In which I traverse open heathland and majestic woodland in the New Forest and nearly disappear in a bog
Ashurst to Lymington, HampshireI’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.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.
Having finally found my way out of Ashurst station (through a gate that is cunningly disguised as part of the fence on the platform for trains to Eastliegh [sic]), I follow the road busy with summer holiday traffic, much of it heading to and from the Forestry Commission campsite. Once off road, I head across tussocky grassland, then along a wide ride bordered by woodland: reminiscent of a dry river delta, islets of pink-purple ling and cross leaved heath separated by rivulets of close-cropped grass. In a group of trees, I find low earthwork banks, the only remains of Saltpetre House, where timber was burnt to provide a vital ingredient for gunpowder.The beauty of the New Forest for the walker is open access: the freedom to ignore footpaths and bridleways and navigate across country by map and compass to wherever your interest takes you. In this vein, I head for a tumulus marked on the map, south-west across wide open heathland, grazed by horses and ponies and splashed with bright yellow-flowered gorse seedlings.
The drizzle that greeted me as I alighted from the train ceases and the cloud cover breaks into drifting grey-white fluffy cumulus, revealing a bright blue sunlit sky. There is little trace of the tumulus – just a slight mound – but it makes a suitable landmark for a change of compass bearing. I turn south making for a belt of trees marking the line of the Beaulieu River, crossing by a footbridge over a gently flowing stream beneath the verdant tranquil shelter of oaks and alders.
Taking a bearing for the tree line on Matley Ridge in the distance, I cross Longwater Lawn through sinuous black fingers of recently burnt heather, the crisp ground crunching beneath my boots. A small bird flits from one brittle charred stem to the next, too far away to identify – a species of finch maybe, with its dark head perhaps a bullfinch? A line of goat willows, and the young stems of bog myrtle, indicate increasing wetness underfoot and soon the crunch becomes a squelch. In bare patches in the damp soil, I find the tracks or ‘slots’ of deer – 6 species can be found in the New Forest. Soon, the landscape, treeless save for the occasional stunted windswept birch, becomes pock-marked with small crater-like ponds, some drying, others full of rust-coloured water covered with an oily film – indicative of the peaty soil beneath. Growing in the waterlogged mud of the wetter spots, I spy sundews, a type of carnivorous plant of which there are 3 species native to Britain.Found in wet, nutrient-poor soils, these strange plants, almost prehistorically primitive in appearance, seem benignly beautiful, like a delicate burst of fireworks. But each vivid red filament is tipped with a glistening drop of gel – an evolutionary adaptation that allows the plant to supplement its meagre diet by trapping and digesting passing insects. It’s the first time I’ve found them in the wild outside of cultivation – I’m quite excited by this and spend a while admiring their beauty.
Continuing uphill across Matley Heath toward the ridge, the rising ground gradually dries underfoot. I push through a dense maze of head-high gorse, almost impenetrable to me, but not to deer – their droppings suggest they browse here regularly. At the summit of the ridge (click here for a panoramic view northwards), I dodge the cyclists to cross the Lyndhurst to Beaulieu road, then, greeting a group of walkers, head downhill along the western perimeter of a sun-dappled plantation of tall pines, edged with bright orange-berried rowans.
It’s not long before I reach a line of wide-crowned hornbeams, clearly of considerable age, their stout trunks encrusted with grey-green lichens, atop a long linear bank. This earthwork is Park Pale, at least 700 years old, and originally constructed to enclose the medieval deer park of Lyndhurst Old Park. I decide to follow its alignment, and continue along the bottom of the associated ditch, shushing through the deep leaf litter.
Where the tree cover thins, I push through chest-high bracken to emerge on Holmhill Passage, a wide open ride. Something is moving rapidly along the edge of the conifers on the far side, just above ground level. Through the scrubby bog myrtle, it’s hard to discern what – a deer? But as it rises to disappear into the pine tops, I catch a glimpse of a wide dark-tipped wingspan – a buzzard!A footbridge crosses the stream that trickles along in the shade of the woodland canopy, fallen leaves drifting on the surface; the sunlight filtering through the trees gives the water a milky appearance. Either side of the path, the ground is boggy and moss-covered, lush and green. Now in Denny Inclosure, I head into the trees across the soft woodland floor to admire a fallen oak, reclining gracefully, its trunk green with a thick covering of moss, while ferns and ivory-white newly-emerging Ganoderma brackets nestle in the nooks and crannies between the buttresses.
Into Little Holmhill Inclosure now, and Park Pale continues through the dappled shade cast by beech trees and the gloom beneath dense yews. Then out into a sunlit firebreak, a wide pathless swathe cut through the conifers, through tall bracken that hides the uneven ground, tangled brambles and lying brash causing me to stumble. This, and the uphill climb to Park Hill, soon has me perspiring and breathing heavily, but being ‘off piste’ like this is exhilarating nonetheless. A sudden noise startles: I turn quickly to catch a glimpse of the powder-puff tails of two fallow deer bounding away through the trees, not 10 feet distant.
At the top of Park Hill, I leave Park Pale as it disappears into dense woodland once more, and follow a gravelled logging track into Parkhill Inclosure. Now more accessible, this part of the New Forest is waymarked and managed for access by the Forestry Commission. I meet dog walkers, and families on mountain bikes speeding downhill along the tracks into gully bottoms. All around are enormous timber trees: gigantic Sitka spruce and Douglas fir towering overhead, one of which I calculate as being 46m tall. The usual guilty thought crosses my mind: I would love to get in there with a chainsaw and fell one of these giants; the adrenalin rush and buzz as such a tree falls – imperceptibly at first (will it sit back? should I have used a hi-lift wedge?), then gradually gathering speed (have I gone too deep with the backcut? will the hinge break too early?), accelerating earthwards to land with a crashing and splintering of side branches and a reverberating THUD – is amazing.Interlude: How to estimate the height of a tree with nothing more than a stick.
Find a straightish branch and break it so that the length is equal to the distance of the forearm from elbow to fingertip. Hold the branch vertically at arms length and walk backwards or forwards until the ends of the stick line up with the apex and base of the tree to be measured. Then, pace out the distance to the tree using steps as close to a metre in length as possible, and, by triangulation, the height of the tree equals the distance paced.
I meet a helmeted family of stationary cyclists, the father looking at the map somewhat bemused. ‘Hello! I don’t suppose you know where we are do you?’ he asks. I point out our location, and he expresses surprise at the distance they have covered. His young daughter stands silently next to him astride her bike. She has a big grin on her face – maybe she’s amazed at how far their adventure has taken them, or perhaps she’s amused at her dad managing to get the family lost in hundreds of acres of forest. But to be fair, it’s easy to lose one’s bearings here – it all looks the same! – and I have only been able to keep track of my position by consulting the map regularly – not so easy to do while speeding along on a bike.
I continue southwards, past compartments of pine, Sitka spruce and oak. Amongst the trees of the denser plantations, little ground flora grows in the shade, except for thick stands of bracken or soft rush. But where the sun penetrates along the tracks and firebreaks, a herb layer flourishes: wild roses, grasses and beautiful pink betony, the latter growing in the damp ditches along the ride edge. All this in turn attracts insect life – chirruping grasshoppers and flitting dragonflies – that seem unperturbed by the many humans, two-wheeled and two-legged, passing by.
Where the logging track turns abruptly left, I continue straight on, southwards along a wide grassy path, beneath bright sunshine through stands of young pine. Not quite at the stage of first thinning, they line up in green rows, like soldiers on parade, intermingled with a fifth column of seedling birch.
I greet a group of 12 (nine human, three canine), then pass through a gap in a low mossy bank that marks the boundary of Pignal Inclosure. The tree cover is initially broadleaved here, mature oak and beech and sweet chestnut, a contrast to the acres of softwoods through which I have just passed. But the forest soon reverts to type; I continue along a firebreak, green and lush with soft rushes, which leads though more pines. I leave the sunlight behind and make a brief detour into the shade beneath the trees. Recently thinned and pruned, perhaps the previous year, piles of brash crack noisily beneath my feet, while above my head the tree tops sway gently in the breeze, releasing a shower of pine needles that drift down like a gentle shower of rain.Passing an enormous gnarled and twisted veteran oak, I emerge from the trees onto the openness of Balmer Lawn. The grassland is pimpled with hummocks, so regularly spaced it has the appearance of bubble wrap. The pond marked on the map is nothing more than a boggy hole, but it still attracts New Forest ponies grazing around the perimeter, and indeed in the pond itself, feeding on the weed seedlings growing in the soft mud. Despite the regular presence of numerous visitors of the noisy two-legged variety nearby – Balmer Lawn is a popular spot with tourists – the ponies become nervous if I get too close, but I manage to give one foal a gentle stroke. His dark brown coat feels oily and soft to the touch, more like sheeps’ wool than coarse horsehair.
On the far side of Balmer Lawn is Balmer Lawn Hotel, a grand 19th century building (although modernised in recent years – a squat tower on the roof, bristling with aerials and with scaffold handrail looks like it belongs atop a coastguard station) which in its 200 year history has hosted King George V, Winston Churchill and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Its grand façade overlooks a cricket pitch, where I find a game in progress, watched by sunhatted spectators in folding chairs.Next to the hotel is a busy Forestry Commission car park, where numerous cars are disgorging their cargoes of picnickers onto the adjacent grass. Amusing as it is that some people seem unable to walk more than 10 yards from the car before laying out the rug and opening the hamper, I can see the attraction of this spot, even on a busy summer Sunday when it is thronging with visitors. The Lymington River flows through here; toddlers, holding a parent’s hand tightly, tiptoe hesitantly through the pebbly shallows, while in the deeper waters, older children (and a few dads) pilot inflatable boats round paddling dogs, or swing from a rope tied high in the crown of a riverside alder, to land in the water with a laugh and a shout and a splash.
Crossing the river by the roadbridge, I continue into Brockenhurst. Well, at the second attempt: having waded across the ankle-deep shallows, I find the grassy area beyond is fenced off, resulting in a retreat back across the river. Once in the village, a quick pint in the Virginia creeper-clad Rose and Crown follows, then onwards, over the railway to turn left down Church Lane. My intention from here is to follow, as closely as possible, the course of the Lymington River, although, now outside the boundary of the New Forest’s open access land, the dearth of rights of way along the river bank will make this something of a challenge.
Church Lane leads, unsurprisingly, to a church: St Nicholas, the oldest in the New Forest. A wicket gate allows entry into the churchyard, most of which is beautifully wild, tall grasses and wildflowers, knapweed and ox-eye daisy, from which rise headstones spotted with green, grey and orange lichens. One marble headstone features a carving of an old bearded man, in boots and coat, holding in one hand a stick and in the other……snakes! The epitaph explains all:
In a corner of the churchyard, close-mown turf surrounds the Portland headstones of geometric lines of war graves, behind which is an imposing memorial, reminiscent of the Cenotaph, and flanked by two New Zealand tree ferns. The graves are all of New Zealanders too: 25/948 Rifleman J. Blackham, N.Z. Rifle Brigade, 26th September 1916 Age 29; 16/525 Private K. Rapona, N.Z. Maori Brigade, 29th September 1916 Age 24; 12032 Sapper E.G. Giblin, N.Z. Engineers, 3rd October 1916, Age 24…… It all seems so terribly sad, young men cut down in their prime in early adulthood, buried on the other side of the globe from their loved ones in a small village in the New Forest. It reminds me once again – like the solitary war grave in the churchyard of All Saints, Boughton Aluph – that distant wars can touch even the most serene and tranquil rural idyll. But why here? Why in a small church on the edge of Brockenhurst?
THIS STONE MARKS THE GRAVE OF HARRY MILLS (BETTER KNOWN AS ‘BRUSHER’ MILLS) WHO FOR A LONG NUMBER OF YEARS FOLLOWED THE OCCUPATION OF SNAKE-CATCHER IN THE NEW FOREST. HIS PURSUIT AND THE PRIMITIVE WAY IN WHICH HE LIVED CAUSED HIM TO BE AN OBJECT OF INTEREST TO MANY. HE DIED SUDDENLY JULY 1ST 1905, AGED 65 YEARS
A path through the tall grasses leads to the front of the church, and I enter through the beautiful chevronned Norman arch of the south doorway. Once inside, a kindly old gentleman greets me – he’s a volunteer guide. We spend a very pleasant 30 minutes chatting, ‘reading’ the church together. Along with the Norman arch, there are traces of herringbone Saxon stonework in the walls of the 12th century nave – like so many country churches, the building is a mish-mash of architectural styles, an ecclesiastical cut’n’shut, if you like. The wood-panelled Victorian north aisle (with gallery above – where once the church musicians played, until a harmonium was installed in 1855) is in complete contrast with the earlier chancel and nave. Face north and you could be in a Methodist chapel in the 19th century; turn and face south and you could be in the Middle Ages.But what of the connection with New Zealand I found in the churchyard? The New Forest was not left untouched by both World Wars, its woodlands felled for timber or for charcoal (used as a filter in gas masks), its heathland used for airfields or troop camps, while the coastal areas to the south played an important role in coastal defence and in the D-Day landings. As my guide explains, during the First World War, Brockenhurst was home to No.1 New Zealand General Hospital which treated battlefield casualties arriving from France – over 21,000 of them. The 108 who died, mostly New Zealanders, but some of other nationalities including Indians, are buried in St Nicholas’ Churchyard along with ‘three unknown Belgian civilians’ whose last resting place is marked by a simple stone plaque set in the ground.
I buy a guidebook to add to the collection (80p) and thank my companion for his time and knowledge. Pausing to admire the impressive yew tree just outside the south door – recorded as 15 feet in girth in 1793, and recently dated to over 1000 years old – I continue south along Church Lane, past the site of the wartime hospital, still recognisable from the old contemporary photographs my guide showed me. Then onto a bridleway across parkland – the grounds of Brockenhurst Park – home to impressive cedars, pines and wellingtonias, and a wide avenue of majestic limes.
The footpath drops downhill into Hampshire Wildlife Trust’s exquisite Roydon Woods Nature Reserve. Amongst the trees it feels vibrant and verdant, full of life, from the mosses and ferns growing high in the crowns of ancient oaks, to the grasses, rushes, enchanter’s nightshade and wood sage that carpet the ground. Even the decay and recycling of dead trees and branches seems to be busying itself along hurriedly: I find enormous fungal fruit bodies, huge multiple brackets of Ganoderma applanatum, dusted with brown spores, on a beech, and a sizeable and copiously oozing Inonotus dryaedus on an oak.There’s no sign of the cattle – Olive, Wafer, Tilly, Dot, Ellen, Before, After, Hettie, Dyson, Daisy, Kitty, Julia, Buttercup and Oyl – that a sign tells me are conservation-grazing nearby. Maybe they’ve been devoured by the huge serpent I spy lurking amongst the trees. OK, it’s just a fallen tree, but with a knot for an eye, and a split for a mouth, it does bear a remarkable resemblance to a python.
The path crosses a sedge-lined stream in Dawkins Bottom, then climbs beneath tall beeches. I’m impatient to catch a glimpse of the Lymington River, so make a quick diversion east along a bridleway. Passing the warm red tiled roof and wisteria-clad walls of Roydon Manor, dating from the 17th century and now Grade II listed, the bridleway crosses the river by a ford. I linger awhile in this peaceful spot, leaning on the handrail of a footbridge in the shade of ash and alder to watch the peaty water drift by beneath.
Back on route, I leave Roydon Woods behind, and, now on tarmac, continue south past Blazemore Farm. In fields either side of the road Southdown sheep are grazing beneath some grand veteran oaks; one stag-headed tree supports large yellow brackets of chicken-of-the-woods on its bole. They would make a lovely risotto, but are sadly out of reach over a tall hedge.
I come to a crossroads and consider turning left to the church at Boldre that my guide at St Nicholas had recommended I visit. But actually, I’m quite enjoying sitting on a bench on the grassy patch at the centre of the crossroads, sun and blue sky overhead, birdsong and the faint smell of wood smoke in the air. The black and white cast-iron road sign by my side, its fingers pointing east, west, north and south, gives this rural scene a nostalgic inter-War feel.I follow the finger-post that points south towards Boldre village. Tall hedges line the road to either side, a tangle of brambles, bracken, rosebay willowherb, hazel and oak saplings. So thick and leafy that I nearly miss the small gap through which a footpath leads. Across pasture – colourful with yellow ragwort, silvery white poplars, deep blue sloes – I reach the Lymington River once more. Although it’s only 10 minutes since I last stopped for rest, I can’t possibly pass this beautiful spot without pausing to savour its tranquillity. I sit on the grassy riverbank, amongst blue speedwell, yellow buttercups and purple loosestrife, enjoying the solitude – just me and four female mallards drifting by occasionally softly quacking contentedly. The far bank is heavily wooded – willow, oak and alder trees arching over to shade the wide but shallow watercourse. The silver-grey naked and barkless branches of one dead oak twist downwards to almost touch the water. Flies hover above a deeper pool beneath the curving trunk of a willow; every now and then a soft splash catches my attention, but the fish springing from the water to feed is too quick to catch a glimpse of, and all I see are slowly expanding ripples.
I could spend a pleasurable couple of lazy hours sitting by the water here, but I must press on and so cross the river by a footbridge onto Rodlease Lane. At the junction with Rope Hill, I turn right to take a quick look at the five stone arches of Boldre Bridge. As I’m leaning over the parapet, looking upriver, a metallic-blue flash shoots past, skimming across the water before disappearing into the crown of a white willow. It’s the most tantalising of glimpses, over in a second, but it could only be one thing: a kingfisher! How exciting! A shy and secretive bird, I could probably count the number of times I have seen a kingfisher on the fingers of one hand.I climb a field-gate into a paddock to get a better view of the bridge, and in hope of catching another glimpse of the kingfisher. The equine residents trot over, a gentle chestnut mare, and an excitable piebald yearling who nuzzles and sniffs at my rucksack, nudging me boisterously until I begin to fear I will be pushed into the river and decide to beat a hasty retreat. Back on the road, I turn onto Pilley Hill, passing pretty little cottages with cockerels scratching in the gardens.
A short distance on is Spinners garden and nursery, which gave its name to a sublimely beautiful hardy Geranium. It’s a bit too late to explore the delightful woodland garden; besides, I need to turn off Pilley Hill before I reach Spinners. I nearly get there anyway, almost missing the turning as the single track lane down which my route lies is well camouflaged: the ‘No Through Road’ sign hidden behind elm suckers, and the lane itself is encroached on from either side by shrubs and brambles. Further on, it plunges into the gloom between high fern-encrusted banks before coming to a dead end. The footpath continues beyond the trees alongside the river, now wide and open, lined with reeds and, on the far bank, an alarming amount of invasive non-native Himalayan balsam.
With the river on my right, I head downstream. The Lymington River here winds its way along a wide flood plain; consequently the ground underfoot – luxuriant with grasses, sedges, creeping buttercup and water mint – is wet and boggy and I soon sink up to my ankles in mud. The river’s edge is indistinct, grass and water merging fuzzily. Occasional splashes and ripples indicates the presence of fish. Two beautiful dark bay horses with white stars are grazing, splashing through the river up to their hocks (though they don’t look like hippopotami). I try to get closer for a stroke, but soon find myself on a peninsula-like sliver of dry(ish) ground surrounded by shallow water. I could retrace my steps, but, well, the water’s only ankle deep and it’s only a metre or so before I can be back on dry(er) land.This turns out to be a Very Silly Thing to do. As I step into the water, my foot disappears, followed by my ankle, followed by the lower half of my leg as I sink into foul-smelling mud. The other leg follows, as I begin to lose my balance until I’m knee-deep in bog. Throwing myself forward I manage to extricate myself and scramble onto drier ground. Oh, that stinks!
Shaking off the mud, I follow the footpath into Lymington Reedbeds, another of Hampshire Wildlife Trust’s reserves, and a Site of Special Scientific Interest for its birdlife; beyond the alders, acres of Phragmites reeds sway in the breeze beneath the setting sun.
Back onto tarmac, Undershore leads me to the edge of Lymington. A detour to the sluice gates gives a better view of the reedbeds either side of the widening river; at the side of the road a sign asks motorists to drive slowly because of otters crossing. To the south, brightly coloured dinghys and tenders line the harbour wall, while in the marina hundreds of yachts are visible, and a faint ‘ting-ting-ting’ of halyards tapping on masts can be heard.The village of Walhampton, on the east bank of the river, features some fine Victorian villas – I suspect that the 5 bedroom detached property with its own private dock is well out of my price range – and a pub, the Waggon and Horses, which boasts of being the last pub before the Isle of Wight. The landlord seems to have something of an obsession with moles – smiling mole ornaments line the verge wishing passing ferry passengers a ‘great moliday’.
The end of the road. At the ferry terminal, the Wight Sky has just docked and cars and coaches are emerging from deep within its bowels. It’s hugely tempting to jump on board and venture across the Solent to Yarmouth, but the train home is waiting at the single platform of Lymington Pier station. 10 minutes later I’m back in Brockenhurst where there’s time for a quick pint at the Foresters Arms before the London train leaves.
Once on board (to my fellow passengers: sorry about the smell), the train speeds across the New Forest, and, as the sun disappears below a heathland horizon, I catch a glimpse of a group of four fallow deer – a final treat, and a perfect end to the day.