Ashley Walk and Pitts Wood: an early morning saunter in the New Forest

In which I walk the Snake Road and find memories in the earth of an old lodge

…the moors and hills and trees of the Godshill and Ashley Walk country stood frowning on the left.

Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest, published 1934

In this blog, I have been following in the bootsteps of Joan Begbie as she sets out across the New Forest in a series of walks described in her 1934 book Walking in the New Forest. The pawprints of her two dogs (Bill, a white bull terrier, and Mr Bundy, a diminutive griffon) also scamper (Mr Bundy) and charge (Bill) alongside ours.

Joan loves her ten-mile walks: she describes herself, Bill and Mr. Bundy as “hardened 10-milers”. I’m hoping therefore she will forgive me today’s shorter, three-mile walk. Neither is it a walk that she and the dogs followed in exactly the same way, although their footsteps and pawprints do cross with mine.

This is a lovely “go-to” circular walk in the north of the New Forest when you want to stretch your legs across heath and brook and through wood, but don’t have lots of time to spare. Starting along Ashley Walk and wandering through Pitts Wood Inclosure (where I meet Joan, Bill and Mr. Bundy), searching for a forgotten lodge along the way, it finishes by following Ditchend Brook and so back to the car park.

Whenever I have walked along the high land of Hampton Ridge, the distinctive, elongated shape of Pitts Wood haunts the landscape to the left. Where the Ridge draws near to Amberwood, the OS map marks a tumulus (which is in fact a gorse- and grass-covered relic of the Second World War Ashley Bombing Range). You can stand there and look down on the tall evergreens and oaks of Pitts Wood, which recede into the folds of the land but still seem close enough to touch. 

Looking north from the ‘tumulus’ on Hampton Ridge. The evergreens of Pitts Wood rise in the middle distance; behind them on the horizon, the B3078 runs along Godshill Ridge, with Godshill Wood beyond.

Joan Begbie and her dogs, Bill and Mr. Bundy, visited Pitts Wood on a late winter walk in the early years of the 1930s. 

Though our map shows the track tunnelling under trees it really skirts them, giving us a fine view of the oaks towering up impressively above the bracken and holly bushes.

Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest

I wanted to visit, too, having watched this wood from a distance on several occasions.

A sketch map of the three-mile circular walk, setting out from the Ashley Walk car park on the B3078. Gravelled tracks are shown as double-dotted lines and footpaths as single-dotted lines. The route itself is marked in red. Please do also consult an OS map or similar, especially if you want to explore away from the marked route. In wetter months, some of the streams may be hard to cross (unless you are happy to get very wet!), but there are plenty of alternative paths to follow.

Ashley Walk and the Snake Road

Leaving my car at the Ashley Walk car park, there’s no mistaking why the track that leads up to the borders of Pitts Wood has come to be known as the Snake Road. It lays itself on the hill in serpent-like curves. The road once led to Ashley Lodge before becoming an access route to the Ashley Bombing Range during the Second World War, and is now well-used by hikers and dog-walkers. 

The Snake Road, passing across the footbridge over Ditchend Brook and on up the hill towards Pitts Wood. The latter is not visible from here, as the land descends towards it beyond the horizon.

I’m there early, but thick clouds hide any sunrise as I set off downhill along the track. Even the mauve Ling that is strewn thickly over the heath struggles to brighten the grey light, but a Stonechat wakes and broadcasts its scratchy call, while nearby a calf suckles breakfast from its mother. The herd is dotted among the heather, but takes little notice of me.

Ditchend Brook, which is crossed by a footbridge, is completely dry after many rainless days; the last time I was here, only a month before, it was flowing freely. From here, the track now climbs upwards towards Cockley Bushes. (I am guessing the name Cockley is derived from -ley, meaning glade, and a shortened form of Blackcock, an older name for the Black Grouse, which was once far more widely distributed in Britain, including in Hampshire. They had already become far less common, if not absent, in the New Forest in the 1930s, when Joan Begbie was walking there).

I love this part of the walk. The Bushes are formed by a medley of Holly, Bracken, Hawthorn, Bramble and Gorse. Soon there are a few Oaks, with shallow roots making miniature terraces in the grass. As the trees and shrubs thin, a dead tree stands still proud, while far beyond it a string of pylons marches over the horizon. It’s bleak here, especially after the scrubby, friendly woodland of Cockley Bushes but, exposed to an eastern breeze, it’s also cleansing and energising.

A dead tree stands sentinel on top of Little Cockley Plain

After crossing the plain for a short while, the track soon begins to descend, heading towards the mound of Lodge Hill, which is on the right. Ahead of me, a Roe deer and its youngster dash across the path. I follow them off the path, not to see where they’ve gone (no chance, even if I’d wanted to – they are quickly hidden), but to see if I can find any evidence of Ashley Lodge, which used to stand here before the Second World War.

Joan, who was walking in the opposite direction to me, heading northwards from the gates of Pitts Wood, describes passing Ashley Lodge in the pre-war years.

From the stream, the track mounts up to Ashley Lodge and its outbuildings. They are built on a fence-encircled green, crossed by the track which passes between the cottage and the stable. There is no way round.

Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest

Joan is dismayed to find a sign declaring No Dogs Allowed, but talks to the young keeper lounging in a stable door, who says that the ban only applies to the pheasant-rearing period in May and June, and that Bill and Mr. Bundy are fine to pass through. Joan enjoys watching the keeper’s baby playing with a kitten and admires “a litter of baby pigs, pink as dog roses, which were busily drawing nourishment from their dreadful parent in a nearby sty…” before walking on. This is such a nostalgic and entertaining scene, even though Joan is rather dismayed to find that “…the pheasant plague…had spread to the Forest…”. The Lodge was abandoned when the Ashley Bombing Range was operational and was badly damaged, so it was subsequently demolished. I search for any lasting signs of it, but my feet only find dry crunches of leaves. Eventually, I do spot what looks like the floor of an outbuilding, but that’s all. At least the bustling property is still remembered in the name of Lodge Hill.

All I could find of Ashley Lodge, though I think the wide grassy area is possibly the meadow associated with it. 

Into Pitts Wood

Pitts Wood seems to no longer be enclosed and, as there are trees along the track – Willow and Birch, Oak and Ash – as you approach the wood, you hardly know you have crossed its boundary. Originally an area of pasture woodland and heathland, the wood was enclosed in 1800, and is a mix of Oak, Pine, Douglas Fir and other evergreens. I pass a pony and her growing foal grazing by the side of the track, and pause to pass the time of day with a walker and her friendly Black Labrador before crossing the almost completely dry bed of a brook (which eventually merges with Ditchend Brook further west). In a puddle in the stream bed I spot what looks like a miniature oil slick, but I know it isn’t. This oily film is a species of Leptothrix, a group of bacteria that survive by oxidising iron and other metals. You can tell it’s not oil by prodding it with a stick – it will break up into platelets, rather than swirling as oil would.

Leptothrix species in a puddle in Pitts Wood. The way the film breaks up into tiny platelets is clearly shown.

I turn right down a grassy track. Tall evergreens march up the slope to the south, while on my right spindly Birches whisper in the breeze (I think the susurration of the wind through Birch leaves sounds like gently falling rain).

Densely packed, thin Birches in Pitts Wood

Where the track bends right, I am welcomed by tall Oaks on to another path to the left, bookended by two old gateposts, minus the gate. There are crackles and rustles, scampering of squirrel paws on bark, and a Robin alarm-calling in the distance. Ponies are grazing noisily in the grass. One follows me for a few steps, but soon gives up when it realises I am paying it little attention.

Ditchend Bottom

Eventually, I turn right up a grassy path, and exit the Inclosure through another pair of old gateposts with no gate, just after crossing a dry stream bed dotted with yellow Lesser Spearwort in Must Thorns Bottom. The path narrows between Gorse bushes, before meeting open country and the largely dry bed of Ditchend Brook, where I turn right, following the brook until the path once more meets the Snake Path. All this way is resplendent with Ling – the sky is still heavily-clouded but the light is brighter, so now the Ling is luminous in pink-purple, clashing gloriously with the golden Gorse. Imagine what it’s like in the warm sunshine!

Although I briefly passed Joan and the dogs at Ashley Lodge on this walk, I missed her company and her joyful, insightful comments on the New Forest and what she sees as she walks. Next time, I’ll make sure I’m walking with her all the way.

This is a lovely shorter walk, taking in heath, wood and brooks. In wetter months, the streams are much fuller and can be difficult to cross where there is no footbridge, but there are plenty of alternative routes to take, so do consult a good map.

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