In the New Forest: landscape, history, and the network of things

In which I begin to learn about understanding a landscape

I have never seen Ibsley’s slopes more lovely than they looked from Rockford that day. Dark heather, red bracken and bleached grass were so blended and mingled that they made me think of tortoiseshell. From under the cuckoo pines, lying in the dazzling sun, they really were very beautiful.

Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest, published 1934

At the beginning of May, I wrote a post describing a visit to lovely Rockford Common. In next week’s post, I will be exploring another common just to the north of Rockford. This is Ibsley Common and, as always, I will be in the company of Joan Begbie and her two dogs (Bill, a white bull terrier, and Mr Bundy, a diminutive griffon). Today, however, I want to pause for a step or two at the top of the common, and consider the importance of understanding the landscape in which we walk.

Of the many things that Joan Begbie has taught me, not just about the New Forest but in general, one of the most important has been to lift up my eyes and look wider. I am one of those who walks along always seeking out the smaller, hidden things: fungi tucked in a fold of tree bark; a scrape in bare earth where a badger has dug for worms; stones tumbled from an old, long-gone building; secretive flowers, such as milkwort or eyebright, nestling among the grass; pony and deer paths wending through the heather; a moth sheltering under a leaf. I am also good at what I call wayfinding: I can remember how to get from ‘a’ to ‘b’ using landmarks – turn right just after the gate with the wonky latch, go straight on past the oak covered in burrs, turn left where the path divides round a group of three hollies, and so on. My sense of where all these things sit in the landscape has always, however, been a little hazy.

Horses in a misty field in Mockbeggar, the New Forest

Joan is also a wayfinder. In the quote that opens this post, she mentions the cuckoo pines, “whose branches one May day shook out three cuckoos as we passed by…”. These are a group of trees that she found at the eastern edge of Rockford Common (there are still pines there). For her they became the cuckoo pines, a familiar wayfinding point in the landscape, whether or not cuckoos sang from them each time she passed. Similarly, for me, there is a tree in Godshill Wood that I will always call the ‘wood ants’ birch tree’, because wood ants climb it from their nest all summer long to reach the aphid honeydew. I call it that through the winter, when there are no ants, and I know I will do so even if they ever desert their tree. 

Unlike me, however, Joan is naturally aware of her place in the wider landscape. During her walks, she often pauses to cast her eyes from horizon to horizon in order to know and name and exhilarate in what she sees, ignoring Bill and Mr Bundy as they plead to continue onwards. Here is an example:

The bog lies spread at the foot of the Common like a huge golden-brown bearskin rug, and beyond it are the rising woods of Linwood and the as yet hidden Dockens Water; on the left the big mass of Hasley, and on the right, just showing still, the tops of Milkham and Roe above some half-tamed hillside fields.

Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest

You see what I mean? While I’m looking round my feet for bog-loving plants – sundew, forget-me-not, spearwort – Joan is looking up and outwards. 

Joan sees the wider setting of the mire in which our boots are slowly sinking. 

I am learning to do that, too, thanks to Joan. I believe this to be an important leap in how I see the natural world. Not that I will ever stop seeking out the hidden, often overlooked things, because I consider them to be beautiful and entrancing. Rather, I am beginning to see them as a network of connections from the smallest to the largest, between plants, creatures, the heaths, woods and escarpments, the stories (human and other) that the landscape tells, and time itself. 

These connections are from different eras and places, all intermingled: an abandoned Second World War building sits on heathland created by prehistoric people; a modern cycle track crosses footpaths that are many centuries old; grey squirrels – introduced here in the nineteenth century – scramble up the Forest’s trees even as native pine martens make their tentative return after centuries of absence. Then there are the placenames: Brockenhurst, meaning Badger’s Wood, or Hasley, meaning the glade among hazels, even though the hazels are long gone. Go further back, and the very geology – gravel, sand and clay – hints at a time when what is now a forest was once a shallow sea. 

In a landscape such as the New Forest (and, indeed, all landscapes) the marks of time, humanity and nature are not linear; they co-exist. Joan Begbie walked through this land, with Bill and Mr Bundy, almost one hundred years ago. I walk it now, following her words and her bootsteps, and she is still teaching me; teaching me to lift my eyes and name what I see, from large to small, from the distant past to the present, from escarpment to mole hill, or from an ancient hilltop fort to Romano-British pottery fragments in the roots of a tree, and so on to the local potters still creating their wares today. 

I am more than happy to be still learning about this beautiful place. The next time I have my nose among the sundew and crowfoot, I will remember to stand and look around, to the next hill and the next valley, so I know where my feet are planted. As Joan wrote in Walking in the New Forest:

To be worthy of the freedom of the Forest you ought to be eager to know all that you can about its woods, moors, and bogs.

Or, to quote Marcel Proust:

The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.

In next week’s post, Joan and I will be back to proper walking, exploring Ibsey Common and Dockenswater on a day that started in mist and ended in brilliant sunshine. Why not join us to find out something of the history and nature of this lovely landscape in the north of the New Forest.

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