In which I enjoy the first properly sunny day for ages
We left the wood with regret, for though there is no very impressive timber to look at, the hill only having been planted in 1810, it has big clearings revealing such visions of trees climbing up one slope, pouring down others, filling hollows, and capping the rises beyond that we were almost persuaded to spend the rest of the morning in the enclosure.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest, published 1934
At the end of my last post I promised to take you back to Godshill Wood in the New Forest, following the circular route of a butterfly survey I regularly undertake there. True to my word, here we are, on a sunny May morning, leaving the car in the Forestry Commission car park and ready to set out on one of my favourite walks.
Joan Begbie and her two dogs (Bill, a white bull terrier, and Mr Bundy, a diminutive griffon) passed this way, but Joan only describes (in her 1934 book Walking in the New Forest) going along the wide area of open turf that follows the south-eastern edge of the inclosure; she then entered the wood and walked northwards to emerge onto the Woodgreen road. This is such a small corner of a lovely wood, and I worry that Joan has missed a treat. The quotation from her book at the top of this post suggests she thought so, too.
I’m therefore imagining showing Joan, Bill and Mr Bundy more of the wood, including the wood ants’ birch tree, the sunny clearing where wildflowers grow and butterflies mingle, the road of graceful beeches, and the way you can take to Castle Hill and the grandest view for miles around.
Godshill Wood, in the north of the New Forest, manages to be both very popular and a haven. Although you’re unlikely to walk along any of the main footpaths without meeting a few people, even early in the morning (often with canine companions – this is a favourite place for dog walking), they are always friendly (both people and dogs). I’ve had many a lovely chat with folk I’ve bumped into along the way here while surveying butterflies. The conversation usually starts with an enquiry about my clipboard and what I’m doing, then we’ll talk about butterflies and birds, moths and deer, and how we love this wood. So, while this is not a place to visit for solitude, its soul is heartening, as are its people.
Bill and Mr Bundy would have had a whale of a time in Godshill Wood: so many other dogs to meet, things to sniff, muddy patches to jump in and shrubby patches in which to get lost. Bill in particular would have disappeared into the undergrowth, only emerging every now and then, twigs in his fur; I think even the more cautious Mr Bundy would have been tempted to leave Joan’s side to explore.
I’ve shown the route of the butterfly survey walk on the sketch map below, but you can see there are many other tracks through the woods. There are even some ‘secret’ ones: narrow paths meandering between the trees that are not shown on the Ordnance Survey map: they may be winding ways between trees worn into paths by foresters or deer (not ponies, which are fenced out of the inclosure – though some occasionally do sneak their way in). These hidden paths bring adventures, and are the best place to find a whisper of the old wood that grew here before the forestry inclosure was planted in 1810. One of my favourite secret ways in Godshill Wood is just north of where the map finishes, but I’ll take you there another time. Today, we’re walking the butterfly route.
The butterflies of Godshill Wood
Perhaps this is a good place to pause and mention the butterflies. The unusually wet and cold weather this spring has not done them any good, and fewer than normal for the time of year have so far been on the wing, either on this survey route or on the many others walked across the Forest by members of the New Forest Transect Group (transect is a formal word meaning the route of a species survey). While I wasn’t surveying for butterflies on this particular morning, I was keeping half an eye out for them as the day warmed up, but with no luck, despite the sunshine. Godshill Wood isn’t home to any rare butterflies, but a fair few different species are found at various times during the spring and summer. These include Meadow Brown, Gatekeeper, Speckled Wood, Large and Small White, Green-veined White, Red Admiral, Peacock and Holly Blue, together with Brimstone, Orange-tip, Ringlet and Silver-washed Fritillary, plus a few others in smaller numbers.
My personal favourite is the Speckled Wood, perhaps the feistiest butterfly there is. The males are strongly territorial, perching in vegetation as they scout for females, and will pluckily see off any ‘invader’, including humans. A walk through the woods in the summer months is usually punctuated by small brown butterflies dive-bombing into your path until you move on – you were, of course, moving on anyway but, as far as any Speckled Wood alpha male is concerned, you have been successfully sent packing, and he will return victorious to his perch.
A secret path
The first part of the butterfly survey route follows the grassy wide strip of land along the southeastern edge of the wood, the further edge of which dips down steeply to Millersford Bottom. This is a lovely view. You can’t see as far as from nearby Castle Hill, but the slope towards the hidden valley, glinting with water and stippled with sphagnum, and the rise to Godshill Ridge and Deadman Hill, make for an enchanting sight. Go early in the morning on a sunny day, and the mist will be sparkling in the air. The way along here is a favourite with Holly Blues: there’s lots of Holly (the main springtime food plant of Holly Blue caterpillars) and Ivy (on which the second generation caterpillars feed in summer).
Eventually, you come to the second gate (as Joan calls it, because there is a ‘first gate’ next to the car park). The track beyond here is often boggy, but don’t worry because here is one of the secret paths. Almost immediately after passing through the gate, you will see a faint turning to the right. It looks like boots have trodden a way to avoid the mud but, rather than returning immediately to the main path after the boggy patch is passed, the secret way continues on in a parallel direction, winding through the trees. You can see people walking on the main track to your left, but they can’t see you. I have to squelch along the proper path for the butterfly survey, but any other time I take the hidden way. I think Joan would approve: Bill certainly would.
The butterfly crossroads
We cross the cycle path. In the walk that Joan describes in her book, she turns right here, but today we’re continuing on towards a sunny crossing of paths. This little clearing, in times of more prolonged warm spring weather, boasts wild flowers and butterflies, and even today there is Tormentil, Daisy, Speedwell and Stitchwort. The sky is blue and the sun is gleaming in the moist grass, so we can hope for butterflies before too many more days have passed, flitting among the flowers.
The sunny clearing at the crossing of tracks in Godshill Wood
The way to Castle Hill
If you continue straight on from here and turn left at the next crossing of tracks, you will find your way across the main (and very straight) Woodgreen to Godshill road and into the western part of the wood, before emerging onto another road and the finest view you could ever wish for. This is Castle Hill. The castle itself is an Iron Age hill fort, which I have yet to visit. The panorama from the roadside car park (which has convenient benches) is the reason most people come here. From the escarpment, your eyes scan westwards, passing over water meadows and Breamore Mill, before rising towards the chalk hills of Cranborne Chase. Swans often rest in the water meadows: I have counted over fifty before now through my binoculars. Another time, two Red Kites circled overhead.
The wood ants’ birch tree
However, this is not the way we go today. Instead, we turn left at the sunny butterfly crossroads, out of the sunshine and into the tree shade, following the path – another muddy one and a favourite of the feisty Speckled Woods – until reaching the cycle track once more. Ahead, you can see the ‘first gate’ and parked cars, but we turn right here, and it’s not long until you find the wood ants’ birch tree.
The last two years, there’s been a Southern Wood Ants’ nest against the trunk of this birch – not a particularly large nest, but a nest nonetheless, built from twigs, leaves and pine needles as well as soil. They are the largest species of ant in the UK, at up to 1 cm long, and are voracious predators of small invertebrates, as well as being very territorial. Questing dogs (that includes you, Bill and Mr Bundy) may want to think twice about poking their noses too close if they don’t want to be sprayed with formic acid.
I’ve always been fascinated watching the ants rushing around in complicated patterns of movement on top of their nest, before some head off in single file up the birch tree, while others march away to forage elsewhere. This year, I’m sad to find the nest seems to have disappeared, although there are still ants on the tree. I also found wood ants climbing two nearby birches, but couldn’t spot a nest. It’s possible the original nest was disturbed or predated, and the ants we’re seeing today are from elsewhere. The nest may even have fallen foul of an ant war with a neighbouring colony. I’ll be keeping an eye on their tree this year, to see what happens and if an ant home is rebuilt against its trunk. I’m glad, though, that they’re still climbing their tree.
A Southern Wood Ant (Formica rufa) climbs the wood ants’ birch tree in Godshill Wood in the New Forest. Despite being a fairly common sight across the New Forest and other parts of southern England and Wales, the species is on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Habitat loss is the main cause of concern.
Why do they climb the birch tree? The ants have a ‘sweet tooth’; their favourite food is honeydew, which is secreted by aphids, a few species of which feed on birch sap. The wood ants are not only off up the tree to feast on and gather the honeydew; they also encourage the aphids to produce more of the tasty substance by stroking them with their antennae. In return, the ants provide a defence to the aphids against predation. Find out more on the Woodland Trust’s website.
The road of graceful beeches
Continuing on, we cross the road that cuts through the wood north to south. This road feels like it should be a modern addition because it is so very straight, but it’s been there a long time, appearing on older maps. I call it ‘the road of graceful beeches’, even though there are also other tree species – oaks, sweet chestnut, conifers – crowding along its edges. It’s the way, though, that beeches hang their branches high above the road in shimmering curtains of laced green. When backlit on a sunny day, the effect is magical as your eye follows the straight road’s narrowing perspective, whether the beech leaves are the delicate green of spring, the deep green of summer, or the russet of autumn.
On the other side of the road, we follow the path, finding Bluebells and Stitchwort, before turning left along a shady track that leads to a gate out of the wood. Ponies often stand near this gate, watching as you get near: I think they are hoping to get in to explore the rich pickings within the boundary.
The last stretch
Outside the wood again, we turn left and up a track before walking across the grass, past a bench (welcome to weary feet) and then crossing the road and back into Godshill car park.
Joan, Bill and Mr Bundy would have enjoyed this walk. I hope they did go back another time, maybe after Joan’s book was finished and published, and that is why she could not include it in her writing. All three of them, human and dogs, are just the sort who would have loved this friendly wood, with its characterful trees, sunny clearings and secret ways.
I walk the butterfly survey route as part of the New Forest Transect Group (NFTG), which is affiliated with the national charity Butterfly Conservation. The NFTG has over 50 transects that are monitored weekly by volunteers from April to September across the New Forest. This happens all over the country; the regular records enable Butterfly Conservation to keep track of butterfly populations and monitor changes over time. Find out more about this and other butterfly and moth recording schemes.