There has been human activity on the site since the Upper Palaeolithic. During the Victorian era, it was heavily quarried, and in recent years tourism has become significant – it receives more than one million visitors annually. The various habitats on the Head provide a home for many plants, birds and insects, some of them rare and critically endangered. Erosion remains a threat to the site, although long-term projects are intended to secure it for the future.
Hengistbury Head is a sandstone headland forming part of Southbourne, which is a suburb of the town of Bournemouth to the west; the nearest major settlement is Christchurch to the north. It is the most easterly part of the Borough of Bournemouth, and marks the most easterly point of Poole Bay. Historically part of Hampshire, the Local Government Act 1972 designated the area a part of Dorset. The northern slope of the hill tailing off towards the sea forms Mudeford spit, the sand bar closing Christchurch Harbour from the south.
The spit is home to more 300 privately owned beach-huts, which are some of the UK's most expensive. In 2015 five of the huts were put on the market for a combined asking price of £1 million. On average the huts measure around five by three metres, have no running water, and the occupants may only stay overnight from March to October. Despite the relative lack of amenities, the area has become one of the UK's most desirable; huts are rented out for up to £600 a week.
The Black House, a local landmark, stands at the end of the spit, opposite Mudeford Quay, site of the Battle of Mudeford in 1784. Built in 1848, it was once a boat-builders' house, but is now rented out to holidaymakers. It has served a variety of functions over the years, and is commonly (but inaccurately) associated with the area's smuggling past.
Mentioned as Hednesburia in a church deed of the early 12th century, and referred to as Hynesbury Head in the 17th, Hengistbury only took on its current spelling in the 19th century, during a period of what archaeologist Barry Cunliffe calls "antiquarian romanticism". Many prehistoric sites around this time were renamed to link them with historical figures. It was thought at the time that the legendary Anglo-Saxon leader Hengist could be buried here, as he was said to have been laid to rest in an unlocated mound. Twentieth-century excavations have established that the tumuli at Hengistbury Head date to the Bronze Age however.