In which I remember old footsteps through a gobliny New Forest wood
Heywood Sumner, artist, craftsman, geologist and archaeologist, when writing about the New Forest’s Anses Wood in the 1920s, said:
The lower part of Anses is bounded by the twisting upper course of Dockenswater which perfects the charm of this, the most beautifully wooded bottom in the Northern area.Heywood Sumner, The New Forest, published 1924
My edition of Sumner’s 1924 book The New Forest accompanies this description with a pen-and-ink illustration by the artist. It shows a mare and her foal standing in heather scrub by the banks of Dockenswater, which curves away and back into the trees, passing between two hollies and then on under oak and beech, before travelling into the wood proper. Just above where the stream disappears under the branches the artist has inked in a small patch of solid black. This, to me, is an invitation. I yearn to walk into the picture, stroll by the stream, watch the wrinkling and swell of the water as it flows, and smell the green forest while listening to the gentle snorts of the ponies. If I can walk into the trees, into that dark, unexplored space, I will perhaps find the source of the enchantment.
I can, of course, walk under the trees of lovely, ancient Anses Wood. I wrote about Anses in my very first post on this blog, back in March 2021, and described how it was a walk there that first introduced me to Joan Begbie and her two dogs (Bill, an exuberant white bull terrier, and Mr Bundy, “a rough-haired brindled griffon of diminutive size and choleric disposition”). On returning home, excited after discovering the winding paths and twisted beeches of this gobliny wood, I picked up Joan’s 1934 book, Walking in the New Forest, which had been sitting unopened on my bookshelf since I claimed it from my parents’ book collection a couple of years earlier. Her description of Anses was so close to my own experience that I decided to follow in her bootsteps on more walks, and so this blog began.
Anses is old and gobliny, and beautiful, too. Crab apples, hollies, oaks, and beeches grow together in rough confusion but perfect good fellowship on the slope between South Bentley and Holly Hatch.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest, published 1934
But my first walk in Anses was alone, with no Joan, Bill or Mr Bundy to keep me company. I hadn’t met them yet. Recently, I re-read the notes I’d scribbled about that first walk, a walk that ended with discovering my ‘happy place’, that special spot where I feel content and at home.
Here are some of the things I wrote in my notebook (very lightly edited so they make sense) about my Anses walk, taken on a chilly November morning.
- Flocks of tits at the [Cadman’s Pool] car park; coal, great and blue tits, bob-flying over the cars and branches or bustling on the ground.
- Moss on tree stumps: looks like green fur, but close up I can see its delicate branching structure.
- A beech is bent over, curving from about 6’ above ground level, before curving back upwards, its upper branches still reaching the upper storey.
- Butcher’s-broom in low growth by the side of the path, beneath the spread of a beech.
- Am getting closer to Dockenswater now, so it feels wetter, more sodden. Fallen wood is further on in decay, damp, dark and livid with mossy growth.
- Just before reaching a large fallen tree is a tall, wonderful beech. The trunk branches into at least three sections from the base. It might be an old coppice, but beech does this naturally (called ingrowth). Beautiful! A bracket fungus on the beech is velvety to touch on its underside.
- Along the bank of Dockenswater there is holly beneath a high tangle of branches, and a small beech with luminous golden leaves.
- The sound of water and wind. The wind is in layers, lower down rushing through trees, but higher up like a rumbling, like when you hear the roar of a large waterfall in the distance.
- There is a tangle of fallen trees by the brook’s edge. The other bank is lawn and heath, sparkling with frost, dappled in the sun.
- Dockenswater is peaty and friendly. Along the bank, rivulets flow into the meandering brook. At one point, as the brook curves round, fallen branches form a dam, where the water backs up and foam and leaves are static on the surface, before the brook burbles on.
It was here, the place where the brook twists, cradling leaves and twigs in the crook of its curve, that I first found the place where I like to sit: my ‘happy place’. By the side of Dockenswater, where it runs along the edge of Anses Wood, two dead trees stand together, thin but still standing tall. They are spaced just far enough apart that my back fits comfortably between them, a shoulder against each trunk. The brook flows from right to left, sluggish in summer and more hurried in autumn or after rain, bending sharply behind me once it has passed before continuing onwards. Across the water is heathland, rising to the woods of Sloden and Fritham Plain, but I am sitting within the wood, looking out, quiet and hidden.
It is a place to close your eyes and listen to the sounds – the rustles, calls, whispers – of the wood. Without the distraction of sight, losing the compulsion to record on camera or turn eyes from one thing to another, I feel more in communion with the forest. My own breathing and the pulse of my heartbeat melds with the breeze, the birdsong, the cough of a deer.
I try to be in my happy place at least once each season. In spring, the willow seeds, fluffy and light, are carried on the breeze and coat the stream with white. In summer, dragonflies fly to and fro. In autumn, russet leaves linger on the trees, glimmering in the sun, and in winter, when it is too cold to linger long, frost sparkles on the grass of the opposite bank.
Joan, Bill and Mr. Bundy walked this way, too, as part of a longer walk that I joined her on earlier in the year. I’ve included below the sketch map of that walk, as it is a fine five-miler at any time of year, and shows the position of Anses Wood in relation the nearby village of Fritham.
Whenever I sit in my happy place at the edge of Anses, I think of Joan and the dogs walking cheerily up from Holly Hatch Cottage further to the west.
…we turned sharp right and walked along the grass ride between the stream and Holly Hatch till we got to Anses through the tangle of thorns, heather and bracken flourishing on its outskirts.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest
Casting my mind back to that, my first walk through Anses, I imagine that Joan passed me by, in this time before she introduced herself to me in the pages of her book, as I sit quietly with my two trees, a trunk touching each shoulder, the brook rippling by. I hear her laugh at the beeches as she goes “freak-branch hunting”.
Some heel over at perilous angles, others split into branches almost as soon as they stop being roots, and others, fallen prop themselves on some great limb and continue to bear leaf and mast as if nothing had happened.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest
We don’t greet each other on that, my first walk through Anses, not yet. It wasn’t long, though, before I was walking with her, Bill and Mr Bundy across the heaths, woods and mires of the beautiful New Forest.
Joan, Bill, Mr Bundy and I will now be taking a break over Christmas, but we’ll be back early in the New Year, following some more of Joan’s delightful New Forest walks. Festive greetings to you!