In which I get lost in the bracken
Almost at once, directly we had stepped across the stream, we felt alone and quite at peace. Dew still hung on the grass blades and brambles, because the trees grew so thickly that their branches wove a dense shield against the sun. The ground, mounting in a series of quite big ups and downs, showed brown with pine needles and streaked with slender bars of sunlight between the close packed trunks. In this mysterious, silent, dusky part of the wood we felt something really worth while might happen.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest, published 1934
After several walks in the northern New Forest, I have finally accompanied Joan Begbie and, of course, her two dogs (Bill, a white bull terrier, and Mr Bundy, a diminutive griffon) on a walk further south. Leaving behind the northern ridges, heaths and valleys, I headed for Burley with the aim of walking through the Oakley Inclosures and reaching Mark Ash Wood. I haven’t yet ‘learned’ the lie of the land here; whereas the features and names further north are becoming more and more familiar, here I had no waymarking knowledge of the landscape, and had to piece together in my head, bit by bit, the interlocking jumble of inclosures and woods banded across the Forest to the northeast of Burley. Small wonder, then, that I got a bit lost. I blame the bracken, but more of that later.
On the sketch map below, I have shown both where I went but also indicated where I think anyone following this walk might prefer to go (in order to avoid ankle-swallowing squelchy mud and bracken forests). I’d always intended to go a different way from Joan for the second part of the walk, because her route ran for a stretch along the A35, which would have been quite a different road in her time, not quite so busy as now, and also unfenced (it was fenced in 1967). For the first half, however, we walked shoulder to shoulder, Mr. Bundy at our heels and catching occasional glimpses of Bill, ‘a flying white form’ between the trees.
I didn’t mind getting lost in Mark Ash Wood. It is truly beautiful. I think I left a bit of my soul there, still exploring.
If you have a copy of Joan’s book Walking in the New Forest, then you might like to turn to pages 104 to 111 for her description of the walk she took.
South Oakley Inclosure
Joan, Bill and Mr. Bundy start their walk from Burley itself, following a lane – the Lyndhurst Road – from the Queen’s Head (the pub, which dates back to 1685, is very much still there) up towards South Oakley. I meet them at Wood’s Corner, at the southwest of the inclosure. It’s early, just before 6 am, and although the sun has just risen, a pale moon sits in a sky of washed-out blue. At this time of year – late August – the dawn chorus is no longer in full voice, but a Robin is singing somewhere close by.
Tall oaks and a few evergreens welcome us as we enter the inclosure through the wooden gate and start our walk along a ditch-bordered path. Joan describes this track as “gravelled, wide and faultless”, so its modern designation as one of the New Forest’s network of cycle tracks can’t have changed it much. This surprises me: when I’m walking on a cycle track, Joan usually finds herself on a grassy or even muddy track. However, I discovered that this particular path was laid out and gravelled in the 1920s on behalf of the Forestry Commission, so predates the cycle route network by several decades. (Read about this and more on the Oakley Inclosures in a recent edition of Anthony Pasmore’s excellent series of New Forest Notes.)
My footsteps on the gravel sound intrusively loud, so I walk instead along the grassy verge, enjoying the scent of Water Mint and the sight of plump sloes. I’m conscious of the sound of traffic from the A31, two miles to the north, but it’s easy to ignore beneath the morning hush of the Forest’s rustles and creaking branches.
South Oakley, an inclosure originally (and still) dominated by tall Oaks and Douglas Fir with some Beech, was enclosed in 1860. The track continues northeastwards all the way to North Oakley, passing between Beech Bed Inclosure and the intriguingly named Burley Outer Rails Inclosure (enclosed in 1829 and 1810, respectively). Before we get to the pinch-point between these inclosures, we pass what Joan sees as a gravel track to the left but which I see as a tarmacked but very minor road.
About half a mile of walking took us past the gravel track to ‘Old House’, where a generous-hearted writer, Auberon Herbert, used to live. His kindness took many forms it seems, but one hears mostly about the huge free teas he gave, welcoming all and sundry no matter who they might be.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest
Had we turned up this road, Joan and I would have had different observations. The Old House of Joan’s time is lost, replaced in the 1960s by a Georgian-style house, where Sir Dudley Forwood, Equerry to the Duke of Windsor (after his abdication) from 1937 to 1939 and, later, Official New Forest Verderer, lived. Auberon Herbert (1838 to 1906) sounds an interestingly eccentric person. He originated voluntaryism, a philosophy promoting, among other things, that taxation should be voluntary. He was also known to sleep under the stars on top of a tower of his house, which sounds wonderful.
North Oakley Inclosure
We continue past the turning to Burley Rails Cottage on the right and so into North Oakley Inclosure (enclosed in 1853 with Oak and Beech, and later evergreen plantings). On the left, the bright red berries of Rowan nestle among luminous creamy white Birch trunks. To the right, a Bracken frond waves in the breeze like a signalling flag, and above us a light wind passes through the trees, disturbing the first brown leaves of autumn and sending them eddying gently downwards. We cross Blackensford Brook, its dark water muttering that it has no time to wait and things to do.
I’m longing to take some of the rides and paths off to the side of the track. I stay true to Joan’s route, however. She describes meeting a fork in the path and turning right. I wasn’t sure exactly which fork she meant but, on reexamining the map back at home, I think I turned off a little too early. No matter. The path I take is grassy, gravelly and welcoming, with a bench at its beginning and shafts of sunlight glistening through the trees ahead. Blackthorn, Bramble, Birch, Oak, Beech and evergreens grow together in happy harmony. We cross the brook again, here called Bratley Water but it’s the same watercourse. The stream is less aloof at this point and slower, with time to chat. A Robin hops from the ground to a nearby branch, examining me quizzically.
I should have stayed on this path. Maybe that’s what the Robin was trying to tell me. Instead, I am called by the trees and breeze (or maybe my foolhardiness) to branch off down a ride towards what is marked on the map as Smoky Hole.
The way is possible to follow but has clearly not been used as a ride for many a year. There is soft squelchy moss underfoot for part of the way, boot-enfolding mud for other parts, and knee-high bracken and grasses populated by pale moths that flutter out and resettle as I pass by. I do find it calming to be away from the paths and in among the trees, but I worry about trampling the sphagnum, careful as I am being, so am also a little relieved when I regain the main path (a second cycle route). Here, I turn left, and then nervously decide to take another ride up to the edge of Mark Ash Wood. I needn’t have been nervous. This is a wide, grassy, tormentil-studded ride. It leads me to the gate into what is a sublime wood.
Mark Ash Wood
Mark Ash is one of the most famous woods in the Forest, and though we had been thrilled by the thought that today we were to see it we had not guessed what a wonderful meeting it was to be.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest
The woods are always beautiful…if you come to them in summer…then is it you may know something of the sweetness and the solitude of the woods, and wandering on, giving the day up to profitable idleness, can attain to that mood of which Wordsworth constantly sings, as teaching more than all books or years of study.John Richard de Capel Wise, speaking of Mark Ash and the surrounding ancient woods, in The New Forest: its History and its Scenery, published 1863
This wood is beautiful. Certainly, it’s too beautiful to describe adequately in words. There are some facts to remember. It’s the largest Beech wood in the New Forest, with many old pollarded trees. It is unenclosed, and forms part of what is known as the ancient and ornamental woodland of the Forest, so designated under the New Forest Act of 1877. According to research, a wood has stood here, where what we now call Mark Ash grows, since the glaciers of the last Ice Age retreated over 10,000 years ago (Grant and Hughes, 2009). I wonder if this is a wood like those the earlier peoples of this place would have known. It’s not timeless, because a wood is a living thing, and living things change and adapt and grow, but I feel the vast continuity around me and beneath my feet. I wish I could simply and purely enjoy that feeling, but am niggled by more general concerns about the absence of regeneration – a lack of younger trees and saplings – in these open, ancient woods, and the danger of shattering the ages-long cycle of life and death.
For now, I try to push those thoughts away. I stand for a while under a Beech just inside the entrance to Mark Ash Wood, its branches bending and swaying in the breeze and its leaves crackling against each other. Nearby, a lichen-blessed dead Beech stands upright, studded with the tiny holes of boring insects.
A path appears to wend its way southwards along the wood boundary, but I follow the path marked on the map, heading eastwards. I had wondered if I would meet other people, given the popularity of this part of the New Forest, but there is no one else here, and I am reminded of a wry reflection of Heywood Sumner.
…the old woods around Mark Ash are far-reaching, while the range of holidaymakers is near. Disturbance is passing and partial. Mystery amid a great company of trees abides here notwithstanding.Heywood Sumner, The New Forest, 1924
It is wonderful to just wander among the Beeches. Some are tall, some were pollarded long ago and now send out multiple stems, while some are shorter, less vigorous and close to the end of life. Joan describes these latter specimens.
Squat, distorted, and warty, they give one a feeling of watchfulness, as though witches and hobgoblins had for a moment taken on tree shapes to further their evil ends. Stand still when you meet such a group and you will learn that they speak to each other in a secret code of squeaks, groans and cracks, though no wind is aloft to help the branches send their messages.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest
I think Joan would have been thrilled, if she were alive today, to learn of the growing body of evidence showing that trees do indeed talk to each other, not in ‘squeaks, groans and cracks’, but through chemical signals in the air, and underground via the ‘wood wide web’ of mycorrhizal fungi. Nature is both startling and more amazing than we can ever fully know.
As I wander, I imagine I can hear Joan’s voice in another part of the wood calling across the years for Bill, who as always has disappeared into the undergrowth, while faithful Mr. Bundy trots in her wake. She doesn’t describe exactly where she went, so I content myself with meandering along a wild path, marked on the map but as much pony- as boot-trodden.
Then, I meet the bracken. It has grown, deep, bushy and chest height, right across the trail. No matter, I think. I’ll find another way through; I know the direction I need to go (east, to the Bolderwood Arboretum Ornamental Drive, a narrow road through the wood). It’s no good, though. Every time I find a way through the bracken, it springs up around me again. I’m being shepherded north. I get to a point where, according to my OS phone app, I am only a few metres from the road, but I can’t see it, and I’m feeling quite disorientated. Finally, a car goes past – it’s so close I can smell its exhaust. I can now tell that the bracken (darn it) is growing in a wide belt all along the side of the road. I decide to wade through, and thankfully emerge onto the tarmac, dew-soaked and worrying about ticks (remember, after any adventure with bracken you should always make sure no ticks have attached themselves to you). Joan has joined the road a little higher and comes swinging down towards me, I imagine highly amused by my predicament.
We turn south down the Drive (which is very quiet), until we arrive at a grassy, well-made track running back west through Mark Ash. Joan and the dogs don’t turn with me here: they go on until the Drive meets the A35, and then walk back to Burley through Knightwood and Dame Slough Inclosures. I instead take the grassy track, not wanting to leave Mark Ash just yet. This is a lovely path, straight and clear, surrounded by the beautiful trees. As in the Oakleys, there are ways off to the side that I will need to return to explore.
The way back
I say farewell to Mark Ash Wood, and am back in North Oakley again; it’s all conifers here. I walk along a clear ride, turning left and then right down cycle tracks running through Anderwood and Burley Outer Rails Inclosures. There is forestry work going on here, and I pass high stacks of logs. A huge lorry trundles up ominously behind me, before stopping, presumably to collect timber.
I bravely turn on to another ride, but it’s fine, narrow at first, then wider after crossing another cycle track. I come out on the Lyndhurst Road at Oakley car park and walk the last few hundred metres back along the tarmac. I have to admit, my feet are really tired by now, and I’m glad to see my car waiting for me at Wood’s Corner. My heart, though, is buoyant and sparkling with thoughts of the ancient woods of Mark Ash, in which the trees whisper to each other and to Joan, me, and all its other pilgrim visitors across the ages.
This was a delightful walk. The cycle tracks make it easy to cover reasonable distances fairly quickly, but there are many side tracks and paths to explore. A better starting point for exploring Mark Ash Wood on its own is probably the Bolderwood car park by the Deer Sanctuary, though this gets full early in the day in the summer holiday months, and the tracks closer to the car park will be busy. Do as I do, and start very early with the rising sun, and you will be fine.