In which I set out in mist and finish in sunshine
Straight up from the last little fence rise the first bluffs of the Common. Bracken begins and gorse, and in a stride or two the road is jostled by low hills thick in heather.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest, published 1934
In last week’s post, we paused on Ibsley Common in the north of the New Forest to consider the importance of learning the landscape. Now we’re finally off to explore the common just to the north of Rockford; this is Ibsley Common. We’ll also cross Dockenswater towards Linwood and Appleslade, getting mired in a bog along the way. 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). When Joan visited, it was cold, bright and frosty. When I visited, it was warm, starting off misty and ending up in brilliant sunshine. Joan describes this walk in her 1934 book Walking in the New Forest (if you have her book, turn to pages 16 to 22).
Last time I wrote, it was of the importance of lifting your eyes and learning the landscape. How ironic, then, that today’s walk begins in mist. Joan had promised me views to Cranborne Chase and the Wiltshire Hills from up here on Ibsley Common but, through no fault of her own, she can’t deliver, at least not at the start of the day when the mist is heavy and low.
The landscape disappears into a white-grey haze hanging in the still air, and vision is reduced to a circle of a few yards in all directions. As each tree is approached, it begins as a vague shape that gradually gains definition, only finally coming into full focus when I am right upon it, so that I am forced to consider its minute details – leaf imperfections, folds of bark, clinging lichen – rather than seeing it as an entire being. Hills and trees on the other side of the valley, beyond Dockenswater, are cut-out shapes seen through obscured glass. It’s not cold, and the air smells green, fresh and loamy, but it is a little eerie.
The top of Ibsley Common is not, though, where we started, though we did start in mist. Joan, Bill and Mr Bundy as always in tow, meets me where I’ve parked in a layby swirling with mist next to the Old Beams Inn on the A338 at a ludicrously early hour (but I do like an early morning walk).
There is a little church building here, on the corner with Mockbeggar Lane. It mainly dates to the nineteenth century, replacing an older one from the seventeenth century. Still a church when Joan walked by, it is now an arts and crafts gallery, though is I think for sale. It has a garden full of flowers with a lovely wild feel about it – my kind of garden – and some gravestones still remain, though I was unable to read the inscriptions through the fog.
The lane up to Mockbeggar is a pleasant tarmac road with cottages, small farms, and wide grass verges dotted with rabbits. The way travels over a cattle grid and meets the road that leads southwards to Moyles Court, going past the Crosslanes Chapel, a white church with a friendly, neat look about it. Straight over the crossroads we go. We take the first track to the left, heading up towards Summerlug Hill and Ibsley Common.
Maxwell Armfield and Constance Smedley
Now, Joan mentions that somewhere along here is “the home of the artist Maxwell Armfield, whose coloured wood engravings have often made me wish I was able to collect them.” Have you heard of him? I certainly hadn’t, but a quick internet search revealed that Maxwell Armfield (1881 to 1972) and his wife, Constance Smedley (1876 to 1941), were a delightfully unorthodox couple.
Without going into too much detail, here’s a few things to say about Maxwell and Constance. Maxwell was born in Ringwood and attended Birmingham School of Art (at the time, a centre for the Arts and Crafts movement). Constance, a feminist, playright and artist, also studied there though, being a few years older, their paths didn’t cross; they later met through a mutual friend and married in 1909. Constance had a disability that meant she was unable to walk without assistance (possibly due to contracting polio), but she didn’t let that stop her. By the time of her marriage, she had already founded the International Association of Lyceum Clubs, a professional women’s club that’s still going strong today. Both pacifists, they moved to the United States at the beginning of the First World War and set up the Greenleaf Theatre, a travelling theatre based on mediaeval troubadour schools. On returning to England, they set up home in Mockbeggar, where they stayed from 1922 to 1939. Maxwell designed the house they lived in; they also founded the New Forest Group of Painters.
You can read more about Maxwell and Constance here, and I recommend you do. They really should be better known. Joan, who also trained in art, clearly knew of them, and they would have been living in Mockbeggar when she walked this way in the 1930s.
Summerlug Hill and Ibsley Common
We are now off up Summerlug Hill and on to Ibsley Common, Bill and Mr Bundy trotting ahead. I was sad, though, when Joan commented on “how the elms remained in the valley”. There are no elms now, of course; they would have been lost to Dutch elm disease in the 1970s.
We cheer ourselves up by working out the derivation of the curious name Summerlug. Lug (which is Anglo-Saxon in origin) has the general meaning of pushing or pulling something with effort. Now, the commoners and/or farmers of times long gone would have moved their animals from lower to higher ground in the summer, and so one explanation for the name is that here their route, prodding and encouraging the stock uphill, became Summerlug Hill. It’s a lovely wooded hill; at the top you go through a wooden gate barrier to find yourself on the Common. Even in the low visibility, it is a lovely walk across the top of the common, and there are lots of summer flowers.
There is also a multitude of spider webs, some of them spiral orb webs, some clustered in tangled clumps on the vegetation, some funnel webs, and others single silken threads stretched from leaf to leaf. All were jewelled with water
We’re aware of the darkening shape of Whitefield Plantation ahead. It’s close to a Trig Pillar, sporting a plaque explaining that it was adopted by the Ringwood and Fordingbridge Footpath Society in 1994. It’s recently been painted a lovely bright white, so the Society is looking after it well.
Joan is disappointed by Whitefield Plantation. She had been looking forward to meeting it, previously writing:
We had developed a fondness for Whitefield Plantation because it had served us in such good stead as a landmark and was so shapely and dignified. ‘One day,’ we said to ourselves, ‘we will climb those slopes and go and call on Whitefield Plantation.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest
Now, she thinks very differently.
Approached from behind it loses its symmetry, appearing elongated, and with a gap at one end so large that it gives the impression of one big and one small clump of trees instead of a united community.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest
Whether it’s the passage of time healing the asymmetry or simply not being able to see very far, I find myself disagreeing with Joan. I venture into Whitefield and no mist follows me, though looking out from the trees I can see only haze. I fancy that this is a world between worlds; that if I leave by another place on its boundary, I will find myself somewhere completely different. Just to be safe, I leave the trees by the same spot as I entered.
As we walk on, I find myself feeling sorry for the birds. They sound very subdued, and I spot a Stonechat looking very bedraggled and damp. We are all waiting for the sun.
The sun does start to make an occasional appearance, and finally begins to burn through the haze just as the track, to use Joan’s words, “dwindles to a tiny path almost hidden by the heather.” That hasn’t changed: do watch your step here, as the path is gravelly and downhill, and it’s easy to miss your step (I did, with a bruised knee and ankle to show for it). But…the way is lined with Milkwort, Bedstraw and Tormentil, and the familiar shape of Hasley Plantation is ahead, so it’s worth the scramble down.
At the bottom, we meet Linwood Bog and Dockenswater, which is surrounded by kindly oak trees and is a lovely peaty coloured stream. The track passes over a sturdy wooden footbridge (Joan describes a plank bridge, so it’s obviously had an upgrade) and continues on to meet a cycle track (lined with lovely wild roses) which becomes a tarmac road – which for Joan was a “respectable, unadventurous and pretty gravel lane” – that bends sharp left towards Toms Farm.
It’s here that I part company from Joan, Bill and Mr Bundy. They’re off to Rockford Common and then on home to Ringwood, whereas I am heading back up to Ibsley Common. And hurray! – finally, the sun comes out properly and the last of the mist is gone.
I’ve planned a couple of detours along the way. Firstly, I take the footpath that passes from Toms to Appleslade Farm. This turns out to be a little adventure. In parts quite narrow and with a gate that’s hard to open and a rickety stile, it nonetheless ends up in a lovely narrow way in which you are wading through wildflowers – foxgloves, buttercups, thistles, plus lots of buzzing bumblebees. This emerges onto the road that travels between Moyles Court and Appleslade (this is a road I love to drive along, and it’s quite nice to walk along, too, as you can step up to the raised grassy verge). However, from here, I’d planned a second detour, which was even more of an adventure than the first.
A detour: Linwood Bog and the nature reserve
On the OS map, a track then a footpath heads northwards from the road and passes through Linwood Nature Reserve, owned by the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust. The reserve is not open to members of the public without special permission, to protect its vulnerable habitat. According to the map, the footpath then continues up to Ibsley Common. The best laid schemes, and all that…
The first track and footpath are fine (though you have to hunt a bit for where the footpath leaves the track). The approach as the path enters the nature reserve sports a boardwalk, which continues on through most of the reserve. The restricted access means that the path is fenced on both sides, but you can still see a little way in. I spot willow, proud foxgloves, and a deer scrambles away to the right while a cuckoo calls, nearby but out of sight. Everything smells delightfully boggy. It is very peaceful, very beautiful, but I do feel a bit of an interloper. I don’t think many humans come this way.
At the other end, I cross Dockenswater over a plank bridge with a single handrail, and back into Linwood Bog. Here, according to the map, the footpath should continue clearly on across the heath. Alas, no. I can see a sandy path a few hundred metres ahead, but between here and there it is all unremitting, boots-sinking-up-to-your-ankles bog. This is quite a delicate habitat, even before you begin to consider the ground nesting birds for which this would be a lovely place to brood. To reinforce the point, a Skylark soars overhead, singing away. There’s no decent choice but to turn around and return to the Appleslade to Moyles Court road. I do pause for a few moments to admire the sea of Sundew in the bog.
I’m nearly back to the road, when a flutter of brilliant blue sidles into the vegetation nearby. This makes the backtracking more than worthwhile. It’s my first Silver-studded Blue butterfly of the year, and I’m thrilled.
The Silver-studded Blue (Plebejus argus) is found on heathland and by the coast, but is sadly one of the many butterflies that that is suffering a serious decline. The photograph is of the male I saw near Appleslade; females are more brown in colour, but still quietly pretty. Find out more about this lovely butterfly here.
Return to Ibsley Common
I continue westwards up the road, until I hit the footpath (a proper footpath this time) that crosses the eastern edge of Newlands Plantation and heads towards Ibsley Common and Mockbeggar. I cross Dockenswater yet again. Midges are dancing over the water in sharp-cornered shapes, and beyond the path is bordered by lovely ditches filled with Sundew, Crowfoot, Spearwort and Water Forget-me-not. Common Blue Damselflies flit through the undergrowth, accompanied by a single Broad-bodied Chaser, and a Meadow Pipit trills from bracken nearby.
A little later, back at the top of Ibsley Common, I get those views Joan promised me. The hills of Cranborne Chase rise to the west, and southwards I’m sure I’m seeing as far as the Purbecks. It’s lovely. Sheep’s-sorrel is painting the heathland a dusky red, and there’s a lonely tree surrounded by it not so far away.
This is a striking image to take home with me: the tree warmed by the sun, rooted in a sea of fiery sorrel.