

Leia Gale, 35, was visiting from Castlepoint with her six-year-old son Harrison. She said: “It is very nice to have it here. I have been coming here since I was in school, and it is great to discover more about the history of the area.”

With her was Nicky Ealing, 37, from Southbourne, and youngsters Tom, eight, and Joseph, five. Nicky said: “The kids loved all the interactive exhibits, it is good for them to learn a bit more about what happened here.”

Chiefly funded with a Heritage Lottery Fund grant of £460,000, and with £300,000 from local firm Canford Environmental, the centre contains information and artefacts covering the history of the area from prehistory, through the Iron Age and up to the present day.

It will be partially powered by solar and photo-voltaic panels installed by the Warmer Home Group.

Partnerships have been established with Brockenhurst College, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Russell Cotes Museum and the University of Oxford.

Although the centre will be open to the public over Christmas it will close again briefly early next year for the final work to be carried out, including laying a garden and fitting out the gift shop.

Bournemouth Council parks director Gary Josey said: “Although the centre is not quite finished yet we wanted to open in time for Christmas, and we would appreciate any feedback for when we resume work next year.

“Thanks to the fantastic work of Mark Holloway and Stuart Clarke from the parks team the centre is now here and will help us to preserve this important environment by showing people how special it is.

“We couldn't run it without all our volunteers though, and it is great to be able to involve the local community more.”