Bolderwood and Mark Ash Wood in the New Forest

In which I find a very tall and wonderful tree

…this morning we were to live our crowded hour of glorious life.

Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest, published 1934

Joan Begbie is writing about a wonderful April walk through Mark Ash Wood in the New Forest of the early 1930s. This ancient wood had brought her, and her two dogs (Bill, a white bull terrier, and Mr Bundy, a diminutive griffon) treasures to enjoy. First, there were two deer, in which Bill was excitedly but unsuccessfully interested:

Quite unalarmed by the white hunter they knew to be no match for their arrowy speed and woodland lore, two deer went in graceful, leisurely leaps back along the trail… They looked very beautiful stealing away through the gloomy pine trunks, now shadowy as a myth, now brightly barred with gold as they passed through the shafts of sunlight.

Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest

Then, as the deer disappeared between the trees:

…a poignant, heart-searching cry fell suddenly from the sky…Though we loved the trees for showing us the deer, at that moment we could have seen them felled without a qualm, for now they were preventing us from watching the flight of one of nature’s most superb air aces, the buzzard. The bird was soon joined by his mate, and for a few dazzling seconds they played together; then, calling mellifluously to him, she led him out of our ken.

Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest
Fallow deer at Bolderwood

Among the reasons I love following in Joan’s bootsteps is how thrilled she is in what she sees – the woodland creatures, the trees, the history – and the imaginative, engaging way she describes the forest and its human and non-human folk. On days when I’m feeling dull and nature-starved but can’t get out, I can pick up Walking in the New Forest and be there with her, tramping among trees of the imagination, full of wonder and enchantment.

Today, however, I’m back in the actual woods. I also stumble upon a real tree of wonder and enchantment – if stumbling upon a Giant Redwood is indeed possible – but more of that later.

A different way through the woods

You may recall that two weeks ago I wrote about following one of Joan’s walks that starts near Burley and passes through the South and North Oakley Inclosures before reaching the ancient beech wood of Mark Ash. You may also remember that I got a little lost in Mark Ash, losing the path and ending up wading through a Bracken forest.

Tall, tall trees against a clear blue sky at Bolderwood

I don’t think the way I went that time was the way Joan walked through Mark Ash, even allowing for the changes in paths (and bracken forests) that have happened in the nearly 100 years since Joan first walked there. So, I decided to go back and explore Mark Ash further. To be honest, I was glad to go back. It is a magical wood.

Bolderwood Arboretum Ornamental Drive and the Deer Sanctuary

The red line shows the route I took on this two-mile walk, and there are many other paths to explore. The tracks (double dotted lines) here are all well-marked and mostly gravelled, and smaller paths (single dotted lines) are also easy to follow. I walked along some rides, and these are marked in double-wavy lines (coloured yellow). Not all tracks are shown for simplicity, so if you plan to explore further (a definite must-do), then do consult a good OS map or similar.

First, I park at the Bolderwood car park, at the top of the Ornamental Drive, early on a September morning of dew, clear blue skies and slanting sunbeams glistening among the tall trees. I was the first car there. In her walk from Burley (the one I tried to follow two weeks ago), Joan describes wandering through the woods around Bolderwood Grounds, an Inclosure close to the site of Bolderwood Lodge, demolished in the nineteenth century. Camera and binoculars round my neck, I head in, making my way towards the viewing platform of the nearby Deer Sanctuary. The Sanctuary wouldn’t have been there in Joan’s day – I’m not sure if she’d have liked losing the element of surprise: she so loved coming across deer in the wild of the wood. I see some lovely Fallow hinds, though. Most exciting, a little further down the well-marked trail on Bolderwood Hill, I hear some spectacular crashing over to my right. Creeping close to the fence, I can see two Fallow bucks, feeding on vegetation above their heads by pulling it down towards them, their antlers thrashing from side to side; this was the noise I heard as branches were pulled to and fro, up and down.

A Fallow buck near the Bolderwood Deer Sanctuary in the New Forest

Bolderwood Hill and a splendid tree

I continue downhill on the track but, soon wearying of the crunching of gravel, I turn left along a grassy ride. It’s a little boggy in places, but not too bad (that will change when the weather gets wetter).

Then, in among the trees but towering above them, as the ride bends westwards, I see it. A spectacular, stately, tall and mighty tree. Its bark is soft, corky and tawny; above my head its branches radiate outwards, a tangled but purposeful network of green and russet. It is, of course, a Giant Redwood. I knew they grew by the Rhinefield Ornamental Drive a little further south – I’ve seen them there – but I wasn’t expecting to find one here, growing in its own private realm. Redwoods are not native, of course, and were planted in the New Forest (and elsewhere in the UK) in the nineteenth century. For once, I don’t mind. It is a privilege to spend time beneath this majestic tree, with nothing to disturb us but scolding squirrels and chattering birds.

A Giant Redwood, hidden along a ride at the bottom of Bolderwood Hill

Walking past Bolderwood Grounds

I feel sad to leave the Redwood – my new friend – but I know I will return. I walk on, taking a right on to a cycle track, before finding another ride that skirts the outside edge of Bolderwood grounds. This is a long straight path, grassy and soft underfoot. There is no fence round Bolderwood Grounds to my left, but the old earth boundary and ditch are still there, reclaimed by all things wild. There is fungi on an old mossy tree stump: autumn is definitely on its way, despite the warmth of the sun.

Fungi on a mossy tree stump, near Bolderwood Grounds in the New Forest

Mark Ash Wood

Eventually the ride meets another track, and I head towards a gated entrance into the ancient woodland of Mark Ash. This path through Mark Ash is a little further north than the one I took last time, and it is definitely clearer and easier to follow. I suspect this is the way Joan and the dogs took. The Bracken has a second go at diverting me, but only succeeds in sending me between two branches of the path, and I end up on the Bolderwood Ornamental Drive with – thank you! – no tick-filled Bracken forest barring my way. Crossing the road, I continue along another grassy path through Mark Ash Wood that travels the southern edge of Bolderwood Grounds. It’s calm and beautiful, and the sun is still low in the sky, painting the edges of the trees in gold and sparkling among the Tormentil flowers at my feet.

Mark Ash Wood in the New Forest

Back to Bolderwood

After a while, I turn up a ride that climbs towards Bolderwood Cottage. I’m back among tall conifers again, and the hill is quite steep. 

I want to see if I can find something Joan mentioned. On the south side of Bolderwood Cottage (a private dwelling on the east side of the Bolderwood Arboretum Ornamental Drive), Joan describes finding two oaks, each with a stone commemorating its planting to honour the coronation of King Edward VII (1902) and King George V (1911). These oaks would now be only just over a hundred years old – still young for an oak – and I wonder if they are still there. There is no sign of them, however. Either I am looking in the wrong place, or they did not thrive, or they are so hidden in the undergrowth and tangles of trees that they are invisible. Having given up the search, I return to my car by walking up the road.

I came here to discover more of Mark Ash, and I know it is only the beginning of exploring this lovely wood. But today, what I am carrying home with me is the vision of that astonishing, breath-taking Redwood, standing tall in the heart of the New Forest. 

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 from Burley to Mark Ash Wood. Alternatively, just park at Bolderwood and head into the Forest for a journey of discovery. If you meet my friend the Giant Redwood, be sure to say hello and spend a while beneath its shade.

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