In which I leave Ocknell Plain behind and walk through four woods, different from each other in age and character
…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.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest, published in 1934
In last week’s post, we ended our journey by passing Ocknell Pond, emerging onto the high expanse of Ocknell Plain, woods both behind and ahead of us. This week, I’m off walking again with Joan Begbie and her two dogs (Bill, a white bull terrier, and Mr Bundy, a diminutive griffon) to explore a little more of Ocknell Plain, before losing ourselves in Holly Hatch Inclosure and my favourite wood of all in the New Forest, the fairytale Anses; we finish by passing through South and North Bentley Inclosures.
This walk is part of a longer circular walk from Fritham that Joan completed and described in her 1934 book Walking in the New Forest. I’ve walked it in three sections: Eyeworth, Long Cross Plain and Bramshaw; Ocknell Inclosure and Ocknell Pond; and now Ocknell Plain, Holly Hatch, Anses Wood and South and North Bentley Inclosures. If you have a copy of Joan’s book Walking in the New Forest, then turn to pages 75 to 77 for Joan’s description of this final section of the walk (or pages 70 to 77 for her description of the whole circular walk from Fritham).
I have a special fondness for Ocknell Plain, and for Broomy Plain to its west.
I didn’t find Ocknell Plain until a few months after I moved to the New Forest, when I started monitoring butterflies with the New Forest Transect Group (transect is a formal word meaning the route of a species survey). One of the regular monitoring routes I walk starts from the gate to Holly Hatch and goes across Ocknell Plain, dipping down into Broomy Bottom and the edge of Broomy Plain. Joan is quite right: Ocknell Plain is indeed “wild and lonely”, but it is also both peaceful and energising, a high and sweeping, wood-fringed place that expands and quietens the heart. Few people seem to venture here, only a handful of walkers, often with their dogs, and the occasional cyclist. The plain is dotted with crab apples, gorse, thorns and holly (Joan calls the latter holm, an older name).
One of my favourite landmarks on the butterfly monitoring route I walk across Ocknell Plain is this lonely tree, which stands not far above Broomy Bottom. I like it firstly because it looks like an Ent (apologies to non-‘Lord of the Rings’ fans), but mainly because, although quite dead, it hosts lichens and mosses, birds perch in its branches, and the numerous little bore holes in its trunk are testament to the many insects it hosts. Even in death, this tree is still giving.
After leaving Ocknell Pond at the end of the last post, Joan, Bill and Mr. Bundy reach the path across Ocknell Plain to Holly Hatch by crossing the road that journeys westwards towards Linwood. Joan refers to it as a gravel road that is very seldom used; now a tarmacked minor road, it remains relatively quiet. I meet them here, after parking at Cadman’s Pool car park.
A female Silver-studded Blue butterfly perches on Bell Heather on Ocknell Plain. Ocknell and Broomy Plains are both strongholds of this lovely summer butterfly.
Before heading off across Ocknell Plain towards Holly Hatch Inclosure, we pause for a few moments to enjoy the green-tinged waters of Cadman’s Pool, with its two little islands and serenely gliding ducks and geese.
But wait! Joan is looking confused, and Bill, very out-of-character, has not immediately rushed into the pool’s waters to have a splash around.
Ah, of course. Cadman’s Pool hadn’t even been thought of in the 1930s. It may look as if it has sat here forever, a magical lake beneath the eaves of mystical Anses Wood, but it was in fact created in the 1960s as a landscape enhancement. It was the idea of Arthur Cadman, Deputy Surveyor of the New Forest from 1959 to 1968 – and what a good idea it has proven to be. Joan (and Bill, and even the less exuberant Mr. Bundy) would have loved Cadman’s Pool, and I feel a little sad that I am unable to share it with them. Joan may of course have known about its creation in the early 1960s, and possibly even visited, but she was by then living in Dorset. In 1934, when she penned Walking in the New Forest, there was no pool by Anses Wood.
Arthur Cadman, who died in Scotland in 2001, was well-respected and well-liked by foresters, commoners and conservationists alike. He was an expert on deer and wildfowl, and wrote several books. In Arthur Cadman’s obituary in the Daily Echo, Graham Wilson, a Forestry Commission keeper, is reported as saying: “Arthur was a man of substance and credibility. He treated everyone the same. It didn’t matter whether you were a lord or someone more ordinary.”
After his death, a memorial service was held for him under a tree by Cadman’s Pool. I wonder which tree it was.
Holly Hatch Inclosure
We leave the road (and, for me, the pool) behind and head across the plain towards Holly Hatch Inclosure. The tracks look to have broadly the same layout for me as in Joan’s time, though now some of those nearer to Cadman’s Pool are partly concrete, a legacy of Stoney Cross airfield, built during the Second World War, which was mentioned in the last post.
We reach Holly Hatch’s southern gate. This is also the start of the butterfly monitoring route. When I’m there to count butterflies, I often sit down here for a few minutes, or even lie down on a sunny day, looking up into the wood’s-edge trees above me. I find it very mindful, listening to the scraping calls of Stonechats and with a breeze on my face.
A male Stonechat perches on a Gorse shrub on Ocknell Plain
However, Joan and the dogs are keen to get into Holly Hatch, so I’m not allowed to sit and linger on this occasion.
Holly Hatch Inclosure was planted and enclosed in 1810, incorporating an existing, smaller wood. There has always been a Holly Hatch. On the Drivers’ Map of the New Forest, published in 1798, it is shown as open pasture woodland to the west of Anses Wood, although it is called Homy Hatch. The revised edition of the Drivers’ Map (1814) also shows a pocket of woodland, again called Homy Hatch, but this time within the larger Holly Hatch Inclosure, depicted like a nucleus within a cell. The planting within the Inclosure comprises broadleaf – Beech, Oak and some Sweet Chestnut – and post-Second World War conifer plantings. There was more planting in the early 1960s, including Western Hemlock and Larch. Holly Hatch is managed now by the Forestry Commission as a mixed woodland, with some thinning to promote biodiversity.
Joan, Bill and Mr. Bundy take a fairly direct route through Holly Hatch, as they are aiming for Holly Hatch Cottage on its other side. There are many paths through the Inclosure. I personally recommend the path that travels roughly southwest and then turns north, also ending up at the cottage. This way is secluded, passing under plantings of tall thin Beeches, glinting with misty light from the half-hidden sky, and through conifers that nudge you with feathery branches and obscure the way ahead, so each corner turned brings surprises. Rustlings among the trees are sometimes squirrels, sometimes birds and, from time to time, deer. The path narrows for part of the way, and with all the Western Hemlock this is very much a going-through-the-wardrobe-into-Narnia experience.
Holly Hatch Cottage
Eventually, the path comes out by Holly Hatch Cottage, a foresters’ cottage. I always imagine it would be a beautiful place to live, surrounded by woods with the grassy banks of Dockenswater nearby. Heywood Sumner liked the cottage, too, writing in 1925:
It [Holly Hatch Cottage] radiates well-being, and a high standard of upkeep, maintaining lonely credit to both Crown and keeper.Heywood Sumner, A Winter Walk in the New Forest, 1925
…we…walked along the grass ride between the stream and Holly Hatch till we got to Anses through the tangle of thorns, heather, and bracken flourishing on its outskirts.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest
After leaving Holly Hatch, we don’t cross the footbridge over Dockenswater, but turn immediately right along the path that follows the course of the brook towards its source. Mostly, the path is a short distance away from the water, but sometimes the brook draws closer as it twists and turns its way along the northern edge of Holly Hatch and then Anses Wood. The path can be very muddy, even in summer, but there are compensations. In summer there are dragonflies and damselflies over Dockenswater, birds sing from the trees far above, and the peaty brook meanders and murmurs along its way, sometimes fast, sometimes held in small pools by fallen branches and debris.
A female Southern Hawker rests on a fallen branch by Dockenswater
Anses is old and gobliny, and beautiful, too.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest
Eventually, Holly Hatch to the right becomes Anses Wood, and we turn to walk under its trees. We’ve been to Anses before: it was the subject of my very first post on this blog. It remains my favourite place in the New Forest. This ancient pasture woodland is vibrant and full of a quiet energy humming in the green leaves and crunching underfoot with each step. There are old trees here, trees that watch you but with no ill intent. Oak, Beech and Holly grow in profusion. The Beeches twist themselves into all sorts of wonderful shapes, fusing and redividing their branches, such that I can wayfind my way through the wood by following the highly individual trees; each becomes a friend, a familiar guiding point in the wooded landscape.
South Bentley and North Bentley Inclosures
Eventually, we come out once more at Cadman’s Pool (or, for Joan and the dogs, the place where Cadman’s Pool will be). Here is my car, but Joan and the dogs are returning to Fritham, the start of Joan’s full circular walk, via South Bentley and North Bentley Inclosures. I decide to walk on with them before doubling back to Cadman’s Pool.
Joan rather rushes her description of this part of the walk. I wonder if her feet are tired, and if Bill and Mr. Bundy’s paws are lagging. Her entire circular walk is, after all, almost 14 miles long. She says of the ‘Bentleys’:
These oak woods have great beauty and the proud reputation of providing the best grown timber in this part of the Forest.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest
I have to take good-humoured issue with Joan here for rather conflating the very different characters of these two woods. South Bentley was planted and enclosed in 1700 on original pasture woodland. It has retained much of its original broadleaf planting, though a few conifers were planted in the 1960s, thirty years after Joan walked there. It has never experienced significant felling activity. It therefore has a similar, though younger, atmosphere than neighbouring ancient Anses Wood, as if growing, slowly but surely, to emulate its older neighbour as it spreads and twists its branches. Maybe its roots sense the below-soil threads of the older wood that grew here, long before the plantation replaced it back in 1700.
The path I walk from Anses to South Bentley is muddy and not very well-trodden by human boot prints: I have to take a few detours, though the path is always just about visible beneath moss and fallen leaves. Passing through the gate into South Bentley, I’m greeted by a remarkably unfearful deer, and we watch each other politely from a distance.
The tracks through South Bentley are also muddy (but we have had a lot of rain recently) and not always easy to follow. I’m glad of my OS app with its little red arrow telling me where I am; not that I mind being a little lost. I leave the Inclosure, sorry to go, through a gate that is broken but held solidly by the claggy earth and undergrowth; I take care to push it firmly back against the fence after I squeeze through.
North Bentley, enclosed in about 1800, is mostly conifers, in contrast with its neighbour. The gate I had expected to enter it by is locked shut, so instead I walk round its western flank, just outside the fence. This is a lovely path, rising slowly uphill and overhung with graceful Beeches. At its end, I find the southern entrance to North Bentley, and I walk a little way into the wood. The conifers here are very tall and very thin. Although obviously a plantation and younger than South Bentley, and much younger than Anses, it has a friendly, less mysterious feel, helped by the blue sky and fluffy clouds.
Back to Cadman’s Pool
At the southern gate of North Bentley, I part ways with Joan, Bill and Mr. Bundy as they head back to Fritham. I walk back along the road, crossing Ocknell Plain once more, to find my car at Cadman’s Pool, but with a yen to return to South Bentley.
A wood you can get a little lost in is my sort of wood.
This walk is the third and final section of a longer circular route that Joan describes in Walking in the New Forest, published in 1934. The full walk is about 14 miles long; this third section is some 5 miles. You can find the first two sections described in previous posts, respectively, on May 15, 2021 (The golden road from Eyeworth: 6.5 miles) and July 24, 2021 (Ocknell Inclosure: traces of war, early autumn fruit and a lichen hunt: 2.5 miles). I have made each of the three sections into a circular route of its own, but with a good map (OS or similar) you should be able to join up the three routes into something like Joan’s longer walk. Happy walking!