In which I visit a lovely common, and make friends with a brimstone butterfly
… we are out on the lovely stretch of open heath called Rockford Common.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest, 1934
At the end of the last post, you left Joan Begbie and me, and of course her two dogs (Bill, a white bull terrier, and Mr Bundy, a diminutive griffon), at the eastern end of Snails Lane, close to Rockford. In this post, I describe how we continue our walk up to the wide spaces of Rockford Common and on to Appleslade and Roe Inclosures, before circling back via Handy Cross Plain and Linford. Joan was walking in the early 1930s, and wrote about the walk in her 1934 book Walking in the New Forest. I was following in her footsteps on a spring day in 2021. If you have a copy of Joan’s book, then turn to pages 4 to 12 for Joan’s description of her walk. If you’re following the walk yourself and don’t fancy taking the section from central Ringwood, then you can start from the car park near Moyles Court: see the map below for my suggested route.
Moyles Court and Rockford
If I’m driving home from Ringwood, I often take the road that passes through Moyles Court, where it fords Dockenswater (my favourite brook, which I know best from further east, meandering along by Anses Wood). The road then goes on up past South and North Gorley, and then home via Hyde and Stuckton. It’s a much more pleasant drive than the A338, so long as you’re not in a great hurry. In Walking in the New Forest, Joan describes driving up this road in her car, Miss Riley. Of the Moyles Court crossroads, she says:
What a pretty meeting of the ways it is! The finest oak in the district grows just above the stream on a green rise, and…Over the water stands Moyles Court itself, a sober red house backed by woods…Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest
If you are setting out on this walk from Moyles Court (see alternative route on the map), then you can enjoy this, too – but beware, the car park fills up quickly.
Joan, the dogs and I, however, are a little further south, looking up the hill towards Rockford Common. I’m pretty sure that the “steep little wooded hill” that Joan climbs is Bigsburn Hill, and we walk it together, up a road that becomes a wide track, before turning left through a gate and so across the southwestern reaches of Rockford Common.
I really love these open, friendly woods at the top of Bigsburn Hill. The trees are young and thin, mainly birch with some oak, gorse and holly, and the path is moss-soft. A woodpecker drums while birds flit and sing, and the rooks are being their usual raucous selves. I hear a sound to my left and see two roe deer among the trees a little down the hill. One saunters on, but the other stops, peering out from behind an oak, and we gaze at each other for a few seconds before parting ways.
A roe deer peers at me from under the shade of the trees at the top of Bigsburn Hill.
Then we are on Rockford Common itself. Here’s what Joan sees:
Left at the top [of the hill] and we are out on the lovely stretch of open heath called Rockford Common…Goats are tethered among the gorse bushes on the common, ponies and long-legged Forest cattle with clonking bells graze here, and on lucky days the thoroughbreds of a Ringwood butcher go streaming across it with the ease and grace that only their kind possess.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest
There may, for me, be no goats, cattle with bells or a butcher’s graceful thoroughbreds, but Rockford Common remains lovely. There are, of course, New Forest ponies. Hollies and crab apples shelter birds, but pale-barked birch trees dominate, some in interesting crooked, bent shapes for no real reason that I can see.
The birch leaves are beginning to open in fresh green opulence, rustling in the breeze. A stonechat is chuntering away, and chaffinches fly in snatches from branch to branch. Above, a bird of prey soars – a red kite. The views are wonderful, with glimpses of the Wiltshire hills and the land rising to the chalk escarpments of Cranborne Chase. Closer, within the New Forest, I can see the trees of Hasley Inclosure and, beyond it, Hampton Ridge.
Joan mentions falling off a Forest pony she was riding for the first time on Rockford Common, and feeling rather embarrassed by her tumble. She was in fact a keen and proficient horsewoman (image of Joan Begbie with her horse, © Roger Quin).
Joan and I do notice differences between what we are each seeing. After Joan’s time, both Rockford and, to the north, Ibsley Common were used for World War Two manoeuvres. Perhaps the biggest change in the landscape is however the extraction of gravel from the late 1960s. This has now ended, and the land is healing well (with help from the National Trust, who own it as part of their New Forest Northern Commons), but the dips and rises of quarries are evidence of the past insolence. Joan does see signs of earlier human usage – the remains of bee gardens (enclosures used to protect bee hives). I have never had any luck in positively identifying the bee gardens: I really need a guided archaeology walk. I do commend to you a self-guided walk round Rockford Common prepared by the New Forest National Park Authority’s team, which is full of interesting historical information.
The common is criss-crossed by lots of paths. I stick to them, but divert for a short way to follow Big Whitemoor Bottom, with its brook dotted sparsely with moss and fungi-covered gnarled trees. Leaving the common at its eastern edge, Joan notes some pines “whose branches one May day shook out three cuckoos as we passed by…”. There are still some pine here, and we walk by them as we head down to the road that runs along the north-western boundary of Appleslade Inclosure (Appleslade was enclosed back in 1829, and is now mostly conifer with some oak). It’s nice to be under the eaves of the wood, much as we enjoyed Rockford Common.
We follow the road until we reach Amie’s Corner. Here, we turn onto a track, and into Roe Inclosure, passing by some old pollarded oaks and then pretty Roe Cottage.
As we pass through the gate, we are immediately greeted by several brimstone butterflies, freshly woken from their winter sleep on this sunny, warm day. The track I am following goes the same way as Joan’s path, but is for me now a well-gravelled cycle route. Roe Inclosure, planted first in 1811 and later extended, is mainly broadleaf. There are some remnants of the original oak pasture woodland, but conifers were planted in the 1950s and are now dominant, and oaks in the interior date from after the Second World War. It was good to read that the Forestry Commission plan to restore Roe to mixed woodland over the next two decades. I wonder if it will then again match Joan’s description:
It is a delicious wood with a stream, the Linbrook, running through it, and its oak trees seasoned here and there with fine sweet chestnuts and a pine or two ‘to taste’ growing close together above bracken and thorn. Foxgloves grow high and beautiful here, and near the stream towards the lower end of the wood wild columbines prink and preen.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest
As Joan instructs, just before leaving Roe Inclosure, we turn right down a small grassy footpath. Fallen leaves from many an autumn cushion the earth beneath our feet, and the fresh green trefoil leaves of wood sorrel peek out to remind us of the spring. Through the trees to the left I can see the land rising towards the A31 that cuts across the Forest. I can certainly hear it, but the magic of the trees captures my attention, and the traffic becomes only background noise, only really heard when you think about it.
Buckherd Bottom and Little Linford Inclosure
The little path leads to a locked gate, which I climb and emerge on to the “heathy ups and downs and the bogs of Buckherd Bottom”, as Joan portrays it. Joan then describes how she and the dogs, Bill and Mr. Bundy, react to approaching the busy A31.
At the top Mr. Bundy turns spiritually pale and I call frantically to Bill…Quickly I snap the leashes to their collars, for skimming at dizzy speeds across the skyline is the ever changing army of cars whose joy it is to race along the intoxicating Forest roads.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest
Not much difference there, then. Well, there is one difference, in that the A31 was fenced in the early 1960s, so Joan would not have needed to fear for her dogs as she did in the 1930s. Joan is obviously perturbed by the road. I am too, despite the protecting fence. We are now walking along another cycle track (quite a rutted one in part, so I’m not sure how easy it is to cycle down). My feet are also starting to ache, so I sit for a while to eat an apple (having first checked there are no ponies in sight that might come and investigate my snack). Bumblebees are buzzing amongst the gorse, and a brimstone butterfly lands and settles on my small rucksack, which has a butterfly design on it – very appropriate, and the butterfly’s indifference to the road re-establishes my calm.
A brimstone butterfly landed on my rucksack
A little later, we turn onto another clear track that leads into Little Linford Inclosure, past Marrowbones Hill. The inclosure (first enclosed in 1848) looks conifer-dominated from a distance, but that’s deceptive, as it has many beeches, planted in the late 1940s, although conifers were planted in the late 1960s. Joan, in fact, does not walk through the inclosure, but follows a path round its south-western corner. This path no longer exists and, given this is the season when we all need to keep to the tracks to avoid disturbing ground nesting birds, I follow the path from the heath into the wood. Along the way, I spot the stump of a beech defying its felling by sprouting a crown of new twigs.
Then, before the wide gate leading onto the wide ride that follows Linford Bottom, a little shadow dashes and bobs among a tree’s spindly outer branches. It’s a solitary long-tailed tit, one of the cutest birds in existence, hanging and swaying from the thinnest of twigs while it finds food. You usually see these birds in flocks, so I’m not sure where the rest of the gang is.
Linford to Ringwood
Turning left after the gate, we arrive at Linford. I sit by Linford Brook for a while – this is a lovely, peaceful (though popular) spot.
Joan provides three alternatives for returning to Ringwood. One follows the road westwards through Hangersley along the tarmacked road and back into the town, while the others head back to the lakes. I take the first, as the shorter option, because I am feeling quite tired. Joan describes this way as passing pigsties and hen-runs, but now it moves through farmland into the outer margins of Ringwood and on into its centre. A look at a good map will show you several other ways – mixes of footpaths and roads – that will return you to Ringwood (or to Moyles Court, if that is where you have left your car).
The highlight of this long-ish walk was, for me, Rockford Common. This surprised me, as it’s usually the woods I love best. There was something about the common, though. It manages to feel wide open, with its views and long stretches of heath, and at the same time charming, even comforting, with its ponies, flitting birds and twisted, quaint birches. Those earlier ravages imposed by military use and gravel extraction are slowly, surely, being healed, drawn back into the earth under cover of moss and lichen, grasses and ling. Instead, it is the more benign human history of the common – the bee gardens, the pillow mounds, the very heaths themselves – that touches the soul.