Among spirit-song: Hazel Hill and Minstead in the New Forest

In which I find a mystical Beech grove and a musician’s grave

I seemed to have entered an ancient region. There was an old-world primitive air about everything, that filled me with a peculiar feeling of poetry….It was early autumn. All birds really had ceased to sing; and the deep hush of nature but made more distinct this spirit-song…

William Howitt, The Rural Life of England: The New Forest, published 1838 (writing of the woods between Lyndhurst and Minstead)

The church stands by itself on a hillock under trees.

Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest, published 1934

I didn’t mean to go into the woods.

This week was busy, with no time to follow Joan Begbie and her two dogs (Bill, a white bull terrier, and Mr Bundy, a diminutive griffon) on one of her long walks through the New Forest of the early 1930s. There was time, though, for a shorter outing, and I decided to visit Minstead’s little church of All Saints. I wanted to see the grave of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his wife in the churchyard, and to seek out a musician’s grave that Joan discovered on her own visit to Minstead.

So, I drove to Hazel Hill car park, just a few minutes north of Minstead by foot, with the plan of walking down the quiet road and into the village, visiting the church, and then returning to the car.

I could not have foreseen that, as I stood by the car readying myself to set out, an Oak surrounded by a lawn of green grass and deep blue Devil’s-bit Scabious flowers would call out to me. The Oak’s limbs twined upwards in beckoning shapes, its bark gnarled and lichen’d, its leaves a dark summer green as yet barely tinged by gold. I had, of course, to greet the tree before I continued to Minstead.

Looking up into the branches of my new friend, the Oak at Hazel Hill car park, near Minstead

I passed a few moments of companionship with the Oak, enjoying the dappling of early autumn sun on my face. After a short while, I looked out and into the old woodland that grows on the slopes of Hazel Hill. I felt a gentle calling from among its trees. Come this way, if you like, the trees seemed to say. And, of course, I had to follow. I had not meant to; it was not the way I planned to take into Minstead, but I had no promises to keep, and so in I went, treading carefully through the Scabious at my feet.

Devil’s-bit Scabious, which blooms from summer into early autumn. It is the caterpillar foodplant of the endangered Marsh Fritillary, but I do not know if there is a colony of this rare butterfly here by Hazel Hill.

Hazel Hill

I wonder how long it is since Hazel grew on Hazel Hill. I found none in this wood of shadows and flecked sunlight. There was Holly, bright with berries, and Brambles and Oaks, and Beeches casting their curtains of leaves across the sky. 

Holly bright with berries on Hazel Hill in the New Forest

Here, at the wood’s edge, the trees were rising in twisted shapes, their branches intertwined and cavorting in a slow dance played out over the long years of their lives. I found a grassy path of sorts and followed it a short way until I met a Beech with a long branch impossibly thrown straight out over the track. How the tree bore its weight so well I don’t know, but the branch held solid as stone when I tried gently to rock it.

The Beech with the impossibly long branch at Hazel Hill in the New Forest

As I stepped beneath the long branch, angling my feet south towards the borders of Minstead, it came again. A call from away and up the hill to my left. It wasn’t a steep hill, or high. I would not be long out of my path. So, I followed the call.

Half-way up the hill, there it was, ahead of me. A circle of tall Beeches, sunlight glinting high above through leaves, flecking shadows on the earth below. I gasped out loud when I first saw it; my reaction was primeval, as if I were watching through the eyes of a less sophisticated but wiser, more nature-attuned age. Whether an accident of planting or a natural shrine, there was an air of the spiritual here, living in the trees. Approaching, I could see there were many more Beeches surrounding the inner ring which, once you entered it, felt less formed, its trees melding into the wider wood, as if you could only see its true circular shape from a distance.

A photograph cannot do it proper justice, or convey the sense of awareness held among these trees, but here is the Beech grove I found half-way up Hazel Hill.

I think of the New Forest as a palimpsest – a landscape that has been written and overwritten, and overwritten again, and again, and then again, by layer upon layer of history and change, to which humans, non-human living creatures, trees and plants, the earth, the very rocks beneath us have all contributed, and are still contributing. We might see only the uppermost layers, unless we are careful enough to seek out the glimpses and memories of what lies below. This early autumn afternoon in the Beech grove on Hazel Hill it was as if a layer or two had been set aside. Not physically, but in perception: I could hear the occasional car on the nearby road, last year’s fallen leaves crunching beneath my feet, a tractor trundling out its rhythm in the distance. I heard, but did not give them attention. I was a layer below, in an old woodland, my eyes closed as I listened to the hush of an ancient breeze and the turning of the world.

The wood on Hazel Hill is not untouched by humanity – very few woods are, and human touches can be benign. The Beeches have clearly been coppiced and pollarded in the past, a traditional woodland management practice that prolongs the life of the tree, provides fuel and timber for humans, and opens the canopy to give light below for butterflies and flowers, among others. It is a shame that this traditional management is now undertaken less often: visit Pondhead Inclosure, near Lyndhurst, to see the glorious results of the work of the Pondhead Conservation Trust.

I said farewell to the grove, and achieved the top of the hill a little further on. It was darker here, the canopy less open, the trees more bent, and there were old depressions and mounds: I couldn’t work out if they were past human diggings or an old, abandoned badger sett. I continued downhill southwards, scrambling through Holly and Bramble thickets and diverting round fallen trees. I passed a spectacular fungus growing on the ground from the root of a Beech tree – I think it was a Giant Polypore (Meripilus giganteus).

This fungus, growing from where a Beech root broke the ground’s surface, was almost 0.5 m across. It is most probably a Giant Polypore.

Minstead

Eventually, and with some regret but also gratitude, I said farewell to the trees of Hazel Hill as I reached a wide grassy verge that ran alongside the road running past a village cricket ground and into Minstead. I was back on track with my original plan, albeit approaching the village from a different direction. 

The two-mile route I took to Minstead and back from Hazel Hill car park through the woods of Hazel Hill is shown as a red line, with directional arrows alongside. Footpaths are shown as a single dotted line, and tracks as parallel dotted lines; ways marked yellow are roads. The brown line with flecks marks the boundary of farm and private land in and around Minstead village.

By now, I was hungry and thirsty – I’d brought no food or drink with me because, of course, I hadn’t planned to divert into the woods. Thank goodness for Minstead’s Community Shop, sited next to The Trusty Servant pub, and which is run by volunteers. I bought a vegetarian pastry, something to drink, and a slice of delicious apple cake. The welcoming couple serving had recently moved back to Minstead: the husband had grown up in the area, and there were still local names and people he knew. I thanked them, and took my lunch with me up the hill to the church.

All Saints’ Church, Minstead

Minstead’s claims to fame are a three-decker pulpit, a manorial pew with a fireplace and easy chairs, and an inn sporting the ‘Faithful Servant’ sign.

Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest

I don’t think Joan, Bill and Mr. Bundy walked through the woods of Hazel Hill, or, if they did, Joan didn’t write about it. They did visit the little church of All Saints, though, so I now find myself back in their company. There’s a lovely lych-gate into the churchyard, complete with a coffin rest, and the church building itself is of twelfth-century origin with some later additions. The ‘three-decker pulpit’ is still there: the lower level for the Parish Clerk (no longer used for this today), the middle for bible readings, and the top for preaching the sermon. 

The churchyard is what a churchyard should be, in my view: a jumbly mix of older and newer graves in peaceful companionship, with mown paths through long grasses and plants. In summer, the wildflowers must look beautiful, but most were faded now.

The lych-gate and coffin rest at All Saints’, Minstead

The grave of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his wife, Lady Jean

The gravestone of Sir Arthur and Lady Jean Conan Doyle

The grave for which Minstead is most famous – that of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his wife, Jean – was not there when Joan Begbie visited. Although Sir Arthur died in 1930, before Joan’s Walking in the New Forest was published in 1934, he was first buried at his home in East Sussex. Jean, who died in 1940, was also first buried there: she had wanted to be buried in the Minstead churchyard, with her husband’s grave moved to be alongside her, but the war made it difficult to obtain the necessary permissions. 

Sir Arthur and Lady Jean knew the New Forest well. They had visited often, and Sir Arthur set one his favourite books, The White Company, in nearby Emery Down. In 1925, he took possession of Bignell Wood, a house and grounds not far from Minstead, as a retreat for himself and his family. In 1955, it was finally possible to honour Lady Jean’s wishes, and bring their remains to Minstead, where their grave can now be seen at the far side of the churchyard beneath an Oak tree – the location is thought to be because Sir Arthur’s spiritualist beliefs would not have been looked on kindly by church authorities. Joan was living in Dorset by the 1950s, but she must have read about the re-interment: it was newsworthy at the time, given Sir Arthur’s fame. (If you visit Minstead’s church, do pick up, for an honesty charge of £1, a copy of their leaflet on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his connection to Minstead – it is worth every penny.)

A musician’s headstone

I ate lunch on a bench near Sir Arthur and Lady Jean’s burial place; it was pleasant, and the grave interesting, adorned as it is by a magnifying glass and pipe as a nod to Sir Arthur’s most famous creation, Sherlock Holmes. However, Joan was itching to show me a grave that she had found on her visit.

In the graveyard I found at the back of the church a headstone on which was carved that wondrous and weird wind instrument called the serpent. The musician asleep below was, if I remember rightly, in the band of the old Hampshire Volunteers.

Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest

Even with Joan as a guide, it took me a couple of turns of the churchyard to find the musician’s lichen-blessed headstone with the carving of the musical instrument called the Serpent, but eventually there it was, tucked in a corner behind the church.

The carving of the Serpent – a bass woodwind instrument – on the gravestone of Thomas Maynard in the churchyard of All Saints’ Church in Minstead, The New Forest 

His name was Thomas Maynard, and he died in 1817 aged only 27. The inscription is hard to read, but I found a transcription of it elsewhere. 

To the memory of Thomas Maynard who departed this life July 9th 1817 aged 27 years. The Band of Musicians of the South Hants Yeomanry (of which He was a Member) in testimony of their esteem caused this stone to be erected.

I hope that Thomas was glad to be united with his musical instrument for as long as his headstone remains. I wonder if anyone still visits the grave to honour his young life and smile at the wonderful carving of the serpent. I hope so, but if not, then at least Joan and I have done so: Joan, a little over a hundred years after his death, and me, almost a hundred years after that. 

I wonder who will honour young Thomas after another hundred years? That will be someone else’s tale to tell.

My own tale of this day was over, and I walked back to my car along the road. I’d spent more time here than I meant to, but then, when the woods call, there’s no refusing them.

6 thoughts on “Among spirit-song: Hazel Hill and Minstead in the New Forest

      1. Jen Blaxall

        Ah, beautiful! Thank you Amanda 💜
        I love wandering Minstead, full of mystery, wisdom and characters.
        If you haven’t visited in spring you must do. The churchyard and hedges are full of wild flowers.

        Liked by 1 person

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