In which I walk old, previously trodden paths through Eyeworth and Islands Thorns in the New Forest
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, talking about deer in 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 paths I have been before with Joan, although not in the same order. We are in Islands Thorns Inclosure and Eyeworth Wood. We walked there, setting out from Fritham, as autumn and winter mingled at the turning of the seasons (read about that earlier walk here and here). Now, autumn is just beginning, the leaves are turning to gold, and the early morning frost in the air is still only a gentle breath on the skin. This time, we set out from Telegraph Hill, to the north of Islands Thorns. If you have a copy of Walking in the New Forest, then you may like to turn to pages 50 to 58 to follow the walk in Joan’s words.
There is a hacking cough, a series of short rumbles to my left, deep in the woods. The sound resonates sharply and then lingers among the trees even in the silences in between each grunt. I feel a frisson of cold air tingle across the back of my neck, and stand still, quiet as I can. I know this sound. It is a Fallow buck, herding his hinds and letting all challengers know these are mine, this place is mine, beware.
Peering through the wood, I finally see him, his broad antlers first, as he paces backwards and forwards, side to side, rounding up first that hind, then that one. Stay close, do not stray, you are mine. They are a long way away, the sun is weak today, and so I see them as a shadow play between silhouetted trees, passing in and out of sight, the hinds bending necks to feed, lifting heads to walk on, turning back as the buck, antlers high, once more nudges them into his circle in the wood. This feels mythical, a doorway into a past and more perilous Forest.
I am not in the past, of course: I am in Islands Thorns Inclosure, which was planted in the middle of the nineteenth century with Oaks and Scots Pine, though not much of the latter remains. This little-walked plantation is now, predominantly, a place of tall, very tall, Oaks. Before the tall Oaks, this was a broadleaf pasture woodland. Islands Thorns, as it is now, is still beautiful and mysterious, shadowy yet glistening with sudden, unexpected sunlight, and its trees are full of birds and squirrels, moss and lichens and ferns and, in the autumn, fungi. The breezes that drift among the branches above carry a whisper, a quiet memory of the older wood, but I feel no sense of regret here. The ancient wood that once thrived here recognises these younger Oaks as kin. The barking Fallow buck, still shouting out but weary now as the rutting season comes to an end, echoes this. His species is not native to our forests; they came to England with the Normans. But the woods have welcomed them, enfolding them into the memories that drift with the ancient breezes.
I can well imagine how Joan would feel at these thoughts of mine. She would want to be off, dogs at her side, pointing out that Islands Thorns is beautiful, and that it is time we continued our passage beneath its trees. We should be enjoying the walk, she says. So, that is what we do.
The trees of Islands Thorns are tall and thin, but they grow so closely that the wood looks somehow full of mist and the sun slants through the trunks in narrow streaks.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest
I park at Telegraph Hill, the Forestry Commission car park just opposite where the road to Downton peels off from the road between Cadnam and Fordingbridge. Following a footpath towards Islands Thorns, I enter the wood at its northern edge.
At the border of the wood, I spot a Birch, one branch of which has grown away horizontally from the main trunk, stretching out thinly before finally resting in the crook between trunk and bough of a neighbouring Birch. This second tree has accepted the questing branch, and the two have folded their bark together in mutually welcoming growth.
Walking through the wood, I follow a different path to that Joan wrote about in Walking in the New Forest. She entered further down, at the western border of Island Thorns. I think of her, Bill and Mr Bundy, trekking southwards on the heath by the edge of the wood, while I am within. Their way is a good way to walk, but I am trying a new path. Approaching the fields of Eyeworth Lodge, I see some inclosures – on the left, then the right – protected by deer fencing. Within them is a right old scramble of Birch, Brambles and other trees and shrubs: I wonder if these are areas where the Forestry Commission is regenerating some more natural woodland. Then, snuffling out of the undergrowth, appears a pig, doing her pannage duty (the Commoners have the right of pannage to put pigs on the Forest in the autumn; the pigs eat up the acorns, which are poisonous to the ponies). She’s on her own, but seems quite happy about it.
I meet Joan and the dogs again on reaching what is now the cycle track running down off Hampton Ridge. They have come from the west, walking different paths through the wood, but on comparing notes we find we have both seen much the same beauty in the tall oaks. I have to break it to Joan that I have seen her favourite woodland creature – deer – passing like shadows between the trees, but she’d seen deer, too, at the wood’s borderland.
Suddenly there was a white flicker under the beeches, and then, before our incredulous eyes, one by one against the rich green of the shadowed hollies, we picked out seven grey and white shapes and knew them to be deer.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest
A little further on, and just beyond a healthy, large Butcher’s-broom shrub, sporting two of its large, bright red berries, we cut across the heath to reach Eyeworth Pond.
In her original walk, starting from Fritham, Joan made her way through Eyeworth Wood before reaching Islands Thorns, so we are doing it back-to-front today. We pause by the still waters of Eyeworth Pond and its Mallards, and then head into the wood. The last time I walked here, I described it as “a true beech, oak and holly wood with an ancient soul”, and I haven’t changed my mind. The colours of the Forest are just beginning to turn gold and russet, and the sounds of the wood – drips, squirrel-scampering and rustling undergrowth – are peaceful and hushed.
I think of the New Forest’s landscape as a palimpsest – history and living things overwriting themselves time and time again. I think on this as I’m walking through this ancient pasture woodland. I’m following in my own footsteps following in Joan’s footsteps, and already, less than a year later, there are changes – things that have been overwritten. One of a small circle of tree stumps, frosted and almost barren in the cold of last December, now sports a terraced mass of brown fungi. Further along the ride and a recently fallen Holly tree that I saw sporting a crown of polypody is now rotted back and barely recognisable.
Emerging from the eaves of old Eyeworth, one thing is the same: the path marked on the map as a byway is non-existent. The OS map legend states: “Rights of way are liable to change and may not be clearly defined on the ground.” You’re telling me. As it is well past groundnesting bird season, we follow where the path should be, and are rewarded by a fallen branch of Beech, still partly attached to its parent, that is full of a wonderful variety of fungi.
Just before the ‘track’ bends sharply back towards Telegraph Hill, it becomes a proper path as it reaches the three small dew ponds we saw last time, full to the brim after the recent rains. This is a high spot on the heath, and the 360° view is marvellous, from Studley Wood and Islands Thorns stretching out to the south, Deadman Hill to the west, Franchises Wood and the Wiltshire hills beyond to the north, to the heights of Piper’s Wait to the east. This is a good – an invigorating – place to end our walk. I say farewell to Joan, Bill and Mr. Bundy, and find my way back to the car, realising I have taken almost four hours to walk just under four miles: not because the way is difficult, but because I have been dawdling and exploring, finding fungi and quietly watching deer.
It is the shadow deer I remember for the rest of the day, pacing to and fro in a mythical forest.
If you want to read about the last time Joan, Bill, Mr. Bundy and I walked this way (but from a different starting point), then you can turn to the two blog posts I wrote earlier in the year: Fritham, Eyeworth, Studley and Islands Thorns Part 1 and Part 2.