A sun-filled autumn morning in the New Forest: a visit to the woods around Frankenbury hillfort

In which I am entranced by seedheads, am stared at by a cow with long horns, and don’t see much of an Iron Age hillfort

Not long ago I spent a delicious summer morning in the wood, and was guided along its enchanting rides by a youth…I came across him combing a white rabbit at his cottage door and asked if he could tell me the way to Cerdic’s Camp…He leapt to his feet, deposited the rabbit in a spotless cage, and volunteered to guide me. We never found the camp, because he kept stopping to gather wildflowers which he thrust into my hands laughing delightedly, or danced down a ride to show me how lovely the Avon looked through the tree-trunks, or darted through bushes to lead me to some nest he knew of. By the time we said goodbye I had not only an armful of flowers to stow into the car, but a young lilac tree and a young broom bush so cleverly uprooted that they flourish in our garden still.

Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest, published 1934

In this delightful short extract from her 1934 book, Walking in the New ForestJoan Begbie is talking of a visit to the woods in and around what is now Sandy Balls Holiday Village, near Godshill and a couple of miles out of Fordingbridge. The first time I read this passage I was completely charmed, both by the thought of all the sweet-smelling wildflowers, and by the insight into Joan’s character. Some people may have been irritated by being led off track over and over again by an over-keen and self-appointed guide. Not Joan. She was happy to follow the enthusiastic youth, taking the unplanned encounter as a blessing and not a hindrance. I hope I would behave the same in a similar situation. Unexpected meetings can bring unexpected rewards, from armfuls of wildflowers, lilac and broom bushes, to new friends.

In the woods around Frankenbury hillfort and Sandy Balls Holiday Village in the New Forest

I’m not sure what Joan means by Cerdic’s Camp. Cerdic is mentioned in the ninth-century Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, where he is described as the founder of the Saxon kingdom of Wessex in the early sixth century. There is some mystery surrounding Cerdic. Was he Saxon? Was he British? Did he really found Wessex? Whichever, there are associations with him all over the New Forest. However, neither of the hillforts/castle remains that I know of near Godshill are from Cerdic’s era. Joan does say that she since learned that Cerdic’s Camp is just outside Godshill Enclosure, so she could perhaps have been thinking of Castle Hill, which is all that remains (not much) of a ring and bailey castle of Norman origin.

The hillfort near to Sandy Balls is Frankenbury. It’s marked on the Ordnance Survey map in lovely curly lettering, meaning it’s ancient: It dates from the Iron Age, which in Britain spans the period from about 700 BCE [or BC] up to the Roman invasion in 43 CE [or AD]. Joan’s wildflower-filled walk with her guide would have been in the woods around Frankenbury, so I thought I’d go and have a wander myself. There remain public footpaths past and through Sandy Balls and around the Frankenbury site; I was visiting in early autumn, so there would be fewer wildflowers, but still the promise of much to see under a blue sky and among the slanting sunlight.

One thing I knew in advance, I wouldn’t see much of the hillfort itself. There’s not too much evidence left on the land surface, and it’s on private land, though you can see over the farm fields from the north to get a vague idea of the defensive bank. To the south and west, trees prevent a view of the hillfort. Here, the natural steep slopes leading down to the Avon were the main defence of the Iron Age people that stayed here. It’s the largest Iron Age hillfort in the New Forest (11 acres), and is described by Historic England as a univallate hillfort (i.e. having a single line of ramparts).

Walking to Frankenbury past Sandy Balls

This walk (shown as a red line) is under two miles long, so makes for a pleasant stroll through woods and fields. The tracks (double dotted lines) and footpaths (single dotted lines) are all well-marked and easy to follow; the B3078 is shaded brown, and minor roads either shaded yellow or unshaded. I haven’t walked all the tracks in the area, so do take a good map with you and pay attention to any access signage. The route I walked is all on public paths.

So, with no expectations of seeing much of Frankenbury, but high expectations of a pleasant walk, I left my car in the large car park of the Fighting Cocks pub – a bit cheeky, perhaps, but there was lots of space (I could also have parked a little further up the road at Godshill Cricket public car park). After that, there’s a short walk back along the road (there’s pavement all the way), past the cattle grid, until reaching a footpath to the right. At first, this is a slightly unexciting track between hedges, but eventually, turning sharp left, the welcoming trees appear. Someone has been trimming a Sweet Chestnut, because its thin branches, leaves and prickly seed cases (like little green hedgehogs) are all around my feet.

Sweet Chestnut seed cases, looking just like little green hedgehogs, all curled up

The track then turns sharp right, and you are walking between trees (including lots of coppiced Hazel) on one side, and on the other some rather nice-looking cabins on the Sandy Balls Estate. (Incidentally, Sandy Balls has its own very interesting history, including what’s behind its intriguing name, to which I’ll return in a later post.) The track continues adjacent to cabins as you turn left, until you reach a crossroads of tracks. Straight ahead lie the woodland nature trails of the Holiday Village and the public footpath round Frankenbury. Ahead, therefore, I went. 

I wonder where Joan met her youthful guide. Were I to meet him, he wouldn’t be able to show me wildflowers on this early autumn day. While the deciduous trees are still holding their leaves, showing only slight tinges of orange, brown and gold, the wildflowers are all but gone. An occasional Yarrow is hanging on, and I saw some tiny white flowers on Cleavers. 

Autumn is my favourite season. While I love its misty mornings and crisp golden sunlight slanting low through the trees, one of the main reasons for my preference is that autumn reminds us that death and senescence are as much a part of the circling of life as the bursting newness that spring brings. What better to remind us of this than next year’s buds already showing themselves on the autumn trees, nestling behind browning, dying leaves. Life continues.

Bracket fungi on a tree stump

The woods to the south and west of Frankenbury are beautiful. I found ferns, and fungi growing round an old tree stump. Through the trees to the left, I caught occasional glimpses of the Avon, far below. There was a trodden path (a badger, fox or deer path, maybe?) of sorts up the bank to the right, so I climbed up it to find out if I could see anything of the hillfort. Nothing – the trees were too densely packed. Similarly, looking downhill from my vantage point, it was hard to see much. When the fort was active, there would presumably have been far fewer trees, though, and it wasn’t difficult to imagine the tremendous view its Iron Age inhabitants would have had across the river valley and beyond.

There were a couple of just about discernible paths off to the left, down through the woods. I was tempted, but they were steep and I had come in trainers rather than my more stable, slope-gripping walking boots. Another day beckons, in the right footware.

A field of cows

Eventually, I came to a place where the track turned sharp left and followed a route up to Fold Farm and the Avon Valley Path. I, however, stayed straight, heading north, along a right of way that passes straight across a field. 

There were cows in this field. Cows with long horns. The cows were only moderately interested in me, and were mostly lying down, chewing away. Even so, I felt their eyes following my passage across their field. I walked cautiously as far away from them as I could possibly be without trespassing on the farmer’s land. Then, when I had the stile out of the field in my sights, one of the cows rose to its feet, and watched as I picked up my pace. A small group of Guineafowl squawked me some encouragement. As I stood on top of the stile, I looked back; the cow still watched me. Was she saying farewell, or was she saying good riddance? I expect she was just curious, but my apprehension around our bovine friends means I usually manage to impart some other intent to their actions. 

The Longhorn cow that watched me as I left her field. I laugh at myself for my apprehension around cows; care is needed, especially when they have calves, but they are otherwise usually simply curious. I think the cows I saw near Frankenbury are English Longhorns, not an aggressive breed at all, despite the impressive horns.

Back to Godshill along a lane of seedheads

The remainder of the route back to the car is mainly along a proper track, with a brief bit of field (cow-less) walking at the end before hitting the road again. But, despite being away from the woods and trees, I had plenty to engage me. 

A Comma butterfly settled on some Bramble, I found a plant gall on a rose, and the hedgerows were full of seedheads. We all love a wildflower, but it is so worth spending time with a seedhead. Not only are they little miracles of evolution, but their designs and structures are entrancing: some are delicate, some robust; some are so flimsy they sway and vibrate in the slightest breeze, while some hold their own in the elements. Most of all I loved the seedheads of Red Campion, with their little cups of nestled black seeds.

Seedheads of Red Campion. In the lower two, you can see the little black seeds.

I wonder if Joan’s guide would have collected me armfuls of seedheads. I would have been as happy with that as Joan was with her wildflowers. 

Robin’s Pincushion, also known as Bedeguar Gall,  is a gall on wild rose caused by the tiny gall wasp Dipoloepis rosae.

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