A changing New Forest landscape: Godshill, Turf Hill and Millersford Inclosures

In which I find a place where there was heathland, which became a wood, and which is now becoming heathland again

…we stopped on the brow of the hill to look at the fine bluff of Turf Hill and its pines, the ridge carrying the Fordingbridge road, Hampton Ridge and the intervening crest, and the mazy dance of hills still farther ahead.

Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest, published 1934

A few posts ago, I followed Joan Begbie’s bootsteps along a short section (through the bottom of Godshill Wood) of a long-ish circular route she took from Fritham in the early 1930s, passing through Islands Thorns, Ashley Bottom, Sandyballs (not yet a holiday village in Joan’s time), Godshill, Turf Hill, Black Gutter Bottom, and back to Fritham. That time, I left her at the edge of Godshill as she marched on to Turf Hill. I will do her whole walk from Fritham one day, if Joan and her dogs (Bill, a white bull terrier, and Mr Bundy, a diminutive griffon) can bear my company for the full twelve miles. For this post, however, I mapped out a shorter walk (four to five miles, depending on which way you go), joining Joan in a walk to Turf Hill, starting with our earlier walk through Godshill.

If you have a copy of Joan’s book Walking in the New Forest, then turn to pages 65 to 67 for Joan’s description of this short section of the walk (or pages 58 to 68 for her description of the whole circular walk starting and ending at Fritham). This walk is lovely in any season – from summer sun glinting on the brook to frosty, misty days of autumn and winter – but  come prepared for muddy paths in wetter weather.

Back in May, Joan Begbie, Bill and Mr. Bundy and I set out to explore Godshill Wood in the north of the New Forest. I love this friendly, welcoming wood. Planted in 1810, it remains enclosed (although it’s not unknown for a pony or two to inveigle their way within its borders from time to time; I’ve never reported them – they always seem very content, and I’m no snitch). In her 1934 book Walking in the New Forest, Joan only wanders for a short stretch through Godshill as part of a longer circular walk from Fritham. I join her here; we mean to tramp along happily together from the wood down to Millersford Bottom and up to Turf Hill.

First, though, we enjoy the beautiful grassy way that runs along the southeastern edge of Godshill Wood, just outside its boundary. It’s here that I park my car, ready to set out on the walk.

A sketch map of the walk, setting out from Godshill car park and following a figure-of-eight route (with Millers Ford the ‘crossing point’ at the middle). Footpaths and tracks are shown as dotted lines, and the route itself is marked in red. For simplicity, not all footpaths are shown. Therefore, please do consult an OS map or similar, especially if you want to explore away from the marked route.

Godshill Wood

We pause for a few moments, breathing in the fresh morning air blowing gently from over Godshill Ridge to the east (the ridge that carries the B3078), and to admire the blue skies, scudding clouds and wide views. We don’t want to leave that view behind, so we walk along the turfy way, passing by the first gate into the wood until, after a few hundred metres, we enter it by the second gate.

A path, sprouting with whortleberry and decorated with trailing ivy, meanders between tall oaks, pines and sweet chestnuts until it falls in with a ride.

Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest
The eastern part of the cycle track that runs through Godshill Wood, its trees leaning over to greet you in warm-hearted welcome

The ride Joan mentions is now one of the many cycle routes that run through the New Forest. However, you’re more likely to bump into dogs and their owners than cyclists here, so Bill and Mr. Bundy feel quite at home, with many new friends to sniff a welcome to. We turn right down the cycle track, a way I find particularly peaceful. It’s something about the gentle meandering, rise and fall of the path, and the comfort gained from trees bending down to greet you with soft brushes of leaves. There are side paths to take and explore – secret ways through the wood – but today we keep going until we reach the gate that leaves the inclosure by a foresters’ lodge, Godshill Wood Cottage. Just before we reach the lodge, we pass some forestry work sheds on our right, sporting a deer skull complete with very impressive antlers, greened with moss.

At this point, Joan makes a remark with which I am going to have to take some polite issue. All residents of Woodgreen, put your hands over your ears. Joan points out that if we turn left after leaving the wood, we would reach Woodgreen, “a village with a charming setting but no architectural graces.” Really, I say? I think it’s a very pretty village, with some delightful cottages. I’m glad to report that Heywood Sumner agrees:

Wood Green is a beautifully situated village…Merry trees (black cherries), and orchards abound here, and the cottage gardens vie with those at Breamore as the gayest in the district.

Heywood Sumner, The New Forest, 1924

So, sorry, Joan, Heywood Sumner and I are not in agreement with you here. My fondness for Woodgreen was heightened by my experience there when I was attempting the Avon Valley Path from Fordingbridge to Downton on a very hot summer day, very soon after I moved to the New Forest. I got lost twice in Woodgreen (don’t ask) but was put back on the right track by very affable and chatty village folk who didn’t make me feel stupid because of my lack of any sense of direction.

Densome Corner to Millers Ford

Joan stands by her view, though, and we turn right, down towards Densome Corner. Joan says this way is a lane with “generous grass borders growing gorse and holly”. I’m not sure whether or not the lane would have been tarmacked in Joan’s time (as it is now), but it is otherwise much as she describes.

We reach Densome Corner and, as the road bends left, Joan is surprised by a donkey and carriage.

…a wondrous equipage rounded the corner, driven by a delightful lady. It consisted of a seat with back and dashboard, mounted on two motor-car wheels, whose balloon tyres made the smartly trotting donkey between the shafts appear more slender than he was. A gentlemanly greyhound brought up the rear.

Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest

I really wish I could have seen this wonderfully eccentric carriage and its driver, too. However, on we go, leaving the road and heading off to Millersford Bottom. The view from the top of the hill here is wonderful, looking towards Godshill Ridge and Deadman Hill, and beyond. There’s a gang of cows at the latter, and we can hear them lowing even from our vantage point here on the opposite side of the valley.

The brook that runs through Millers Ford, here seen on a late winter day. Joan Begbie describes it as a “churlish valley of scrubby trees, coarse grass, bramble and bog”, but I think she’s being a little harsh: it has a wild beauty.

We navigate crossing the brook, which is as delightfully chuntering as you’d expect a New Forest brook to be. The ford itself was apparently once a crossing point on the route southwards from Woodgreen and Breamore Mill. Then, we turn left to climb up Turf Hill to the top of the plain.

Turf Hill Inclosure

I headed this post A changing New Forest landscape, and here is the reason why. Although Joan mentions pines on Turf Hill, these to her eyes would have been very scattered asin the 1930s, in fact, she and her dogs are climbing up and walking across open heathland. 

I’ve been used to describing inclosures and plantations as created in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries. Turf Hill Inclosure was, however, planted with its pines in the 1960s, three decades after Joan walked along its slopes and high plain. It’s what is known as a Verderers Inclosure. The ability to create these was legislated for in section 12 of the New Forest Act 1949, by which the Verderers were able to authorise inclosures and then rent/lease them to the Forestry Commission, as compensation for loss of grazing. (Find out more about the Verderers of the New Forest on their website, and the New Forest Explorers Guide website gives a good explanation of the history of inclosures in the New Forest, ending with the 1949 Act and Verderers Inclosures.)

But the change doesn’t end there. The Forestry Commission is now in the process of restoring quite a large part of the eastern portion of Turf Hill Inclosure back to heathland. Walking west to east, as we are doing, after leaving the Inclosure’s trees you first come to an open landscape that looks a little barren and post-apocalyptic; there are large areas where pines have been clear-felled, branches and twigs left to lie on the ground, and the occasional pioneer birch sprouting forlornly. There is much bracken here, too. 

An area of clear felling in Turf Hill Inclosure. The few birches look rather forlorn, but the felling is all part of a Forestry Commission plan to return the area to heathland, as it was only a few decades ago.

But life is already blossoming, nature as resilient as ever. On the stumps of felled trees, fungi and lichens are gaining a hold, watched over by heather and nodding grasses.

A tree stump in the clear-fell area of Turf Hill Inclosure, covered and surrounded by new life and growth: lichens, fungi, heathers and bracken

A little further eastwards, the landscape becomes much more heath-like, if quite scrubby: Ling and Bell Heather in friendly huddles, Gorse and grasses, and even a Rowan already bearing its lovely red fruit. This eastern section was cleared earlier, and is therefore further along the route to becoming heathland again. I wonder what it will look like in twenty, fifty, or a hundred years from now. I hope the vision will be realised, and Turf Hill will once more be a wide, breezy, heathland plain with views south, north, west and east, just as when Joan walked across it in the 1930s.

Bell Heather and Ling growing together in the cleared areas of Turf Hill Inclosure

We’re approaching what is now the Turf Hill car park, and it’s time to part from Joan, Bill and Mr. Bundy as they head off for Black Gutter Bottom. I wave farewell, and promise I’ll walk that way with them soon.

Before leaving Turf Hill, I pause to admire some Rowan berries, already gleaming red even though it’s still August, and make friends (from a distance) with an old Crow, feathers white and ragged round its neck, dabbling in the grass a few paces away.

Rowan berries

Millersford Plantation and Copse

There are a few ways to return to the Godshill car park. You can head southwards and westwards, on tracks heading towards Deadman Bottom and Cunninger Bottom and then strike up to Millers Ford and walk back along Millersford Bottom or adjacent paths. Or you can do as I did, and head into Millersford Plantation and Millersford Copse, rejoining the return route at Millers Ford.

Millersford Copse, to the west of the Inclosure, is an older part of the wood. The newer plantation of Oak and Scots Pine absorbed the Copse when it was created in the first half of the nineteenth century. Unlike most other plantations, however, it was not part of the Crown lands – the plantation was on land that was originally part of the adjacent Hale Purlieu, and purlieu means land not subject to forest law. It came into the ownership of the National Trust just after the Second World War, who leased it to the Forestry Commission, who planted with conifers. (Credit for this brief description goes to Antony Pasmore’s wonderful series of New Forest Notes: I got the information on Millersford from the April 1999 edition).

Whatever its history, or probably because of it, this is a wonderful wood, full of surprises. A friend and I, walking there in autumn, found an old Sweet Chestnut that must have been coppiced in its past, and now sports several trunks, branching out to the sky like the tail of an upside-down comet. In autumn there are fungi on fallen trees, and there is a steep-sided brook.

Almost a complete circle of fungi round this felled tree in Millersford Copse, seen in late winter

Back to Godshill Wood

At Millers Ford, there is no need to walk back up to Densome Corner; I continue vaguely westwards (there are a few more paths trodden in than are shown on the map), until I reach Godshill car park. I spend a few minutes there, gazing at the view, thinking about how landscapes change: through human management from prehistory to modern forestry, such as at Turf Hill Inclosure; through seasons, as summer turns to early autumn and the first berries appear; and through life and death, youth and senescence, as fungi grows and thrives on a fallen tree, and an old crow, nearing its own end, grubs in the grass and watches me with knowing eyes.

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