In which I turn left, not right
For we had not only the bright morning to excite us; we were bound for Eyeworth, Islands Thorns, and the moor about them.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest (1934)
For my very first walk with Joan Begbie and her dogs, Bill (her white bull terrier) and Mr Bundy (a diminutive griffon), we set out from Fritham in the north of the New Forest and did a circuit through Eyeworth and Studley Woods, looping back through Island Thorns. (If you happen to have a copy of Joan’s book Walking in the New Forest sitting on your bookshelf and want to follow us, this is the walk described in pages 50 to 58, one of several Joan made using Fritham as her starting point.) Joan was walking in mid-February in the early 1930s, and I was following her in 2020, in the first week of December. For both of us, the weather was bright and frosty, with “the moist land twinkling all over”. Let us tell you about the first half of our tramp across this lovely part of the Forest.
After parking in the Forestry Commission car park at Fritham, I meet up with Joan and her dogs, Bill and Mr. Bundy. The Royal Oak, a quaint inn dating from the seventeenth century, winks lazily at us across the frosty lawn, but is sadly closed due to the coronavirus lockdown. It is, in any case, early in the day. Joan describes Fritham as “charming and retired”, with a post office, school, and a few houses and thatched cottages. The post office and school have gone, but the overall character of this small village among its green fields remains otherwise much as Joan describes. The Royal Oak doubtless usually caters for more tourists than in Joan’s day.
We set off on the road downhill towards Eyeworth Pond, an unmade gravel track beneath Joan’s boots and tarmac beneath mine (as far as I can work out, only the main Forest roads were tarmacked in the 1930s). We both admire the hollies stretching out their branches from either side and nudging each other overhead. The dogs are in excited mode in the beautiful morning air, and Joan wants to “dance down the hill, a desire…[she] should probably have given way to but for the young man coming up the track with a posse of heifers.” I decide not to dance down the hill, even without any witnesses, but I definitely have an anticipatory spring in my step.
The Pond (“the lovely pool”) stretches northeast from the road before disappearing into reeds and trees and the brook that feeds it. On an earlier visit, a group of male Mandarin ducks had been squabbling and displaying to the females like petulant artistes, while a large flotilla of much better-behaved Mallards swam sedately past them, beaks in the air. This time, the Pond is frozen over in parts, and the Mandarins and Mallards are equally ungainly as they stand nervously or slither around on the ice. Joan is unable to see the Mandarins – these flamboyant non-natives weren’t recorded in the Forest until the 1960s – but she’s much occupied with a swan hissing at Bill (“The swan took an instant dislike to the impertinent animal and bore down upon him”). In fact, in her book she subtitles this page ‘The Swan’, and describes in her own wonderfully comic style how the clearly visible and furiously paddling feet of the swan rather undermine its angry dignity in facing the invading terrier. I didn’t see any swans on this occasion. I expect they were keeping their beaks down.
The serene Eyeworth Pond is not yet two centuries old, having been originally dammed and created to provide water for the manufacturing operations of a gunpowder mill factory. This was the Schultze factory, open from around 1860 until the 1920s. As well as the Pond itself, a road of honey-coloured gravel – called Powder Mill Road – still leads north-eastwards from the lake to what is now the B3078; it was used to transport gunpowder away from the factory site without having to pass through Fritham. Joan tells me to turn my back on the unsightly abandoned and derelict gunpowder mill buildings behind me but I can barely see them. They are hidden behind trees and shrubs, and now no longer ugly but renovated and repurposed as dwellings and farm buildings, claimed and healed by humans and the landscape.
We wander up the road, past where the brook outflowing from the Pond bounces over a series of little steps, and into the tangly, twisted trees of Eyeworth Wood. This is a true beech, oak and holly wood with an ancient soul. Flickers of shade and clouded sun ripple through the air and the trees, catching lichens and moss in constantly moving stippled light.
Joan and the dogs stride ahead along a clear ride lined with moss along its edges, remarking on the twisted tree shapes and the spindly nature of the holly trees. I, on the other hand, am wondering where on earth the ride is. The red tracking arrow on my downloaded version of the OS map tells me it’s there and I’m on it but, with the way covered in crunchy autumn leaves and tangles of fallen twigs and stems, it is impossible to see it underfoot. Neither is there a path of clear sky above wending between the tree crowns to guide me.
I lose Joan for a while in Eyeworth. I became absorbed by a fallen log covered in all sorts of fungi and lichen and moss, of all different shapes and hues. I had to run to catch her up.
I rejoin Joan at a place where the mystery ride becomes an actual if rather muddy path, if not quite a ride. The sun comes out, and it is luxuriant and glinting. I feel the softness of old grass and spongy suck of mud beneath the icy leaf layer. Green leaves of crowfoot poke out through the vegetation underfoot, and a fallen holly tree sports a crown of polypody with its bright yellow sporangia. I wonder if the holly was standing when Joan walked by. It looks fairly mature, and hollies can live up to 300 years, so this is not impossible.
The sound of distant traffic from the Fordingbridge road to the north is a constant background hum. It is not as loud for Joan, though she comments from time to time throughout her book on the annoying increase in traffic on the Forest roads – I tell her she should try living in the twenty-first century if she thinks the 1930s are bad. Even so, the peace of the wood makes traffic hum easy to ignore, and it is the bird calls, whispered breeze and crackle of falling leaves that fill the senses.
Round the top of Studley
By the time we reach the rather undefined point where Eyeworth meets Studley Wood, the day is warming under the sun, and an earlier light frost is melting: the falling leaves are now joined by a relentless cascade of drips and plops. Joan does not mention this: walking in February, when winter still holds full sway, I imagine there was much less of a thaw. She does mention the 20-foot tall Queen Beech standing at the border between the two woods (Heywood Sumner also mentions it in his 1924 book The New Forest). I can’t see it. Later, I found a reference in a 1999 paper Ancient New Forest Trees (Proceedings of the Hampshire Field Club Archaeological Society 54, 63–74) by Chris Read, who surmised it was a maiden (i.e. unpollarded) but dead beech he saw standing at 18 foot tall. Over twenty years later, it may well have fallen, and I feel sad not to have encountered this royal tree.
While I’m ruminating on the lost beech, Joan strides ahead, leaving the wood and turning northwards, to the left. The ‘red arrow’ on my phone’s downloaded map takes me just inside the wood’s edge, whereas Joan describes emerging onto the open heath. Perhaps the path route may have changed a little, or the discrepancy could be due to minor satellite inaccuracies, or trees may have self-seeded beyond the wood boundary.
Soon, I’m joining Joan in the open, heading in the general direction of Claypits Bottom. The way is more of a ‘pony path’ through the bracken, oaks and hollies, with dried flowers of ling flecking the grass. To the west, Eyeworth melds into Studley, and a nuthatch calls stridently. The sun comes out, gilding the frosted brown bracken with hints of gold, and some chestnut ponies complete the colour theme.
Before long, we’re walking slightly uphill, crossing contours towards where a headspring of Latchmoor Brook splashes and bubbles its way into the woods. Water trickles down in tiny rivulets towards the brook from all over the sphagnum-soft rise to my right, something that Joan doesn’t mention. She is thrilled to find one of the sources of the Latchmoor: “…we felt ‘tickled at our hërtes rootes’ to think we had found the fountain from which Fritham’s lovely pool had sprung…”. There’s a discrepancy here between the maps – the historical map shows the headspring as starting lower down, closer to the path, than does the modern map, but Joan’s description of her route matches the modern map more closely, in that she gets to ‘the top of the dip in the moor’. It’s not a major difference, but I give Joan a tick for accuracy.
Here, Joan gets very excited about sighting seven deer at the wood’s edge below us (“a white flicker under the beeches”). She, Mr. Bundy and an eager Bill descend slowly towards them. They are downwind of the deer, and Joan feels herself well-camouflaged by her clothes which are “of the kind that mix well with the moors and woods”, so they get quite close: they [the deer] “were quite innocent of our approach, strolling from sun-pool to sun-pool, flicking white tails, scratching a lowered head with a delicately-pointed hindfoot, or nibbling at the young holly leaves as if there were no dog nor human being nearer than Salisbury.” Eventually, Bill escapes Joan’s restraining hand and gives chase (behaviour that would not be at all acceptable in twenty-first-century Forest dogs!) In a convergence of times, I spot a single fallow deer in this very place, bounding into the cover of the trees.
Joan really is absolutely thrilled to see her deer, or “the grey ladies of the trees”, as she calls them. I wonder why – I mean, I love seeing deer, but they are fairly plentiful here. Back in 1851, the Deer Removal Act led to deer being almost totally removed from the Forest but, from what I have read, some escaped to neighbouring woodlands and made their way back into the Forest before too many decades had passed, and they would not have been so unusual in the 1930s, though probably not as prevalent as now. I expect Joan just loves deer – and why not?
We cross the brook and, walking on uphill, we follow some more pony paths northwestwards until we hit a track. Joan finds a pair of small ponds here (marked on the modern but not historical map), but I find three all in a row on the left, with another a little further down on the right, so they’ve been breeding. These, as Joan surmises, will be temporary ponds (also known as ephemeral pools) – dry in the summer, and wet in other seasons. Several years ago, I spent a happy summer surveying temporary ponds and flooded trackways for rare plants on another important lowland heathland – The Lizard, in western Cornwall – so I feel right at home here. They may look like nothing much, but they’re a nationally important habitat in the Forest, supporting rich floral and faunal assemblages, including many rare species. You should always give them a nod of respect as you pass by.
Then, we get to what Joan calls “Studley’s north gate”. This bit is confusing. Joan declares the way forks and takes the right-hand path. On neither the historical or modern map does this make any sense. Turning right would take you towards what is now the Forestry Commission car park at Telegraph Hill. I decide she means left, so I turn left. I imagine a grumbling Joan and two confused dogs following me.
Nonetheless, the way Joan describes the next section of track as we turn Picket Corner at the top of Studley Wood – going past high gorse and then joining a gravel track that would eventually link further to the south west with the path that travels down from Hampton Ridge – proves me right in my ‘turn left not right’ decision, as that is pretty much the same as I find now.
Find out what we discovered, after turning left (yes, Joan, left), in the next post, in which we head for the towering trees of Islands Thorns.