In which I almost go for a tumble and discover some ancient history
On Jane’s Moor is a pond and two ancient grave mounds, one of which is covered with bushes and has a pine tree growing out of the top.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest (1934)
In this post, I describe how Joan Begbie and I pause, before setting off on a longer walk, to admire a round barrow near Fritham. The day was warmer for Joan, who was walking in spring in the early 1930s and admired a Fritham cottage garden filled with spring flowers. I was walking on a bitingly cold day in early February 2021. Even though the sun shone for me, the frozen moisture in the grass of the plains and open heaths declined to thaw; in places, it was like walking on an ice rink. (If you have a copy of Joan’s book Walking in the New Forest, then turn to page 87 for Joan’s own description of discovering the bowl barrow at Fritham Butt.)
I am looking forward to accompanying Joan for a circular walk through the Copse of Linwood, near Fritham, and on to the Rufus Stone. However, Joan wants first to take a look at a round barrow, now usually known as Fritham Butt or, simply, The Butt (it is marked with the latter name on the modern OS map and the map from Joan’s time, but she refers to it as Jane’s Moor Butt). She walks across from Fritham with her two dogs, while I park my car in the Forestry Commission car park at nearby Janesmoor Pond.
Now, all locals and regular visitors to the New Forest know how busy Janesmoor Pond becomes in the warmer months. Early on after moving to the Forest, I drove into the Janesmoor car park on the August bank holiday and drove straight out again, without setting a foot outside the car. It is a lovely spot for having a picnic or as a starting point for a walk or cycle ride, but the numbers of people congregating there in the summer mean it is far from being a peaceful retreat. The winter, though, is a completely different matter. There is always a handful of people, walking their dogs or passing through, but it is much easier to enjoy the tranquillity of the heath and sparkling waters of the pond.
After parking, I therefore spend a few minutes by Janesmoor Pond before heading off to meet Joan at Fritham Butt. It’s first thing in the morning in early February and the temperature is below zero. It is so cold, in fact, that the layer of moisture in the grass round the Pond is completely frozen. Rather than crunching and giving way with each footstep, the ice layer is unyielding, and walking across it is unsettlingly precarious. My feet slide from under me several times, and once I only avoid tumbling over by waving my arms and body in an ungainly windmill dance as an attempt to keep my balance (successful, fortunately). Noone else is there, which is just as well for my dignity.
It’s worth it, though. I’m bundled in jumpers, thermals, two layers of socks, two pairs of gloves and a woolly hat. The air is crisp and clean, a sea of crystals glitters over the heath beneath a sky hazy with an icy mist, and Janesmoor Pond itself, completely frozen over, lies solidly among the frozen grass. Sparrows, thrushes and blackbirds make low dashing flights into and out of the gorse. Even this early in the year, and in this cold, I hear a robin singing and a woodpecker drumming in the trees of the nearby Copse of Linwood. A small skewbald pony stands unmoving beneath the trees, while a bird churrs as it flies above us. There is an occasional passing car and a distant background noise from traffic on Roger Penny Way (the B3078) to the north. Sound travels further and is louder in cold air: that’s the science. But my perception, despite an increased awareness of sounds, is of a deep stillness. The cold, on this windless day, has a presence of its own in which the birds, the pony and I are sheltered from the intrusion of traffic hum.
It’s time to head off to Fritham Butt and meet Joan, though, and I slip and slide my way there along the road’s verge.
Fritham Butt (round barrows across the New Forest are called butts) is the most northerly, and best-preserved, of a pair of round barrows lying a few hundred metres northwest of Janesmoor Pond, and some 40 m apart from each other. The more southerly barrow is smaller and only about 20 cm high, so is much less distinctive. Fritham Butt, on the other hand has a diameter of over 20 m, is a little over 2 m high, and is surrounded by a ditch that dries out in the summer (this information comes from Historic England’s website). I couldn’t see it, but there is apparently the remains of a low brick-built building on top of Fritham Butt, dating to and associated with the Second World War. Indeed, if you look at an aerial map of the area you can still see, to the south of the two butts, the outlines of the runways and tracks of Stoney Cross airfield, operational between 1942 and 1946 (find out more on the excellent New Forest Knowledge website).
The two barrows are examples of bowl barrows, a kind of round barrow (and the most numerous kind). Bowl barrows are so called because, with their humped shape, and usually with a surrounding ditch, they look a bit like an upside-down bowl. Dating from the Late Neolithic to Late Bronze Age, they are burial sites (either cremations or interments) of high status individuals covered by mounds of earth and/or stone. (Fritham Butt is a cremation and comprises turf with a gravel cap – this was revealed in an excavation in 1943, so not so many years after Joan’s visit in the 1930s). There are well over 400 such barrows across the New Forest, mainly from the Bronze Age. You can listen to a short film about them on the New Forest National Park Authority’s YouTube channel here.
Imagine my surprise, then, to find Joan in conversation with a local man who was explaining that the two butts here at Fritham are in fact burial sites for French men from more recent history (presumably the Hundred Years’ and Napoleonic Wars). He is quite a character. Joan describes him with her usual good-natured humour:
…we found a nice old man with a grey moustache neatly clipped and a mahogany-coloured face mending the road… close by in the lee of a gorse bush his tricycle stood, sheltered from sudden showers by a huge gig umbrella whose knobbly handle was wedged in the wheel-spokes to keep it true to its trust.
He declares that:
They French kep’ on trying for to land, and…sometimes, look, they did just manage to get on shore and then there was fighten’ arl over this Forest.
The two butts are therefore, he says, French men’s graves from these wars (though he does admit he may not be right).
Joan is, of course, well aware that these are far older burials, saying to herself, “Thus he denied some ancient British warriors their graves…”. One thing I have noticed about Joan when she describes meeting local people during her walks is her unfailing friendliness and genuine interest. In this encounter by Fritham Butt I imagine her holding her counsel on the real nature of the barrows, and simply enjoying the tale with no contradiction from her to mar the telling of it.
I spend some time by Fritham Butt. It and its companion barrow are scheduled monuments, and yet I had passed them on the road so many times and assumed them simply to be large hummocks of vegetation. On this day, the water in Fritham Butt’s ditch is frozen and treacherous. The pine tree seen at its top by Joan is long gone, but the mound is home to scrubby trees and shrubs, including gorse and a small oak, whose branches, laden with russet buds, were outlined against the cold sky and the rays of the early sun.
Whoever was buried in Fritham Butt died some 4000 years ago. We can barely refer to them as an ancestor. Successive immigrations onto our shores from prehistory – from the first hunter-gathers to the Celts, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and Normans and into the modern era, our islands have always been richly multi-cultural – mean the line of descent from Bronze Age folk is far from continuous. Yet, nonetheless, I feel a kinship with these ancient peoples. They may have had different lives, different beliefs, but we inhabit the same land, a land they shaped by clearing woods for farming, giving us today’s heathlands. We look to the same skies, share emotions and senses. They, too, would have heard the robins and seen the thrushes. In winter, their feet would have crunched through icy grass, and they may have felt hope for spring as the oak buds swelled.
They are the people that walked here before, and it is in place and belonging that continuity between us lies, not in genetic descent. From the Bronze Age peoples that venerated the barrows to Joan’s old man with his bicycle and French burial stories and on to my musings on ancestry and history, Fritham Butt, and ancient places like it, is a meeting point – a convergence of stories and legends from many times – carrying with it the simple familiarity of being part of where you live, your community, and the tale of your own history.
The cold, though, means that I can only sit and ponder all this for a short while. Back to walking. Joan, the dogs and I now set off to explore the Copse of Linwood and beyond, and that will be the subject of my next post.