In which I reach the top of the forest
This road we recognised was one to be followed, and decided to explore it as soon as we could.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest, 1934
On her earlier walks from Fritham in the New Forest, Joan Begbie (writing in Walking in the New Forest, published in 1934) casts her gaze up a track leading away from Eyeworth Pond and calls it the ‘golden road’. She determines that she and, of course, her two dogs (Bill, a white bull terrier, and Mr. Bundy, a diminutive griffon) will return to walk along it soon. In fact, she returns to walk a long way beyond it, through Nomansland, Bramshaw and Janesmoor and on to Ocknell Inclosure, before heading back to Fritham via Holly Hatch and Anses Wood. I walked the first part of this route with Joan, Bill and Mr. Bundy in late February, parting ways as we approached Janesmoor. If you have a copy of Joan’s book, then turn to pages 70 to 72 for Joan’s description of the section of the walk I took (or pages 70 to 77 for her whole walk). Please note that I walk off track for a short section near Pipers Wait: I would not have done so after the beginning of March, when ground-nesting birds need protection from disturbance on the heaths.
Eyeworth and Longcross Plain
We begin at Eyeworth on a bright but cold early morning in late February, on which frost glints on the grass and pinches my fingertips. The Pond looks as if it has sat there between the trees forever, a timeless haven out of an Arthurian tale, its little islands and reedbeds home to mist and mysteries. A goose glides serenely across the water through golden reflections of the oaks and beeches of ancient Eyeworth Wood, gilded with the morning sunlight.
On a morning like this, quiet and gentle, it’s hard to believe that Eyeworth Pond is less than two hundred years old. The stream (a headstream of Latchmoor Brook) was dammed to create water for the Schulze gunpowder factory in the mid-nineteenth century. The factory was closed in the 1920s, but the lake remains.
Joan’s ‘golden road’ leads from Eyeworth northeastwards until it meets the B3078. Now part of the New Forest’s cycle network, it is still made golden by honey-coloured gravel. It has a history the same age as the lake. Known as Powder Mill Road, it was the route used to transport gunpowder from the factory to the road, therefore avoiding passing through Fritham with the potentially dangerous load. Now, it is a tree-lined path that emerges on to Longcross Plain.
Joan and I set off, our hearts happy with the fresh beauty of the morning. At first, we are walking through trees, Eyeworth Wood to the left and Howen Bushes over to the right. The early morning light beneath the dimmed wood is low and slanting, edging the twists and turns of the tree branches and making spiderwebs glisten. The birds are in full song, gearing up for spring.
Joan regrets that this way – which is peaceful and brimming with sparkling life – is too short, and I concur; I could walk this gently rising track for miles without tiring of it. As the trees thin around us, we admire the views across to more distant woods, but are soon out on the plain, with its scatterings of holly and birch, willow and oak. The track climbs before us into the clear blue sky. It is still very cold, and we have the way to ourselves for a while apart from ponies warming up and grazing on the heath, until a pair of cyclists in matching purple outfits pedal swiftly by with a cheery greeting. A few minutes later, I meet and chat with a friendly woman, who I’d seen a little earlier by Eyeworth Pond. We agree that the day is magical in all its frosty, bright beauty.
Although the slope upwards is gentle, the gradient is enough that we cannot see very far ahead. It feels like a secret place. I can hear a woodpecker drumming (there’s always a woodpecker drumming, I’ve noticed), and a nuthatch lands on a tree. Two robins, perched on branches on opposite sides of the track, are having a ‘sing-off’, each wanting to declare and protect their territory against the other. We can see tree-capped Homy Ridge to the left and beyond it Franchises Wood, while under our feet tiny rivulets run from right to left, heading for Howen Bottom.
I’ve been vaguely conscious of traffic noise from the B3078 ahead for a good way along the path, but Joan is caught completely unawares.
…a brave upward curve of the road landed us high on a bit of level going, and we saw with a shock a scarlet petrol lorry flying down what we had taken to be a heathery, lonely hillside.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest
Joan’s right – you do come upon the road very suddenly; it’s a trick of the slope upwards. Although a busy road, you can see in both directions for a reasonable way, so it’s safe to cross with care. We turn right, and then almost immediately left to walk along the edge of the road that crosses Black Bush Plain towards Pipers Wait and the village of Nomansland.
The road is level as it follows a contour approximately on a level with Pipers Wait (the highest point in the Forest at 129 m above sea level), but the land dips away to the west, towards Crow’s Nest Bottom. I leave the road to wander into a holly copse to my left. Through the hollies I catch glimpses of glinting water and bog further downhill, and I walk towards them, until I feel sphagnum moss beneath my boots. Then I turn back towards Pipers Wait, following pony paths through gorse and holly and passing vernal pools until I reach the plateau at the top, closer to the road again, with a skylark singing overhead. I reconvene with Joan – who has been following the road – at the top here, near what is now the Forestry Commission Pipers Wait car park (which wouldn’t have been there in Joan’s time). Joan claims to be able to see the Isle of Wight and the Wiltshire Hills from this spot, but I must admit to seeing nothing like so far, although the views over the heaths and woods are truly wonderful.
Despite spending some time online trying to find the derivation of the name Pipers Wait, I’m still unsure. The closest I could get is that the word Wait (which Joan spells Weight, and it is recorded with varied spellings in earlier times) is derived from an Old Norse word thwaite, subsequently adopted into Anglo-Saxon, and meaning clearing or homestead. Maybe someone called Piper once lived here or nearby. In my imagination, though, a piper waits patiently at the highest point of the Forest, making music and keeping watch over the lands around.
An old boundary bank enclosing Bramshaw Wood, near Nomansland, New Forest
We head off along the bending road and down the hill to Nomansland, passing under the western eaves of Bramshaw Inclosure as we go. The village lies on the cusp of the boundary between two counties: to the left of the road is Wiltshire, while Bramshaw Inclosure and the village green, to the right of the road, are in Hampshire (this boundary is unchanged since before Joan’s time). There’s an interesting article on the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre website about how Nomansland (originally No Man’s Land) was established, and the meaning of its name. In brief, it is not the only Nomansland in the country; similar placenames exist elsewhere, originally associated with scrub or unused/unusable land, often next to boundaries. In the case of our Nomansland, which officially dates back to 1802, it appears there had been some earlier illegal encroachment of land from the Crown.
There is a pub, The Lamb Inn, next door to a restaurant, Les Mirabelles, on the Wiltshire side of the road. The restaurant used to be cottages, but The Lamb Inn was there in Joan’s day, though both pub and restaurant buildings, from comparison with an old photograph, have had some reworking. Next door to the restaurant is the Methodist Church, which looks pretty much the same, apart from an improved porch.
I am jealous of Joan, as she mentions a shop “at whose counter I bought some of the best acid drops ever sucked”. The shop is long gone, together with its wonderful acid drops. Along the road on the right is the village green, on which quoits were played in Joan’s day, but I can’t see the four small squares on the green that the shop owner told her were quoit bases – gone along with the shop, I expect.
She also mentions a bald patch in the middle of the green, which is the cricket pitch. Now, that is still there. The Nomansland Cricket Club has played on the village green since 1926. The website for Bramshaw Cricket Club amusingly recounts the tale of the Nomansland Club’s early days. Originally, the pitch crossed two roads, and batting a ‘six’ could break roof tiles. As the roads became busier, the pitch was moved (in 1973) so that the roads became the boundary: car drivers still need to keep an eye out for those ‘sixes’, though. Back in the 1930s, Joan may well have seen a few broken roof tiles.
Joan and the dogs then head off up the way that connects with the Bramshaw Road.
A track goes right-handed through Bramshaw Wood from the green, but by following it one turns one’s back on the hills of Wiltshire; we kept to the road because it shows them through the tree trunks nearly all the way.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest
Joan’s track is now a minor road, and I’m more interested in exploring the wood, so I head off onto the ‘right-handed’ track, with the intention of rejoining Joan just above Bramshaw Church.
The name Bramshaw is derived from the Old English words meaning bramble copse. I don’t see much in the way of bramble, but this is a wonderfully tangly wood. The northwest section of it was enclosed in 1829 (i.e. Bramshaw Inclosure, which we passed on our way into Nomansland), and its trees are said to have been used as timber for Salisbury Cathedral. The remaining larger area of pasture woodland, Bramshaw Wood – which is where I walk – stretches all the way down to Bramshaw village. I follow a track heading roughly southeastwards, crossing a little stream on the way, until reaching the Bramshaw road just shy of the church. Here come Joan, Bill and Mr. Bundy, tramping down the road, refreshed from views of the Wiltshire hills, and we continue onwards together.
This little stretch of road down to the church is a bit unnerving. No pavements and a few bends mean walkers have to take care. This doesn’t stop me perilously chasing a brimstone butterfly – my first of the year – down the road hoping to get a photograph. I eventually catch up with it nectaring on a primrose on the grassy bank just below the church.
As we reach the outskirts of Bramshaw, we take a turn right (westwards), heading towards the junction at Longcross. We both admire the beautiful beeches and oaks crowding the road’s edge, with tantalising glimpses of the wood (still Bramshaw Wood at first) beyond. I went this way because I wanted to follow where Joan went for this stretch, but I must admit I find it a bit of a slog – a steady uphill towards the end of my walk, all on tarmac, and much warmer than early morning. If I came this way again, I would stick in the shade of the wood, navigating the many footpaths that criss-cross through it and across Black Bush Plain beyond.
From Longcross, we make our way down to Fritham, from where Joan continues on her longer walk. We say our farewells, and I take my own route on the footpath round Fritham Lodge, passing on the way one of the sources of my favourite brook, Dockenswater, which later on its journey flows along the edge of Anses Wood, where Joan is now headed. Then, I head southwesterly through Howen Bushes and back to Eyeworth Pond. Be warned, this last stretch of footpath peters out completely, despite being clearly marked on the map, so the last couple of hundred metres are a rather chaotic scramble of tree roots and brambles. A squirrel sits waiting to greet me as I arrive back at the pond, looking quite amused at my stumbling out, pulling twigs out of my coat and hair, at the place where we started earlier in the day, the beginning of the golden road.
My favourite part of this delightful walk was its start, when we made our way along the golden road in the early morning frost and sun. Like Joan, I would have wished it were longer. I will have to go back on some future morning of frost and blue skies, birdsong and glints of sun beneath the trees and across the plain.