Archive for August, 2011

In which I traverse open heathland and majestic woodland in the New Forest and nearly disappear in a bog

Ashurst to Lymington, Hampshire

Ancient hornbeams on Park Pale

Ancient hornbeams on Park Pale

I’ve enjoyed walks from Ashurst (Kent) before, but this time I head to its Hampshire namesake for a walk that encompassed the best the New Forest has to offer. One of Britain’s more recently established National Parks (created in 2005), the New Forest covers over 200 square miles of what to modern urban eyes may appear wild and untamed countryside. But in fact the landscape here has been shaped by thousands of years of history of human occupation and activity. The areas of heather-clad open heathland result from clearance of trees from the Bronze Age onwards, while the character of the woodlands is intrinsically linked to their use by man in a process of planting, harvesting and management for timber and a variety of other products which continues today.

The name ‘New Forest’ originates from its enclosure by the conquering Norman King William I for hunting deer – indeed, the word ‘forest‘ in English was originally a legal term to describe an area of land set aside for hunting by nobility – in which poaching of the King’s deer was punishable in a number of gruesome ways including blinding or having the hands cut off. The restrictions on the use of the Forest by local people, and the harsh rule of William Rufus (William the Conqueror’s son and heir) led to huge resentment, which has been suggested as one of many possible motives for William’s death: in a still-unsolved mediaeval ‘whodunnit’, William may have been murdered by a ‘stray’ arrow fired by Walter Tyrell who somewhat suspiciously immediately fled to France.

In later years, the local people were granted commoners’ rights – of pasture (grazing of animals), of pannage or mast (the feeding of pigs on fallen acorns in the autumn), estovers (the collection of firewood), of turbary (the digging of peat for fuel), and of marl (the digging of clay to improve land). Formalised in the 16th century and still administered by the Verderers today, these rights, particularly grazing and pannage, have subtly moulded the landscape character of the New Forest by interrupting ecological progressions and preventing natural regeneration. In fact, the woodland character of some parts of the Forest – grazed by animals leading to open wood pasture – has been suggested as an example of how the ancient European ‘Wildwood’ may have appeared before human intervention, according to Frans Vera’s hypothesis: not the dense dark impenetrable tangle of trees and undergrowth of ‘Hansel and Gretel’, but rather a more open landscape of mature trees in a matrix of grassy glades grazed by deer, bison and aurochs.

Pine plantation, Parkhill Inclosure

Pine plantation, Parkhill Inclosure

Although still largely in the ownership of the Crown, royal hunting ceased long ago, and today, the area is known for being ‘forest’ in the modern sense: acres and acres of trees, plantations of native broadleaves and non-native conifers. Many of the ‘Inclosures’ date from the 17th century onwards when substantial numbers of oaks were planted for ship building, enabled by an Enclosure Act passed by William III in 1698. Despite the loss of 4000 oaks in the Great Storm of 1703, a survey of 1707 identified 12,476 trees suitable for shipbuilding – although this was a tenth of the number identified a century earlier. Each ship required a huge amount of timber: the construction of Agamemnon, built in the 1770s at a cost of £38,303 15s 4d, and later captained by Nelson, apparently required over 3000 oaks, and she was a relatively small ship.

From the First World War onwards, the demand for timber resulted in the planting of fast growing non-native conifers – Sitka spruce and Douglas fir amongst others. Harvesting and extraction of such timber continues today, but, recognising the diminished conservation value of such habitat, the Forestry Commission is working on restoring native woodland by replanting broadleaves.

Today, the New Forest is patchwork of hugely valuable habitats, home to a vast range of wildlife (including all six species of native reptile), and well deserving of its status as a Site of Special Scientific Interest, Ramsar site and EU Special Area of Conservation. It is also hugely popular for recreation, with many honeypot sites that attract thousands of visitors every year. But even so, as I found on this walk, get away from the main roads and the sense of isolation and wilderness is wonderful.

Start: Ashurst (New Forest) Station SU333101

Finish: Lymington Pier Station SZ332954

Length: 12 miles/6 hours

How to get there: Ashurst can be reached directly from London Waterloo on South West Trains services to Bournemouth and Weymouth via Southampton. The return journey back to Waterloo from Lymington Pier requires a change at Brockenhurst, from where one can also catch a Cross Country train to Birmingham and beyond.


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