Walk One: Ashford -[Ashford]
The New Forest is a home from home for me. Living in Southampton, I am lucky to have one of England’s most beautiful national parks on my doorstep. With the highest concentration of ancient woodland in Western Europe, coupled with its free-ranging ponies, donkeys and pigs, the New Forest feels like you have stumbled onto somebody’s farm – but are given a warm welcome.
The New Forest extends over 140,000 acres and is steeped in British history. William the Conqueror proclaimed the New Forest as a royal forest in around 1079, to be used for royal hunts and foraging, and whilst that historic tradition might not be as popular in this modern-day, chefs and restaurant owners across the forest are keen to keep up their foraging duties for use in their cooking. I wonder if William the Conqueror ever considered that his entire aim for the forest would still be upheld almost 1,000 years later – and still be largely owned by the Crown.
The ‘Nova Foresta’ is the only forest that the Domesday Book describes in high detail. Twelfth-century chroniclers alleged that William had created the forest by evicting the inhabitants of 36 parishes, though this is disputed by some, as the poor soil in areas suggests large agriculture would not have been suitable.
Forest laws were eventually brought in to preserve the New Forest as a location for royal deer hunting, and interference with the king’s deer and its forage was punished. The inhabitants of the area (called commoners), however, had pre-existing rights of common: to send their horses and cattle (but only rarely sheep) out into the Forest to graze (common pasture), to gather fuelwood (estovers), to cut peat for fuel (turbary), to dig clay (marl), and to turn out pigs between September and November to eat fallen acorns and beechnuts (pannage or mast). There were also licences granted to gather bracken after Michaelmas Day (29 September) as litter for animals (fern). All of these, even today, are important parts of the forest’s ecology. It’s a talking point of the forest, the main reason as to why some visit, and why you should too (but please don’t feed the animals!).
I started my forest walk from Ashurst train station, which sits on the edge of the New Forest and borders a Southampton suburb. The path into the forest is adjacent to the station, and within five minutes you already feel immersed into these ancient woodlands and heath shrublands.
Pass the village pubs, go through a gate, pass a red-brick cottage with a working farm about 200 yards up, and carry on directly down the rocky path until you see the white gate by the railway line. Once you do, go through the gate and over the railway line, and you’ll enter the iconic New Forest shrublands. (Just above Ashurst Campsite – for a reference point.) If traversing these shrublands, you must be careful. The New Forest has a wealth of wildlife, most notably birds such as curlews, redshanks, snipes and lapwings (all becoming rarer in the south of England) which nest in the ground around this time of year. Signs will mark out where you can and can’t go, but do keep your wits about you.
Many trails are signposted once you are onto the shrublands, so you’ll have lots of choices. I made a beeline for the pines in the very distance.
The New Forest is an assault on the senses, and I love that. The colour of the alder, oak, ash and beech trees popped in the Spring sun, with blankets of detritus and leaves sitting beneath, offering a unique contrast. The sun warmed this blanket, releasing an earthy, woody smell – a beautiful reminder that tarmac is a while away, and just natural resources remain.
Escaping from the hustle and bustle of the city as I often do (and which inspired me to share this walk with you), it did not take long for me to reconfigure, switching my mind from the worries of the modern world to giving attention to the soothing environment of the forest. Sounds of birds all around and the wind blowing gently through the trees is all you’ll hear, and travelling up the hills a little farther – where tree numbers reduce – things become even quieter.
It’s from there on the hills, above the wondrous landscape, you get a real idea of how vast the New Forest is. I had only walked for an hour but already felt like I was in the middle of nowhere – and I suppose I was. The nearest road – one running between Ashurst and Lyndhurst – was now a distant memory, along with the railway; both noisy manmade highways, forfeited in this part of the forest for the continuity of its beauty and stillness. At risk of sounding like Coco in ‘White Heat’, you ‘feel on top of the world’. It’s almost as if you’ve transcended our modern world entirely (or embodiments of them – noise, pollution, cars, trains, masses of other people), and long may spaces like these that give us those breaks continue.
Coming down the same hillside I came up, slowly to take in my surroundings, I take a walk back almost diagonally to where I came from. This takes me through heavy parts of this ancient forest – a time for a beautiful panoramic, or a sit in contemplation – and I can see why William the Conqueror was so keen to make this a royal, protected forest. Working through the forest and turning back rather urgently from the path after being knee-deep in a bog, my destination is in sight.
I think a large part of the reason we come out to these places is that we need space for ourselves. We need to be still and reflect. Modern living – where we live close next to, or above of, each other; where we are connected constantly via social media, phones and emails; where we’re working hard amongst other people – is difficult. Places like the New Forest offer an escape from all of that. For some, though, that escape is far from comfortability.
Because, for some, whilst they recognise how sacred and respected these spaces are, the hustle and bustle of city life, the ultra-connection to one another, is where they feel most comfortable. To be outside and in the middle of nowhere is an alien concept, a worrying one, but that’s OK. I hope that by people like me sharing these spaces and experiences whether that be via blog, magazine, or podcast, we can showcase the best parts of our outside world and communities, and leave others feeling welcomed in should they ever want to be.