FOR 50 years, Bournemouth’s bus and coach station was the place where countless journeys to the town began and ended.

The large building dominated the Exeter Road end of town – and its outline is reflected in the BH2 leisure complex which stands on its site today.

A new book, Bournemouth’s Bus & Coach Station: The Life and times of an Iconic Building, brings together a wealth of historic pictures, together with information that has never before been in the public domain.

Its author is John Weager, who worked at the station from 1974 until it was abandoned in 1981, almost five years after a major fire damaged it beyond economic repair.

The grand Portland stone building opened in 1931, easing congestion in the town centre and providing proper facilities for the many passengers who had been catching buses and coaches in Bournemouth Square. Now, Royal Blue coaches arriving via the Square would head down a ramp into an underground station, while buses ascended a slope to the upper level.

It took 14 months to build and around 30,000 people came to see the station when it was made available for inspection on March 7, 1931.

But with the Hants & Dorset bus company expanding rapidly, facilities were stretched before long, and in 1937 the station expanded into an area of land to its south.

A major modernisation was completed in 1958, with the previous roof demolished and two more storeys added above to allow facilities such as offices and a cafe with a panoramic view of the Lower Gardens.

On a typical day, the bus station was expected to handle 60,000 passengers on 1,600 vehicles, while the basement coach station would take more than 18,000 people on 600 vehicles.

Further development was ahead for the period that Mr Weaver calls the station’s “heyday” in the 1960s and 1970s. The ramp and tunnel that were used by buses entering the station were stopped up, with the buses entering directly from Exeter Road instead. That freed up space for an arcade of shops in what had been the vehicle tunnel.

It took a local inquiry to overcome the objections of Bournemouth council to the plans, but a Grill Room restaurant, office and five shops were ready for occupation by 1962.

In 1975, Hants & Dorset’s general manager Peter Hunt suggested still another extension, with a three-storey building to be built across the vehicle entrance.

But Hants & Dorset’s owner, the National Bus Company, was already considering disposing of the site for use as a supermarket with underground car park. And that same year, Bournemouth Borough Council and Dorset County Council published a local plan which included a travel interchange around the town’s railway station.

In the early hours of Sunday, July 25, 1976, a fire broke out that would wreck the station and change the town centre forever.

At around 2.45am, Royal Blue’s night cleaner Jim Milton and Hants & Dorset’s night fitter ‘Taffy’ Ennis separately discovered a coach on fire in the underground station. Mr Ennis tried to drive another coach away from the blaze but was beaten back by smoke and shattering windows.

Both men called 999 and began driving buses away from the station. A couple “dossing down” in one of the coaches escaped with the help of a police officer.

It took some 80 firefighters around three hours to bring the fire under control. Twelve coaches, a minibus and two cars were destroyed, while 65 buses were moved by anyone who could drive.

The book details the lengthy discussions that followed over the future of the station site – and over what should happen to buses and coaches in the town centre.

Some bus services did return to the station, but hopes of rebuilding it were dashed when the estimated cost reached £1million. Hants & Dorset sought planning permission for a retail store and 20 flats, so that it could sell the station to a developer.

With other office tenants deserting the building, Hants & Dorset finally moved its staff and buses out in 1981, although a coach booking office remained until 1982. The building was demolished that October and the site was in use for more than 30 years as a surface car park.

Even if the fire had not wrecked the building, Mr Weager points out that the station’s days would probably have been numbered. Coaches were getting bigger, making the underground station impractical. The offices were much bigger than the bus company would need. And plans were being laid for the travel interchange by the railway station, although in the end it would not be ready until 1988.

Today, the BH2 complex of cinema and restaurants stands on the site – and the new building echoes the old one in some striking ways.

The author writes: “Looking south from the Square, the line of the original Exeter Crescent (Exeter Lane) roadway to the left of the structure can clearly be seen and looking from the Eden Glen car park there is an underground car park entrance exactly where H&D’s fuelling and washing bay used to be.”

* Bournemouth’s Bus & Coach Station, by John Weager, is available at Westbourne Bookshop, 65 Poole Road; Morebus Travel Office, Poole bus station; DJ Brooking, 420 Ashley Road, Upper Parkstone; and

BH6 Books & Home, 69 Southbourne Grove, or direct from the author