Amberwood, Sloden and Alderhill: memories and magic among the trees

In which I find a haunted wood

Its slopes are covered thickly with oaks, hollies and thorns, and it is threaded by Latchmore Brook…we found as soon as we reached it that we could not turn away from it and passed through the gate…

Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest, published 1934

In this post, I continue the walk I began in my last post. If you remember, we had walked from Abbotswell, near Frogham, and then along Hampton Ridge, exploring a world of skylarks, wide skyscapes and history, but stopped short of entering beautiful Amberwood. That is where we’re off to next, as always in the company of Joan Begbie and her two dogs (Bill, a white bull terrier, and Mr Bundy, a diminutive griffon). Joan describes this circular walk in her 1934 book, Walking in the New Forest. The entire walk is 5.5 miles long, and takes in far views, heaths and heathland birds, woodland, streams and open grassland, as well as some local history. Joan, Bill and Mr Bundy visited on a windy and frosty day in late winter. I was walking in late May in gloriously warm sunshine, with the hawthorn in full blossom, but I have also walked here in colder months. It is beautiful in any season, and is one of my favourite New Forest walks. (If you have a copy of Joan’s book Walking in the New Forest, then turn to pages 26 to 33 for Joan’s description of the full walk, including the wonderful walk along Hampton Ridge.)

If the second half of this walk has a theme, it is of remembrance, and of how its songs echo across time and place. Memories weave their magic through the woods and heaths, run with the brooks and the deer, travel from the past and pause for breath in the present, before journeying on into the future along their different roads. If we care to look, we can see that all things – people, creatures, plants – leave tokens of their passing, in body or mind, by which we can remember them. Nettles growing in the fertile soil where humans once lived, bracken-covered barrows built by our distant ancestors, hairs caught on a wire fence where a badger has passed, old placenames that recall a copse or an ancient field or a person’s name: the past lives in our landscape as much as does the present.

“What on earth are you on about?” I can hear the down-to-earth Joan saying. Bill and Mr. Bundy are itching to be off and under the eaves of Amberwood, and so is Joan. I think, though, that she would understand me. She loves to recount tales from history in her writing, and her fascination with it shines as strong as her joy in the Forest. 

We open the gate and, closing it behind us, enter Amberwood.

A sketch map of the entire circular walk, starting from Abbotswell car park, near Frogham (in this post, I describe the section after entering Amberwood Inclosure). The route, which is 5.5 miles long, is shown as a red line on the map (the dotted red line shows a diversion I took from Joan’s route). The Hampton Ridge track is shown in yellow; other footpaths and tracks are shown as dotted lines. For simplicity, not all footpaths are shown, nor all streamlets running in to join the Latchmore Brook. Therefore, please do consult an OS map or similar, especially if you want to explore away from the marked route (I recommend you do: this is a wonderful part of the New Forest).

Amberwood Cottage

On entering the wood, we are immediately and warmly greeted by one of those memories lingering in the present. Joan describes the track passing by a cottage; she and the dogs hurry by, “only pausing to admire two giant tabbies entrenched behind the cottage gate…”. Another time Joan walked this way, she found even more cats.

At the top of the hill a fleet of pursy [= short-winded] cats – tabby, tortoiseshell, and one delightful grey-and-white fellow – streamed from the bushes into Amberwood Cottage’s garden, while hysterical hens rose squawking in a cloud as Bill cantered past.

Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest

I wish I could see Amberwood Cottage. I haven’t even been able to find a photograph of it. It is recorded as a woodsman’s cottage in 1900, but it was empty by the time of the Second World War. In my last post, I described some of the relicts of the Ashley Walk Bombing Range. Amberwood Cottage fell close to its area and was sadly bombed and ultimately demolished. Pausing a few moments, I regret its loss. I’m sure it wouldn’t have been an easy life there for a woodsman and his family, but Joan’s description paints a vivid picture of a friendly and bustling place. 

The cottage isn’t completely gone. A section of stable floor remains as regular square stone tiles, now fringed with grass and mosses rather than sawdust. Yews and Laurel, once grown in the gardens, still stand sentinel nearby. A little further down the path is a Rhododendron with its vivid pink flowers, and I wonder if that was also originally associated with the cottage, and is now a memory of a once busy life. Close your eyes, and you can imagine the sounds and smells of hens and cats, ponies and pigs.

The remains of the stable foundations for Amberwood Cottage, now part of the forest’s floor

Amberwood Inclosure and Latchmore Brook

I can give you some facts about Amberwood. It was first enclosed in 1815, and planted with oak and an outer fringe of Scots Pine, the latter of which was mostly cut in 1918, though some still stand. The northeastern corner sports tall evergreens on its sandy soil, but otherwise it is mostly still dominated by tall oaks, with holly and thorns. But those bare facts belie its beauty, for this is a special, magical wood.

The tall oaks and ferns of Amberwood on a late spring day full of magic and dappled sun

The track twists downhill, goes through a gate and crosses a ride, through another gate, and so onwards, towards Latchmore Brook. Holly grows beneath the oaks, mostly with a clear browse line where the deer have been nibbling. I recognise some of the bird song – Blackbird, Robin and Wren, and the noisy flight of Woodpigeons. Squirrels bound across the forest floor and scamper up trees. As I reach Latchmore Brook, I disturb a Grey Wagtail, and it flies off downstream. Following it a short way, I don’t see it again, but I do find streamside wildflowers.

Returning to the path, I cross the brook (which is not even ankle height at this time of year). 

“Below runs the brook, flowing under Amberwood…” John Richard de Capel Wise, writing in 1862

It is quite possible to lose yourself for a few moments in the reflections of the trees, sky and sunlight as they form and reform dappled patterns in the waters of the brook.

Reflections in Latchmore Brook in Amberwood Inclosure, in the New Forest

Sloden: a haunted wood

The track down through Amberwood eventually emerges onto a wide, straight ride that passes between Sloden Inclosure to the south, and first Amberwood then Alderhill Inclosure to the north. Sloden, and indeed Amberwood, are linked with the sites of Romano-British potteries and workers’ dwellings from the third and fourth centuries, evidence of which, including pottery fragments and quern stones (stones used in pairs for hand-grinding) has been found throughout the area; yet more remembrances of past generations in the land. The ready availability of clay, as well as water from the nearby Latchmore and other waterways, led to a developing industry. Find out more about this history on the websites of the Hampshire Cultural Trust or New Forest Knowledge.

Standing in the middle of the ride, it is clear that Sloden shows a very different character to Amberwood. Sloden was planted later, in 1864, and although it does have some oak and holly, at this eastern end of its extent it is almost all Douglas Fir and Scots Pine. The Amberwood oaks, birches and hollies lean over the ride, reaching out in friendship to the younger evergreens of Sloden, but they are rebuffed: Sloden’s trees are tall and narrow, regimented in aloof rows and with little undergrowth.

The tall, sombre trees of Sloden to the left, standing aloof as the oaks and hollies of Amberwood reach out to them across the sunny ride

Joan feels a little spooked by Sloden. So do Bill and Mr Bundy. Unusually, especially for the excitable Bill, both dogs keep to the track, staying close by Joan’s side.

Of course, it was absurd, but when I thought of the Roman-British dwellings in Amberwood and remembered that the sombre pines of Sloden Enclosure stood over a mass of ancient potteries, when I listened to the sullen whispering of the pines and glanced into their eerie depths under that curdled sky, I did begin to wonder if hundreds of grimy, misty figures might not be scowling at us from behind the tree trunks.

Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest

Joan was walking in mid-winter, a time of year when I have also walked there. Then, I found myself understanding Joan’s unease; on a cold January day, the earliest birds were calling and flying in Amberwood, but Sloden stood almost silent, apart from a steady wind flowing through its treetops. I wondered if this was what had created the eerie atmosphere Joan describes. Now, however, walking in later May, Sloden is still much quieter than its neighbour over the ride. Joan is so unnerved that she starts scaring herself (and me) further by recounting a few ghost stories; thankfully none are associated with Sloden, or we may have all got ourselves very frightened.

…when the oaks gave way to more pines as Amberwood melted into Alderhill Enclosure, and the murmurings grew louder and louder, we felt that the trees were crowding vengefully in on us though the track remained as wide as ever and we nearly took ignominiously to our heels. 

Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest

Poor Joan, Bill and Mr Bundy! I do agree there is something a little, shall we say, watchful about Sloden Inclosure. For me, though, it is the height of May and that means May blossom: the beautiful Hawthorn, of which there is much along the ride. 

Hawthorn: magic and protection

Hawthorn blossom at the edge of Amberwood in the New Forest

Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) – all gnarled bark, thorns, and dense leaves and twigs, with its green lobed leaves, white-pink blossom in spring and red berries (haws) in autumn – is one of the loveliest and friendliest small trees there is. A tree of hedgerow, scrub and wood, it is found across the Forest, especially in sunny clearings and at the woodland edges. Seeing the fresh white of its blossom along the ride lifts the subdued mood that has settled over us. This is, after all, a tree long believed to have protective qualities. It supports over 300 insect species: it is the foodplant of moth caterpillars, such as the Lackey, as well as being an important nectar source. Find out more about this beautiful tree on the Woodland Trust’s website.

Hawthorn is also known in folklore as the ‘fairy tree’; the Celts believed Hawthorn trees stood at the gateway into the realm of ‘Faerie’. I wonder if the British potters who worked here all those centuries ago believed that; if this for them was a place where the barrier between our world and the supernatural otherworld has grown thin. According to legend, it was by a Hawthorn in Scotland that Thomas the Rhymer met a fairy who took him into fairyland for seven long earth years, while for Thomas it seemed like only a few short days.

Alderhill, and Eric Ashby’s bench

We will leave musings on magic, fairies and liminal ‘thin’ places behind, and take a few steps aside from the walk Joan describes in Walking in the New Forest to venture into Alderhill (this detour is shown as a dotted red line on the sketch map above). I’m off to visit one of my favourite quiet places in the New Forest: the bench erected in memory of the naturalist Eric Ashby.

Eric Ashby (1918 to 2003) was a naturalist, conservationist and wildlife film-maker and photographer. He made several films for the BBC’s Natural History Unit, and his patience and attention to detail were hugely admired. He pioneered the filming of wild animals behaving naturally in their own habitats, rather than filming tame animals in staged settings. After moving to Linwood in the New Forest in 1953 with his wife Eileen, he founded the New Forest Badger Group, of which he was President until his death. He and Eileen also cared for rescue foxes at their home. You can find out more about him here or here.

I’ve marked the position of the bench – more memories in the landscape – on the sketch map. It is angled in just the right way that you can see to the left, to the right, up and down the hill, while the trees lean over you from above and the breezes whisper all around. Eric Ashby was a shy, unassuming man, and I can see him liking to sit here. A fox and badger have been carved on the bench, standing either side of and facing towards the small memorial plaque, as if expressing gratitude on behalf of all their fellow creatures to a human who entered and loved their wilder world. 

Joan died almost twenty years before Eric Ashby, and I can’t see that their paths would ever have crossed; she would have been on the move to her Dorset home by the time he moved to Linwood. I believe, though, that, had fate followed a different path, they would have liked to meet and talk about the Forest, its creatures and plants that both of them loved. 

The bench dedicated to the memory of naturalist and wildlife film-maker Eric Ashby sits in a quiet, mindful spot in Alderhill Inclosure

On to Latchmore Shade and back to Abbotswell

Rather than returning immediately to the main ride running alongside Sloden, I take a parallel track westwards (see the sketch map). The track is rather rough-and-ready, with two or three small trees fallen across it. I then head back to the ride as it emerges from the eaves of Alderhill and Sloden. Beware if you come this way: there is a small but deeper part of the stream to cross – I was soaked up to mid-calf. 

The path then follows the route of Latchmore Brook, heading towards Latchmore Shade where tens of ponies are resting and eating (a shade is a place where the New Forest ponies gather, often in large numbers in summer, but a shade is not always a shady place – the ponies are more interested in breezes to keep the flies away).

Ponies at Latchmore Shade

From here, we turn northwards over the footbridge at Ogdens and pass by Ogdens Farm, keeping it to the left. You can stick to the main path until you reach the beginning of the Hampton Ridge track once more, and turn left back to the car park. Alternatively, if the weather is dry and fair, turn left up the rough track just after Ogdens Farm (it’s really more of a dried stream bed) and walk back up to the Abbotswell car park that way.

This circular walk is one of my favourites because of the mix of history, nature, habitats and wildlife. Hampton Ridge is popular with cyclists and walkers, but it is broad enough that you never feel crowded and, once you are in the woods, very few people venture along with you. Abbotswell car park does get extremely busy in summer and other holiday seasons, though, so an early arrival is recommended. Early morning is the best time to walk in summer, I think, in any case. 

If you do come this way, you may well find me sitting on Eric Ashby’s bench in Alderhill, perhaps meditating on things past, present and future, or simply enjoying the warmth of the sun and the trees of the Forest.

A sketch of a New Forest pony and foal by Joan Begbie, from her book Walking in the New Forest

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