After a brief but most welcome stay with my in-laws, I found myself in The New Forest by way of Southampton. Southampton is a charmless place. The less said about it the better. I had stocked up on food and bandages and was ready to explore one of Britain’s most celebrated green spaces.
The New Forest is managed by the Forestry Commission, which I had always been a bit hazy on. I think, in Britain, we are very trusting of our large government led operations. In fact I expect a lot of people might assume, as I once did, that the Forestry Commission do things such as preserve our pockets woodland, but they’d be mistaken. Not much is preserved in the The New Forest, except for its quaint and lovely villages. Living in London, I am utterly spoilt with ancient woodlands inhabited by numerous species. It seems the Forestry Commission hasn’t yet got its hands on those. That’s not to say that what they do is bad, but perhaps the ‘Wood Harvesting Commission’ might provide a little more clarity on their designs for our trees. The name of the forest itself is also misleading, as it is far from new. William the Conqueror first claimed the area as a royal forest in 1079, and used it for a hunting ground, at the expense of quite a number of churches. Therefore, it has not been ‘new’ for nearly 1000 years. However, I suppose, due to the Forestry Commission’s relentless harvesting and planting of Sitka spruce, ‘The New Forest’ is quite a fitting moniker.
The best way to not get hopelessly lost in the woods, is to stick to the labyrinth of cycle paths. You are, however, regularly reminded that you yourself are in danger of being cut down by one of the numerous logging trucks that chug around them. I spent a day slowly navigating roaming ponies and piles of freshly slain logs, while trying my best to follow the cheapest map available to me from the visitor centre in Lyndhurst. There are footpaths, but as getting wildly lost is not conducive to making headway, I stuck to the waymarked cycle paths and managed to cut a clean route straight through the heart of the forest. I watched rare fritillary butterflies dance through the Flohawk Ride (a section of woodland given over to science rather than industry) and paused to gawk at a dragonfly as it devoured some other winged beast. I indulged my inner naturalist in fallen nests and spiderwebs. Although a ‘new’ forest, it is still magical to be surrounded by tall trees and the feeling that you are in a place, home to more wild creatures than it is people.
After a few hours of safe navigation, feeling marginally intrepid, I thought I ought to branch off and dive deeper into the woods. I was almost at Brockenhurst, where I planned to spend the night, so ducked into a footpath that seemed to be heading in the right direction. I walked for a few minutes until the path ran out, turned, tried another vein… that ran out too. I retraced my steps and headed off down the last possible track to find that it too was about to disintegrate. I had reached a crow’s foot of dead ends.
Not wanting to retrace anymore steps, I headed through the trees, navigating by compass. I ducked under branches, snagged myself on a few, until at last I appeared from the woods onto a mogulled plateau of ponies, and beyond it, Brockenhurst. When ponies are left to shit all over a field as they please, with nobody picking it up, the piles of shit turn into individual hills. The field I was about to walk across was bubbling with manure mountains, making it surprisingly difficult and slow to traverse, with weary legs. Across the field I could see the culprits and decided to go and introduce myself. I found a miniature Shetland, potentially one of the field’s architects, and spent some time photographing it, as its mane billowed in the breeze.
I was in luck. On the opposite side of the field from which I emerged was a campsite. I walked straight in from the forest and got myself a pitch for the night. Wild camping can be a lot of fun, but when you are tired and alone, the comforts of running water and a lie in are hard to deny. As I wandered in, carrying my life on my back, I noticed another potential wanderer. He was a fair whack older than me, I’d say in his 70s judging by the colour and length of his beard. There was a free pitch next door to his, so I asked if he’d mind having me as a neighbour and that was the start of my first and most memorable friendship of this journey.
Wurzel was 5 foot nothing with a 2 foot beard, and a wonderful set of moustaches. I say set, because they were the sort that Yosemite Sam wore, which if you were to blow, would part almost entirely from his face. I would imagine, in a strong wind, a moustache like that could be as telling as a weathervane. His skin was tanned like moroccan leather with a few fairly indistinguishable tattoos. To complete his rugged, man of the world mystique, Wurzel wore a hat bejeweled with pins and badges. He was quite a character to behold. In the brief time I knew him, he would tell me many tales.
I positioned my tent so that I could look out into the forest. It was a most covetable view and one that I was not prepared to leave in a hurry, so I decided I would stay an extra night and get to know the forest a little better the following day. In the morning I woke to blue sky. It had rained in the night and the ground was damp. I lifted my bag to check that it wasn’t sitting in pool of water and to my surprise found a large, indignant toad. How dare I remove his cosy house from atop his head? I scooped him up and examined him for a while. Toads have the most extraordinary, amber eyes. I have a terrible habit of getting attached to animals, and the thought of befriending a wild animal seems to be just that bit more special. Perhaps that stems from watching too much ‘Animals of Farthing Wood’ as a child. This time however, it was the toad who was too attached. I couldn’t get him to let go of my hand. I found a damp patch of leaves in the shadow of a tree, but even that wouldn’t do. He wanted to be under my bag, or better still, under my tent. In the end I found a nice log for him to sit on and conducted a 10 to 15 minute photo shoot of the little beast. He was the most special of animals.
This chance meeting with the toad brings me to one of Wurzel’s stories. He had been to the pub for lunch, where he’d had a ploughman’s. Not a big eater, but indeed a savvy one, he’d saved the cheese from his lunch for an afternoon snack. Returning to his camp, he’d stashed his cheese and forgotten all about it. Feeling the need for a nap, he retreated to his tent and fell asleep. Several hours later, he woke up to feel a strange prickling sensation on his cheek. It seemed a cocksure hedgehog had sniffed out his afternoon snack and was helping himself, regardless of Wurzel’s proximity, to his cheese. Being a sympathetic man, he decided not to challenge the intruder, but instead to sit and watch as he had his fill of cheddar. The story warmed the heart. That night I left a piece of cheese outside my tent, but it was still there when the sun rose.
The New Forest is a beautiful place, and the fact that the trees are there for the purpose of being cut down doesn’t make it any less beautiful or enveloping. I walked for hours, saw few people, many animals and felt all the better for it. I would soon be leaving woodlands behind for a dramatic change in landscape, as I made my way from Hampshire to Dorset and its entrancing Jurassic Coast.
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