In which I go for an early morning walk through a lovely pasture woodland in the New Forest
…Ocknell Enclosure’s outer-defences come up to the rim of the trough it fills to overflowing with its oaks and beeches.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest, published 1934
A few weeks ago, I parted company from Joan Begbie near Fritham at the end of a lovely walk through Nomansland and Bramshaw that she described in her 1934 book Walking in the New Forest. I walked back to my car at Eyeworth Pond; Joan and her two dogs (Bill, a white bull terrier, and Mr Bundy, a diminutive griffon) were, however, taking a much longer walk and continued onwards, heading first to Ocknell Inclosure and then Ocknell Plain and Holly Hatch, before returning to Fritham via beautiful Anses Wood.
This week, I’d intended to join them for this entire second half of the route. However, the weather has been so hot that the thought of a long-ish and thirsty walk through the Forest was not tempting. Instead, as I had never visited Ocknell Inclosure, I decided to go there early in the morning (before the temperature rose!) to explore under the shade of the trees, and at least complete the next stage of Joan’s longer circular walk. Joan, Bill and Mr Bundy walked this way in spring; I was visiting Ocknell Inclosure in high summer, of course.
Next week, heatwave permitting, we’ll continue with the remainder of the full walk. If you have a copy of Joan’s book Walking in the New Forest, then turn to pages 72 to 74 for Joan’s description of the section of the walk through Ocknell Inclosure (or pages 70 to 77 for her description of the whole circular walk from Fritham).
There and back again
Joan, Bill and Mr. Bundy would have entered Ocknell Inclosure from the east. After I parted ways with them at Fritham, back in May, they continued on over Janesmoor Plain, following the road almost to Stoney Cross, before turning right to head into Ocknell Inclosure. That felt just a bit exposed to me; even though I intended to start really early, it wouldn’t be long before the sun started beating down. So, I decided to park instead at Ocknell Pond car park, just to the west of the Inclosure, and explore Joan’s route from there. This, of course, means I was following it back to front.
I got there at 5.30 in the morning. I do love this time of day for walking: the sun is low, dew haze is rising from the heaths, and the sweet scents of heather and tree, newly awakened by the dawn, are fresh and potent. Ocknell Pond car park was in fact closed for the summer (because this is a sensitive area for ground-nesting birds), but Cadman’s Pool car park is just over the road, so I left my car there (I was the first in), stepped over the Fritham to Linwood minor road, and headed along the track towards Ocknell Pond.
Stoney Cross airfield: traces of war
This is a good point at which to mention an important piece of local twentieth century archaeology. The New Forest was home to several constructions associated with the Second World War. We visited the remnants of one of these – the Ashley Walk Bombing Range – when we walked along Hampton Ridge in early June beneath the music of the skylarks. This time, we find evidence of Stoney Cross airfield, which opened in 1942, and was home to both the RAF and part of the USA’s air force; take a look at the New Forest Knowledge website to find out more. You can find even more details on the website of the New Forest Explorers Guide.
The best way to understand the layout of the old airfield across the land is to view it aerially. On the New Forest Knowledge link, expand the map shown in the right hand corner and zoom into Ocknell Inclosure. The map has several layers. Toggle between the base map ‘Bing Aerial’ (which clearly shows the imprint of the airfield, even where the runways and roads are now grass) and the History Map layer called ‘Ordnance Survey Provisional edition (1:25,000), 1937 – 1961’. The latter outlines the airfield structures, extending north and east round the Inclosure.
When Walking in the New Forest was published in 1934, the world was only five years away from war. The New Forest that Joan describes is as yet unmarked by it, physically at least. There are no airfields, no bombing range. Now, almost eighty years after the close of the war, the heather and grass, bracken, gorse and wildflowers are again reclaiming and healing the landscape. Some of the airfield’s features have been subsumed into modern usage: the minor roads running to the north and east of the Inclosure were once the route of airfield runways, and the Ocknell and Long Beech camp sites have repurposed some of the airfield’s concrete roads and dispersal pens (the latter are the circular markings you can still see on the aerial view – I think they are where the planes were ‘parked’). Otherwise, the traces of war are becoming simply marks in the turf, memories in the land.
Ocknell Plain is wild and lonely, but neither bleak nor forbidding; it is high, peaceful, overlooks the quiet woods surrounding it, and is never forsaken for long by holm bushes. But its supreme grace is its pond, which, renouncing the things of this world, lies unshadowed by bush or tree, reflecting heaven only…It was a great moment for us when we came upon it for the first time where it lay amongst the dusky heather in its magic circle of bright, short grass, peacefully contemplating the sky.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest
Joan reached Ocknell Pond as she left the Inclosure; going the opposite way, I achieved it on the way towards the wood, with the sun in my eyes.
Unlike Joan’s experience, Ocknell Pond was, for me, almost completely dry due to the spell of hot weather. If it had not been for the sun’s reflection in the little water that remained, I would barely have known it was there. It is what Joan calls a mist pond, and I would refer to as a dew pond or ephemeral pool: a small body of water fed only by rainwater, mist and dew, so therefore prone to evaporation in the summer months. There is a little more scrub around the pond than in Joan’s description. But it must be lovely when full of water. Even on this summer morning, almost dry, the turf round it was dotted with a starry carpet of the still-closed flowers of Tormentil, Daisy and Cat’s-ear, and the occasional pretty pink Centaury.
Entering Ocknell Inclosure, chased by cows
As I left the pond, a sole cow sheltering in the scrub lowed to my right, calling to her herd. She trotted off, while I left the main track and headed eastwards towards the wood’s edge. This part of the path, where it crosses the turf, is not very clear, but it quickly becomes so on entering the wood, and soon meets a wider woodland track going south-east. Before heading that way, I explored north-west up the track a short step, to see if I could work out where it starts, as the map isn’t clear. As I came to the wood’s edge, I became aware of the ground thudding under many hooves, accompanied by much lowing. Just ahead of me, round the corner they came, a stream of cows rushing past, presumably on the way to their daytime grazing grounds. I like cows, but I also have a healthy respect for them (= a bit scared), so I stayed hidden in some scrub. They went, I thought I was ‘safe’, but no. From behind me, two stragglers came along the path. They stopped, curious, they looked at me, standing in my shrub, decided I wasn’t worth worrying about, and moved on. I emerged, there was yet more lowing, two more cows arrived and again sized me up as I retreated into my shrub. One even took a few steps towards me, before tossing her head and turning to follow the herd. I’m sure she was teasing me.
Ocknell Inclosure: a pasture woodland
Once the coast was clear of cows, I headed back the other way through the wood.
Ocknell Inclosure, which is just under 100 ha in extent, was planted in 1768, mainly with Oak and Beech and some Scots Pine (the latter apparently some of the first to be planted in the New Forest). It was never, however, clear-felled, and the inclosure boundary was soon opened up – you can still see remnants of the original enclosing earth bank. Therefore, while not an ancient woodland (as is Anses Wood a little further north), it is becoming pasture woodland, that is, woodland grazed by animals, such as ponies and deer (and maybe, at the woodland edge, by my friends the cows). This creates a patchwork of trees, copses and glades, which in Ocknell includes an understorey of holly and rich woodland flora. Added to this, part of the inclosure was never planted, so it also encompasses an area of heathland.
Now the track, while it leaves nothing to be desired as regards surface, exasperates by never staying long under the trees.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest
Joan obviously got a bit frustrated by the amount of open heath within the Inclosure boundary, but I didn’t mind at all. I decided to explore a branch of the path away from Joan’s route, which crosses the heath before ending in scrub. It was lovely being out on the high plain in early morning, with no-one else around and a fresh breeze tempering the heat of the quickly warming day. There were some ponies and birds (but no cows). I noticed that, even though we were as yet in the middle of summer, Crab Apples and Hollies were already bearing fruit, still green but ready to ripen for the autumn.
At the end of this path, I tracked right and found myself at the edge of Ocknell Camp Site. The camp site was not there in Joan’s day, of course. The camper vans I saw looked very sleepy (it was still early), so I turned around and headed back the way I had come, enjoying again the heathland and sky. At the bottom, I turned left up the woodland path: I’m pretty sure from her description that this is the way Joan, Bill and Mr. Bundy came, travelling, of course, in the opposite direction.
It was really quite beautiful, with sun glinting through the trees, birds singing hesitantly, and the smells of warming earth and green leaves and moss. The only thing that spoiled it a little was the constant roar of the A31. I’m fairly noise-tolerant, in that I’m usually able to shut out this kind of extraneous, alien sound, but even I was struggling. It’s a shame, but the wood is lovely enough to make it worth putting up with.
Ocknell Inclosure lies within a depression so, as you go through, you walk first down and then up, crossing two headsprings of Highland Water along the way (we’ve visited Highland Water before, lower down where it passes by Queen Bower, near Brockenhurst, and we were hunting for an old oak). There were a couple of fallen trees across the paths, but with well-trodden detours round them.
Joan describes meeting a wonderful oak in Ocknell Inclosure. She says: “His branches grow out of his head like the tentacles of a nightmare squid…”. I found this oak on my walk, and wondered if it was Joan’s “nightmare” tree. I liked it, though, with all its twisting and turning shapes.
Lichens and Francis Rose
Botanists and plant lovers will know all about Francis Rose (1921 to 2006), and many will have his renowned plant ID guide The Wild Flower Key (1981, revised 2006, published by Frederick Warne). I have a battered, well-thumbed, much-loved copy. He is the man responsible for developing the list of Ancient Woodland Indicators, now an ecological staple in assessing woods (or places where woods have been and are no more). His interests and academic expertise were, among other things, in biogeography, fungi and lichens.
Francis Rose loved the New Forest and spent a lot of time here researching and doing field work. That includes time he spent in Ocknell Inclosure, where he researched its rich variety of epiphytic lichens (an epiphyte is an organism that lives on another, usually not a parasitic relationship, such as lichens on trees). It was his discovery that the biodiversity of forest lichens is richest on ancient trees in pasture landscapes, and he noted that in Ocknell, as it continues to revert to pasture woodland, there is a slow (albeit very slow) increase in lichen biodiversity.
In Francis Rose’s honour, I searched for some lichens on Ocknell’s trees. I won’t even begin to attempt to identify them, but I really enjoyed looking at their shapes and forms. If you want to learn more about Francis Rose, this obituary in Watsonia is as good a starting point as anything (Francis Rose’s obituary is the third in the document).
After my quick lichen hunt, I could tell the temperature outside the wood was heating up. It was time to leave, and I headed back the way I had come, past Ocknell Pond and back to Cadman’s Pool.
Next week, we’ll return to Cadman’s Pool and continue on Joan’s walk, visiting Holly Hatch and the beautiful, fairytale Anses Wood.