In which I find an old book and an old wood, and meet Joan Begbie
We are only exploring as yet and so at the most enjoyable stage of any walking.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest (1934)
My parents owned a book, an old green hardback with no dust cover. I imagine they picked it up in a charity shop, as it’s stamped inside as once belonging to the Military Hospital at Moretonhampstead. Called Walking in the New Forest, by Joan Begbie and published in 1934, it must have sat on their shelves for years. I don’t remember ever noticing it. My parents had so many books that it was easy for some to get forgotten, hidden away in the less accessible corners of the multiple bookshelves crowding their London flat. Neither did we visit the New Forest when I was a child. Maybe they went there before my sister and I were born, or perhaps they picked up the book on an impulse, just in case. My mother loved reading The Children of the New Forest by Frederick Marryat in her own childhood, so maybe she bought Joan’s book in a spirit of nostalgia.
When we were sorting through their books after both my parents had died, there Joan Begbie’s book was, dusty and musty. By then (this was 2018), I was house hunting in and around the New Forest, so I claimed Joan and her walks, and took them away with me. Of course, in the business of unpacking and decorating and generally settling in, the book was tucked away on my own shelves, alongside some recently purchased modern guides, and remained unopened, even as I started to explore this captivating corner of the country.
Anses Wood, in the northern part of the Forest near Fritham, was one of the first woods I visited in the New Forest, and it is still the one I love best. I can’t now remember why I first went there: although an ancient pasture woodland, it’s not one of the Forest ‘hotspots’ that a newcomer may be expected to head for. Maybe, as a lover of ponds and brooks, I went to see Cadman’s Pool at the southern edge of Anses, where locals and visitors like to sit and enjoy the peace, or park before heading across the heath or to nearby Holly Hatch. On that first visit, I looked at the Pool, which is very pleasant, but it was Anses Wood that unexpectedly called.
I remember that first journey into Anses very clearly. It was the end of September, bright and clear, and over the neighbouring heathland of Ocknell Plain and Broomy Bottom all was expansive blue skies and gentle breeze. Under the trees, though, there was dark green and light-flecked shade. The route I took that day was the same as I now nearly always take. I head north west from the car park and, the way I go, the path is barely there. In autumn, fallen leaves, twigs, acorns and beech mast crunch under my boots. In spring and summer, the way is softer underfoot, but always the scents are of growing wood and damp earth. There are fallen branches and tree stumps to negotiate, sporting lichens and mosses and, mainly in the autumn, all sorts of fungi. There are always a few birds – thrushes, nuthatches, and long-tailed tits calling with tsee-tsee voices. Look at us, look at us.
Above and around and rooting beneath, there are the trees. Rough-barked oak, knobbly holly and grey beech. Oak branches spread themselves wide, holly crouches lower in the understorey, and beech boughs twist into all kinds of shapes, sometimes fusing together and then redividing as if caught in the middle of a slow country dance. I find my way by recognising the highly individual shapes of the beeches. As I passed under the trees, that first time in Anses, I was enchanted. This was a magical place, a fairy wood.
Meeting Joan Begbie
As soon as I got home, I gathered all my New Forest books and sat down to find out more about Anses. The first book I picked up was that old copy of Walking in the New Forest, which had Anses listed in its index. So, to page 76, and there, for the very first time, I met Joan Begbie. She marched through the pages, calling her two dogs to heel or chasing them across the heaths. She was full of joy and energy and hearty delight in what she observed. Quoting the opening words of her book:
We think it is a splendid country for walking, that is, for our own particular kind of walking, which is of a leisurely 10-mile a day kind, requiring only normal garments and no accessories.
She meant she felt no need to wear shorts (“those eminently male garments”), or ankle socks, but could walk in a skirt, stockings and stout shoes. I’m happy to wear shorts or trousers, but I agree on the leisurely 10 miles. Back to Anses. Joan describes it just as I had seen it almost a century later:
Anses is old and gobliny, and beautiful, too. Crab apples, hollies, oaks, and beeches grow together in rough confusion but perfect good fellowship on the slope between South Bentley and Holly Hatch.
And she describes the beeches like this, much better than I can:
Some heel over at perilous angles, others split into branches almost as soon as they stop being roots, and others, fallen, prop themselves on some great limb and continue to bear leaf and mast as if nothing had happened … It appears impossible, too, for one branch to touch another without becoming lost in an inseparable, if brief, embrace.
This was all just as I had observed and wondered at.
It was striking to learn from Joan’s account how little Anses seemed to have changed in character in the many years since she was there. That was borne out when I consulted a map dating to the period when Joan would have been walking. The shape of the wood was broadly the same, and Dockenswater, the peaty brook bubbling along Anses’ northern edge on its way from beyond Fritham to the Avon, followed pretty much the same meandering path. I expect many of today’s ponies that graze in and around Anses are descended from ponies that Joan saw. (Before the early nineteenth century Anses would have been larger – the Anses Joan and I visited is a remnant of a larger ancient woodland that made way for the adjacent Holly Hatch, which was first enclosed as a forestry plantation in 1810).
Joan’s book was published when she was 36, younger than I am now. I think we would have got on. I feel sad that I can never meet this good-humoured-sounding woman, tramping through the forest’s heaths, mires and woods with Bill, her white bull terrier, and Mr. Bundy, “a rough-haired brindled griffon of diminutive size and choleric disposition”. I would have liked to walk with them.
So was born an idea for this blog and for my own forest discoveries. Maybe I cannot meet Joan, but I can reach out a fellow traveller’s hand across the years and let her guide me. There’s a lot to be said for exploring somewhere in the company of a kindred spirit who has the same interests in the landscape, its history and wildlife, but who won’t complain when I lay her to one side, pages face down, while investigating an interesting plant or other find.
I am therefore going to try and retrace some of her wanderings and follow as closely as I can where she trod. It will be interesting to discover what has changed and what has not in the Forest. Not just in geographical terms: while the New Forest’s outer boundaries (perambulation) have changed, I anticipate that feature boundaries will be broadly the same. Joan describes the nature around her as well, and I wonder if more has changed there. I suspect it will have done: even in a nationally protected area free from intensive farming, and where centuries-old traditional commoning practices are still upheld, the wider external ravages of more recent decades on wildlife will almost certainly have encroached over its boundaries. We’ll see.
In her book, Joan relates the series of walks she takes in well-crafted prose (supported by some lovely old photos and her own endearing little sketches). She describes what she sees as she walks, referring to placenames and views, copses, paths, gates and stiles, plants and animals, together with snippets of history, based on her own extensive knowledge and enquiry. However, there is none of the individual walk maps, numbered step-by-step guidance or grid references as found in modern walking guides. Following her paths may therefore sometimes be a challenge, but I’ll give it a go.
In this blog, I intend to mostly walk with Joan. Sometimes, I may explore on my own, or wander in other forests, and I’ll write about those times, too. But by far the greater part of the time you should get used to Joan, Bill, and Mr. Bundy striding along with me across the heaths, through the mires and beneath the trees. I’m looking forward to it.