In which I search for an old oak and maybe (or maybe don’t) find it
…we keep sternly to the track, which goes along by the side of Highland Water, under fine oaks and beeches among which are two dead trees drilled full of holes by woodpeckers.”Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest
In this post, Joan and I only pass each other as we follow separate paths in opposite directions. She and her two dogs (Bill, a white bull terrier, and Mr Bundy, a diminutive griffon) have been undertaking a circular walk from Burley. In one section she walks northwestwards from the bridge at Bolderford (which Joan spells Boldreford) by charming Highland Water, above the woods of Queen Bower. I am on a different mission, searching for a particular old oak, but we pass at the edge of Poundhill Heath. I will do the full walk with Joan at some time, as it sounds lovely, but for now I’m looking for the tree.
In Joan Begbie’s Walking in the New Forest, there is a black-and-white photograph of a wonderful old oak in Queen Bower, near Brockenhurst. The photograph was taken by John Golden Short (usually written J G Short) of Lyndhurst, a well-known local photographer who was also a dispensing chemist, back in the late nineteenth to early twentieth century. The oak stands proudly by the slow bend of a brook, two limbs twisting and branching in defiance of gravity over the water as they reach for a group of birches growing straight and thin on the opposite bank. It has a wide girth, its bark gnarled, wrinkled and folded with age.
I’m not sure of the copyright on the photograph so haven’t reproduced it here, but if you know the streamside oaks of the New Forest, you will recognise the general description very well. Heywood Sumner, writing in his book The New Forest in the 1920s, says: “The old oaks along the course of the stream in Queen’s Bower are specially characteristic of the growth of these trees in the Forest”, and then goes on to quote Percival Lewis from over 100 years previously:
They do not grow to any considerable height, as oaks usually do in richer soils, but rather extend their branches horizontally, and in most irregular forms…Percival Lewis, Historical Inquiries Concerning Forests and Forest Laws, with Topographical Remarks upon the Ancient and Modern State of the New Forest in the County of Southampton, pub. 1811
Having discovered this much (which better researchers than me will say, correctly, is not a lot), I decided to see if I could find the very oak that J G Short photographed all those years ago.
I need to give a spoiler alert. I have since been reliably informed that this oak has now fallen, probably in the 1980s or 1990s. So, it stood for fifty years after Joan, Bill and Mr Bundy passed through, but I missed it by over thirty years. I should have realised this was possible, for what was obviously such an old oak. They live a long, long time, but not forever.
Last September, though, I set off hopefully and in ignorance. I parked in Blackwater car park on the Rhinefield Ornamental Drive, which was chock-a-block, but I soon left the crowds behind as I headed eastwards along the cycle track through Poundhill Inclosure.
I kept along the cycle path until it meets Highland Water, where I turned right towards Queen Bower. Joan passed this way on her own walk, but in the opposite direction, heading further northwest. I’ll let her guide us along her route another time, but for now suffice it to say she enjoyed walking along Highland Water, but found Queen Bower itself spoiled by overcrowding. It seems current issues with the less considerate visitors to the New Forest are not an entirely new thing.
The worst of Queen Bower is that it happens to be a popular ‘beauty spot’, further cursed by ease of access. Each time we have come here we have been unlucky; first we found Easter campers indulging in awkward antics with balls and giving vent to noises like those which float down to Regent’s Park from the Mappin terraces [animal enclosures in London Zoo]; next time we came upon unlimited gramophone-accompanied picnic parties; and another time found the ground littered with the refuse left by others of the same kidney.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest
Joan, however, was visiting in spring, whereas I was there on a cold and rather grey September day. My experience of Queen Bower was completely different. Only a few people were walking the Highland Water path, and no one ventured within the Bower. I turned off the track and under the trees just before a footbridge crossed the brook, and it was as if a curtain had fallen closed behind me. I felt quite alone and, strangely, a little nervous. Snaps and scratches of sound made me look over my shoulder, and roots stubbed my toes while cold riffles of wind stirred through the fallen leaves and acorns round my feet. But I pressed on, following the brook to see if I could spot a particular configuration of watercourse, branches and trunk.
Before I had gone very far at all, I saw a bend in the brook that looked very like that in the photograph. The perspective and distances were all a good match. However, there was no ancient oak standing proudly, branches arching. Instead, a fallen oak lay part on the bank and part like a bridge across the brook, its tangle of twigs trailing through and eddying the water and fallen leaves in little swirls. One of its long limbs had broken off entirely and lay crookedly to one side, and the rest was a tumble of trunk and branches, claimed by moss and lichen and ferns, fungi tucked into crevices and tiny creatures hiding in its dark corners.
I had a scan of the original photograph with me, so I spent several minutes comparing its angles and twists with the tree that lay here, on the ground. There was quite a lot of similarity: yes, if the fallen tree was standing, then that branch would stretch out just right, and where that branch met the trunk was the same, and so on. I almost convinced myself I had found my tree, and maybe I had, but its decay and brokenness meant there was no way I could be sure.
So, I sat down on the fallen trunk and kept the tree company for a while. In the distraction of working out whether this was my tree, my earlier nervousness had gone. There were the same snaps of sound, the same rustles of cold breeze, but everything was friendlier. A treecreeper flew over and landed on the trunk of a nearby beech. Crows cawed in the distance, pond skaters scooted around in a patch of still water, and the smell of the land and undergrowth was green and mossy.
Around the fallen oak, a circle of trees grew – some beeches, a hawthorn and holly, and an alder wetting its roots in the brook – as if all were honouring the life of the fallen oak, and finding gratitude in its nourishment of them through slow above-ground rotting and underground networks of fungal hyphae threading their way through the soil. Sitting there, quietly, I was no longer a nervous stranger. I, too, was honouring the tree and, for that short period of time and space, I belonged in the wood.
The Irish poet William Allingham (1824–1889), a friend of Tennyson, lived and worked in Lymington for a while. He described visiting Queen Bower on a handful of occasions in his diary. In his entry for 4 May, 1867, he writes:
Lymington. By train to Brockenhurst, and walk to Queen’s Bower. The brook be-starred with white flowers (water crowfoot), little fishes gliding. Sit under the Big Oak reading As You Like It…William Allingham, 1867
Was Allingham’s Big Oak of 1867 the same oak as J G Short photographed in the 1920s? And were either or both the same oak as the fallen tree I kept company with? It’s impossible to know, but I decide it doesn’t really matter. All the gnarled and twisting oaks of the New Forest’s ancient woods and brooks are as beautiful as each other, whether or not they have been preserved in a black-and-white memory.
I know now that the venerable oak of the photograph has definitely fallen. In life, it supported hundreds of species, from birds to insects, bats and other small mammals, galls, fungi, and lichens, and much more. In death, it continues to do so.
As for my own oak, in quiet moments I still imagine it, guarded by its circle of trees, tickled by woodlice and vole whiskers, and dipping its twigs in the trickling waters of the brook.