Most people that visit the place – now a national park – don’t stray further than a couple of hundred metres from a carpark, of which there are an incredible 150 throughout the Forest. Dog walkers go further, though most stick to the numerous footpaths. Only avid walkers get in to the quieter spots. And amazingly quiet they can be.
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Around Ashley Bottom (I just had to mention it again) there were no people in sight. The only sound was the breeze rustling in the short-cropped heather and the haunting, wailing call of a Redshank – an attractive wading bird with scarlet legs and beak – distracting us, perhaps, from chicks it had secreted nearby. It was hard to believe that we were less than 16 km from the edge of bustling Southampton, one of the largest conurbations in southern England with a quarter of a million residents. Sometimes I’ve spent a whole morning around here without seeing anyone at all, not even a dog walker.
From Ashley Bottom we headed a few kilometres east through the cool shade of the high beeches, pines and oaks of Amberwood Inclosure where the woodland understorey is liberally peppered with hollies, crabapples bearing their small acidic fruits, and rowans. The New Forest woods, the broadleaved parts and not the commercial conifer or mixed conifer/broadleaved plantations (which are known here as ‘inclosures’ because they are fenced to keep browsing deer out), are one of the best places in Britain for wood-boring insects and a plethora of fungi growing on the living trees or on deadwood littering the forest floor. Sensitive forest management here by the Forestry Commission leaves deadwood where it falls, thereby allowing natural decomposition, helped by the wood-boring insects and fungi. We turned over one or two decaying logs and there were plenty to be found on the damp wood which was rapidly becoming more like cardboard.
All this rot always reminds me of some not terrifically profound words attributed to Jimi Hendrix: ‘Once you’re dead, you’re made for life, ’ he had said at some point in his short existence. And he was dead right, if you’ll forgive the pun. Highly improbable though it is that he was referring to forest timber, his aphorism goes to the very heart of the cyclical process of life, death, decomposition and new life that characterises all plants and animals, rock heroes included.
Somewhere on our day’s walk we had passed a small pond or two. But we didn’t spend much time at them nor did we really appreciate their wildlife importance as we walked past. Reading about them more recently I discovered that many of the New Forest’s ponds are seasonal, drying up in most summers, but that many are awash with wildlife. Frogs and toads abound. Some have Great Crested Newts, miniature dragonlike amphibians. Kingfishers visit them with an eye on snapping up a stickleback when there’s enough water to go fishing in. And the numbers and colours of dragonflies and damselflies can defy the imagination. Twenty-seven different species breed in the ponds and mires of the New Forest, the largest concentration in Britain.
And so it was that we ended up (well-planned from our trusty OS map rather than the electronic voice-over of a mobile navigator) at the cottage-like Royal Oak Inn on the edge of Fritham village, one of the oldest pubs – maybe the oldest – in the New Forest. After all this walking we needed what we thought was a well-earned stop. As we got close, we had something of a short-term culture shock. It was as if we had returned from a long trek in the Australian Outback or somewhere else equally distant from human civilisation. Suddenly we were amongst the throng, thrown into the bustling, tourist picture-blog New Forest. Here were people taking their dogs for an afternoon stroll. There were families throwing frisbees and picnickers sitting near roadsides feeding the ponies below signs telling them not to feed the ponies. And all semblance of the silence we had experienced for a few hours became a distant memory.
We ordered a so-called ‘ploughman’s lunch’ and (too much) beer at the Royal Oak, something very few ‘ploughmen’ probably consume these days but a symbol of some long-gone bucolic countryside idyll that probably never existed. Still, it’s something those of us Brits, who have tilled nothing more than the occasional garden border with a trowel, like to eat in a pub to give us a sense of continuity with our Medieval farm serf ancestors. Checking up on the origin of these things -as I am all too frequently tempted to do – I find that Pierce the Ploughman’s Crede (c. 1394) first mentions the traditional ploughman’s meal of bread, cheese and beer. The Oxford English Dictionary, though, notes the first recorded use of the phrase ‘ploughman’s lunch’ as 1837. Perhaps the OED was simply a bit slow catching on; there was plenty of ploughing before that. Who knows.
Refreshed – and slightly wobbly – we wandered from Fritham village between the veteran trees of Queen North Wood and turned east, soporific now, to overlook Rakes Brakes Bottom replete with its woody, dwarf bushes of aromatic Sweet Gale, scimitar-shaped leaves of yellow-flowered Bog Asphodel, and a plethora of insect-eating sundews with their sticky, gobby-wet leaves. Jet-black dragonflies zoomed like dogfighting Spitfires around the whippy willows and white-barked birches at the side of the mire where the ground was still waterlogged but not awash. There the dragonflies were more sheltered from the cooling autumn breeze.