In which I grieve for lost fields, but discover some local Ringwood history
As we live in Ringwood, there is one walk we can take from our own doorstep…Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest
In this post, I accompany Joan Begbie and her two dogs (Bill, a white bull terrier, and Mr Bundy, a diminutive griffon) on the first part of the very first walk she describes in her 1934 book, Walking in the New Forest. The whole walk is circular and a healthy eleven miles in length. It starts from Ringwood (known as the southern gateway to the New Forest, and is where Joan was living), goes up to Rockford Common, and then on to Appleslade and Roe Wood Inclosures before circling back via Handy Cross Plain and Linford. I’ll describe the second (longer) part of the walk in next week’s post. I was walking on an early spring day in March 2021, while Joan was walking in the early 1930s: she doesn’t specify a season, but from her description it’s clear this is a walk she did several times. (If you have a copy of Joan’s book Walking in the New Forest, then turn to pages 4 to 12 for Joan’s description of the walk.)
Of the few walks I’ve completed in Joan Begbie’s footsteps so far, this is the one in which the most has changed since Joan was walking in the 1930s; this is particularly true of the first section of the walk. Ringwood itself has expanded in the last 100 years, added to which Joan is walking not only before the gravel pits to the north of Ringwood had become the lakes we see there today, but also before the gravel pits themselves were dug.
Ringwood and The Red House, and the pleasure of walking
I’m ahead of myself here, however, as we started our walk by the house – The Red House – where Joan was living with her mother in Ringwood. Joan and the two dogs simply stepped outside of her front door, where I met them after leaving my car in the nearby Furlong car park.
The Begbie family lived in The Red House in Ringwood for many years. At the time Joan wrote Walking in the New Forest, she lived there with her widowed mother, Gertrude (Joan and her youngest sister, Eleanor, are both recorded as living there in 1930). Joan remained at The Red House until her mother’s death (in 1949), after which she later moved to Worth Matravers in Dorset.
Joan’s father, Harold Begbie, died at home in The Red House in 1929 at the age of only 58. He was a well-known author and journalist, who wrote both novels and poetry as well as children’s books, political satire and works in support of social reform. The author of one obituary writes: “Begbie had an extraordinary capacity for sympathy; and it has been said of him that he never met a man who did not want him for a friend.” He must have been a remarkable man.
It may well have been Harold who introduced Joan to the joys of walking. She tells a lovely little tale (in Walking in the New Forest, pp. 27 to 28) of rambling with her father in Wensleydale in the Yorkshire Dales, and hearing, for the first time, a snipe drumming during its courtship flight display:
My father, with whom I went for splendid walks, not to be equalled now he is gone, was with me at the time. We thought we heard a lamb bleating and ran first to one side of the walled way up the moors, then to the other, peering over them after the poor little lost creature, and much puzzled by the way in which its voice seemed to come now from here, now from there. It was quite by chance that he looked up and discovered the tiny drummer soaring and diving overhead.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest
My own father, too, loved walking. He used to lead our little family on adventurous holidays in Scotland, complete with sailing dinghy, caravan, landrover (driven by my mother) and an excitable Airedale Terrier. Learning of Harold’s enjoyment of walking and nature gives me a feeling of kinship with Joan: both our fathers gifted us a life-long love of the outdoors.
So, anyway, here we are, outside The Red House. I’m not sure what Joan makes of the Skate Park opposite, but what I am sure of is that the road is a lot busier with traffic than when the Begbie family lived here. We quickly move on.
Gravel Lane to Snails Lane
The first part of the way follows the Avon Valley Path through town. We cut up a small road called, intriguingly, The Sweep, and turn right onto a no-through road called Linden Way, which ends at the westbound slip road from the A31. We cross this, admiring some lovely daffodils on the verge, then walk through the underpass (which has colourful graffiti decorating its walls), cross the eastbound slip road, and join Gravel Lane, another no-through road, which we follow until it meets Northfield Road.
This, of course, is not exactly what Joan is seeing as we walk along. In fact, it’s quite a bit different. Where I turn on to the tarmacked Linden Way, Joan turns on to a gravel lane: by comparing with older maps, this must follow the same route as that now covered by Linden Way and then Gravel Lane. At the southerly end (of what is Linden Way to me), Joan mentions a ‘Stuart manor house and its enchanting stables on one side and a charming old house called The Elms on the other’. The manor house (Georgian rather than Stuart: a Grade II* listed building) is still there, looking very impressive. I can’t see any enchanting stables, though.
The Elms, on the west side of the road, was sadly demolished in 1978 when the roundabout at the A31/A338 junction was constructed. Part of its gardens have, however, been incorporated into a little wooded green area called Doctor Little Gardens, which I pass as I turn onto Linden Way. The park is dedicated to Dr. Reginald Hicks Little, a much-loved local General Practitioner in Ringwood, who lived from 1901 to 1979 and so was a contemporary of Joan Begbie. He was in general practice in Ringwood from 1928 until his retirement in 1963. I wonder if he and Joan ever met.
Joan describes the lane to Northfield Road very briefly. Gravel Lane is fairly green and, as the A31 is slowly left behind, a robin manages to outcompete the diminishing traffic noise and sparrows chatter away in the hedges.
At the junction with Northfield Road, Joan describes a field-path opposite, next to a garage. The footpath is still there, as is a garage, but there is no field. Joan says:
The field will, shortly, I understand, be groaning under bungalows, but up to the present it has either been at one or other of the stages of corn-growing or peopled by fat and friendly cows when we have walked across it. Out of this field the path enters another, and then another, where for a while it wanders hand in hand with a hazel-shadowed, golden stream where trout are to be found. The stream has an open bay where dogs like to swim and where children with glass jars, bare legs and infinite patience, catch minnows. Once I saw a kingfisher dart across this bay and speed a dim, blue flicker up the dusky hazel avenue beyond, and once—oh! memorable day—I surprised a great grey heron at his fishing.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest
Joan goes on to describe more fields and stiles and a wooden bridge, oaks, brambles and rabbits and, further on, ‘…another field always misty with a lovely mysterious-tinted feathery grass…’. It all sounds idyllic, but is a vanished landscape.
The first part of Joan’s path through fields starts, for me, as a footpath behind a row of houses. It then crosses into a residential road, after which there is a right turn through an oval of modern, pleasant houses. Then there is a left turn onto a roughly gravelled, soon to become earthen, footpath. My heart was poised to lift at this point. This is the place where Joan joins the ‘hazel-shadowed stream’ (the western stretch of the Linford Brook before it enters the Avon). I had high hopes of a lovely streamside walk.
Here are the things I knew before this walk. In this area, gravel extraction began in the late 1940s (i.e. after Joan was walking here), continuing into the early twenty-first century. These old gravel pits were then left to fill with water and become lakes, of which the more northerly are now the Blashford Lakes Nature Reserve, and well worth a visit. The southerly lakes, past which I would be walking, are privately owned and managed. So, I knew there would be no fields.
I hadn’t expected, however, to be hemmed in by fencing for the first part of this stretch. To the right, Kingfisher Lake is protected by fencing with only occasional glimpses of the water through small holes. To the left, Linford Brook and its bank is also fenced, though I can at least see it. There is birdsong, and I can hear geese calling on the unseen lake. Ripples of water-reflected light on an oak my side of the fence are frustrating, if pretty, as I cannot see their source. Having said all that, I do appreciate the need for security and privacy so close to town. I am just a little disappointed, given Joan’s lovely description of her own walk along the brook and through the fields.
After a stretch, the brook is no longer fenced, and later still, the fence to the right allows glimpses of the lake beyond. There is holly, hawthorn and ivy, dappled shade, a wren, and two squirrels squabbling up and down an oak. A treecreeper climbs up a concrete fence post, pecking for food as if it were climbing a tree. It’s almost possible to ignore the industrial estate on the far side of the brook.
Even so, I find myself mourning for Joan’s fields, for the trout in the stream, for the kingfisher and the grey heron, and for the friendly cows, the wooden stiles and the feathery grass. They are long gone, lost in a time before gravel pits and lakes, and no memory of them remains in the soil. Only the brook is still there, chuntering through, anxious to rush on past and join the big river, where before I imagine it might have been happy to linger in riffles and ripples along its way.
I turn right up Snails Lane, which is the same road as Joan takes. To the left is a private fishing lake and then a lake with yachts and dinghies (Blashford Lake, part of the nature reserve), and a more secretive, intriguing lake to the right. Geese are cackling and splashing, and there are gulls, coots, goosanders and tufted ducks. A rabbit hops onto the unmade road ahead. My spirits, which had become a little heavy, begin to recover. As I approach the junction with the road to Moyles Court, I see cyclists whizzing by, enjoying the sunshine, and a wooded slope travels upwards towards the heaths and gorse and open spaces of lovely Rockford Common. Joan and I set off up the hill.
In my next post, I will wander across Rockford Common, and then head on through woods and plantations and heaths, meeting ponies, a solitary long-tailed tit, wood sorrel in its first growth and, again, the lovely Linford Brook.