In which I imagine an older wood of hazel and bees, and walk among raindrops sparkling in the grass
I think the best place to see for the first time the moor between Hasley and the Slodens is from the brow of Old Sloden’s Hill, in the shade of his yews, on a hot summer’s day.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest, published 1934
In this blog, I am following in the bootsteps (and pawprints) of Joan Begbie and her two dogs (Bill, a white bull terrier, and Mr Bundy, a diminutive griffon) as they wander across the heaths, mires and woods of the New Forest. Joan wrote about her walks in her 1934 book, Walking in the New Forest, and I was curious to find out what had changed and what was the same in the nearly a century of years that have passed between our journeying.
Today’s walk follows the path from Fritham to Old Sloden, then travels across the heath to Hasley Hill before turning down a stony track leading to Broomy Inclosure, and then back to Fritham. Joan, Bill and Mr Bundy walked this way on a bright and warm summer’s day, whereas I was following her in the early morning on one of the first days of autumn, with a cool breeze despite the growing warmth of the sun. If you have a copy of Walking in the New Forest, then you may like to turn to pages 44 to 48 to follow the walk in Joan’s words.
The day is marked in our memories with a red letter in the largest type.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest
For Joan, this walk was the one on which she first saw a deer in the Forest; this is the reason for her marking it as a red-letter day. Joan and the dogs, especially Bill, are always thrilled to see deer. Nowadays, you’re more likely than not to spot a deer or several on Forest walks. Perhaps there were fewer in Joan’s time, though numbers were already increasing after the Deer Removal Act of 1851 (which was only partly successful; see this history of the New Forest inclosures on the New Forest Explorers Guide website for some further information on the 1851 Act).
However, Joan’s deer is haunting Broomy Inclosure, so we haven’t reached it yet.
The path to Old Sloden
Leaving the car at Fritham, I set off on the straight gravel track that leads towards Old Sloden. Joan is keen to get to the woods, and marches on; the track is only afforded half a sentence: “…we set out along the middle track, leaving it when we reached the trees…”. I give this path more attention. To the south, there is Fritham Plain and views over to the green mass of Queen North Wood, Anses Wood and Holly Hatch extending northeast to southwest. To the north, the landscape unfolds even further, across Islands Thorns, the long spine of Hampton Ridge, and then to Godshill Wood and the Wiltshire hills beyond. Above those hills, low clouds are catching the sunlight on their tops, looking like snow-clad mountains in the far distance. Closer towards the eaves of Old Sloden, a solitary Rowan tree, lush with berries, strikes a pose against the shadowed dark green of Hollies.
Neither the modern OS map nor that of Joan’s time mark Old Sloden, but simply show nameless woods to the south of Sloden Inclosure. The latter was first enclosed in 1700 but didn’t thrive; the current inclosure, established with Oak in 1864, incorporates part of that older inclosure. Some of the older planting was left unenclosed to the south – Oak, Holly and especially Yew – and has developed into a lovely wooded hillside, full of gnarled old trees, bracken, thorns and birdsong. The map shows a circular earthwork: this is thought to be all that remains – banks and ditch – of an even earlier coppice, dating to the time of the first Queen Elizabeth. So, the history of this wood is deeply entangled with the history of humans and woodland management, and is locally known as Old Sloden. Read more about Old Sloden (and concerns about the health of its Yews) in the February 2018 edition of Anthony Pasmore’s series of New Forest Notes.
I’ve walked through Old Sloden many a time, but usually on the gravel track that runs down to emerge near Ragged Boys Hill. This time, Joan takes me off on a grassy path, hushed and wilder than either the well-walked track or the nearby conifers of the Inclosure, peering from on high over their fence. Here, I see three deer – two adults and a youngster – that gaze at me curiously, dappled with hazy autumn light, before leaping gracefully on and out of sight. A little further along, I find a tree, dead and broken at its top, but still standing, crowned with a thatch of ivy. Markings on its trunk make it look as if it has a long, doleful face; in Middle Earth, this would surely be an Ent.
The tree with a face in Old Sloden
Old Sloden has many Yew trees. Yews can be very long-lived but, whatever their age, they always seem to me to carry a breath of something older; a bridge between worlds and times. I like to stand under a Yew, protected by the cloak of its stooping branches. I do this today, for a while, looking out from its shade onto the sunlit, browning bracken beyond.
The grassy path that Joan has taken me on crosses the earthwork boundary of the mediaeval coppice (no more than a slightly raised linear ridge in the ground), then a large clearing, and then, a little later, what is marked on the map as “The Churchyard: Royal Hunting Lodge (site of)”. Not much of it remains: a slightly raised rectangular area that widens the path, surrounded by several Yews. There was never a churchyard here; it is the remains of a mediaeval hunting lodge. Several earthworks in the New Forest have Church in their name because Forest inhabitants of earlier times, not knowing what they were, believed them to be the remains of churches in villages they erroneously thought had been destroyed by William the Conqueror (find out more on the New Forest Explorers Guide website).
The path from The Churchyard to the wood’s western edge becomes far less distinct, or even visible, but the Oaks here are old and wonderful, with boughs twisting and spreading. One has a branch, growing close to the earth, so thick that I am amazed the tree holds it up. Give it a few years, and the branch will have bent down to touch the ground; this is part of the natural lifecycle of an older Oak, with branches supporting the tree like buttresses support a Gothic cathedral.
The way to Hasley Hill
Eventually, we emerge out on to a view that Joan loves.
They [the moors] lie in the sun so blissfully, flowing away with a gentle dip and swell, sometimes hiding sometimes revealing the white track that leads to Hasley shimmering and dreamy in the distance, and all around them are woods dim in the heat haze, and far away behind Hasley sleep the opalescent hills of Dorset.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest
There’s no heat haze on my autumn day, and the sun is still hidden by high clouds, but I agree with Joan: this is a truly lovely view. From east to west, you can see across inclosures (Holly Hatch and Broomy) to the woods of Hasley Hill. In between lies the heath; browning bracken and grey heather past its flowering, gorse and the occasional tree. It seems timeless but, of course, it isn’t. I wonder what the prehistoric peoples who first cleared woods to create the heathland would make of what it has become or, rather, what we have made of it.
From the edge of Old Sloden, there is a rocky path that dips steeply downwards to meet a wide gravelly track that heads straight for Hasley. Before we join it however, we pass a New Forest pony standing astride the path, guarding the way to the west. She allows us to pass.
When we achieve the broader track, Joan is curious about how white it looks from a distance, “because on close acquaintance the stones prove to be all different colours – grey, blue, copper, and yellow.” I agree with her, and notice that there is old red paving amongst the stones, including a section that seems more complete. I wondered whether they used broken road paving from elsewhere to make up the track, or if there is an older paved layer beneath the gravel and stones.
A section of old block paving on the track to Hasley
The eastern gate into Hasley Inclosure is watched over by a pair of Sweet Chestnut trees, their prickly hedgehog seedcases green against their serrated leaves. The sun has come out and the clouds are scudding away. We enter and walk up the central track until we reach the highest point, at the mid-point of the wood. Hasley means hazel copse, but I have never seen Hazel here. Nonetheless, at the wood’s heart, and with a light wind whispering through the treetops, this is a mystical place. Always, here, in any season, I can hear bees humming, and I do today, though there are no bees. Logic tells me that it is a trick of the distant traffic noise. Even so, I feel that if I close my eyes for a few moments then, when I open them, I will find myself in a sunlit Hazel glade full of bees. Some would call this a thin place, a place in which worlds (different spaces, different times?) drift closer together. I used to be sceptical, but now, perhaps, not so much.
Alas, I see no Hazel nor any bees (I can still hear bees, though). Joan, Bill and Mr Bundy head straight across the clearing and down the hill. Forestry work means I have to track right and then left to meet Joan by the western gate.
The path down to Broomy Inclosure
…turning left, [we] … take a track apparently used by water far more often far more often than by man or beast. It always seems to be in a mess, and its sofe, boggy bits plentifully bespatter Bill’s white jacket and my stockings every time we use it.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest
I find this path much as Joan did, though I quite enjoy its rocky, stream-bed feel, while taking care not to twist an ankle. Eventually it reaches Woodford Bottom which, even this early in the autumn, is already a lovely mire (I like mires), churned by cattle hooves, and over which I have to zig-zag to avoid sinking ankle deep. I see a lone Sundew, still bravely flowering.
The rocky path from Hasley down to Woodford Bottom and Broomy Inclosure
Dockenswater and Broomy Inclosure
At the bottom, there is a footbridge over lovely Dockenswater, its peat-coloured water reflecting the blue of the sky and green of the trees that shade it.
From here, we turn left and so into Broomy Inclosure. Planted with Oak in 1829, it has since been replanted with Beech and conifers, though Oaks still grow there.
It is a bewitching wood and was in the pleasantest mood that day. Brightly painted, tiny flowers were generously sprinkled about the short grass of the ride; the oaks, tall and freely spaced, made the sun a welcome guest, their leaves tactfully preventing him from becoming too much for their other friends, and he in return made brilliant designs all over their green carpet.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest
It is in this wood that Joan sees her first deer.
Up the curve of the knoll she went, rapping the hollow-sounding ground with her hard little hoofs, at each lengthening leap flipping her legs close to her golden-brown body, ears cocked forward, head stretched towards the trees, snowy tail spread like a tiny triangular sail.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest
I love Joan’s description of her first deer; I can see it running across the Forest and into Joan’s imagination and then the blank page before her as she writes, just like Ted Hughes’ Thought Fox.
The path through Broomy is now a cycle track. It is the wrong season for me to see the bright flowers that Joan spots (I wonder if they are Tormentil), but I am instead delighted by thousands of raindrops sparkling among the grasses, captured from the overnight showers.
As soon as I can, I turn onto a ride; this way isn’t marked on the map, but I cross a plank bridge so I think it is probably a grassy path used by the foresters who stay in Holly Hatch Cottage.
Back to Fritham through Old Sloden
The ride meets the path that turns past Holly Hatch Cottage and goes uphill through Old Sloden again, though this time I am on the main track, not the quieter, more secret way that Joan showed me on the way down. I see deer here, a buck and three hinds, leaping across the path and into the trees. Perhaps they are descendants of Joan’s first deer.
Eventually, the path meets the same gravel track we took from Fritham, and we end where we started.
I think of the sentinel pony on the track by the western edge of Old Sloden. I wonder if she still stands there, guarding the way to an older Hasley, a Hazel wood on the hill, full of bees.