In which I get caught in a sleet shower but meet a gang of excitable siskins
All round us the country, which Walter Scott loved because he said it reminded him of his native moors, lay in uneven folds reaching away to long hills crested with pines.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest, published 1934
After a break over Christmas and the New Year, I am back following in the footsteps of Joan Begbie and, of course, in the pawprints of her two dogs, Bill, a white bull terrier, and Mr Bundy, a diminutive griffon. Joan’s walks across the length and breadth of the New Forest are described in her book, Walking in the New Forest, published in 1934, and I have been itching to pull my boots on to once more follow Joan’s walks to see what has changed and what has not in the Forest.
A note on the walk
My first post-Christmas walk was, in some ways, not the biggest success, but also produced moments of delight. I had planned to follow the first half of a walk that Joan, Bill and Mr. Bundy undertook on a fine spring day from Burley, heading into Wilverley Inclosure and beyond (Joan describes this walk starting on page 162 of Walking in the New Forest, if you happen to have a copy). Joan left her car on Clay Hill, near Burley, but I knew Clay Hill car park to the east of Burley was closed (for use by site vehicles associated with the major roadworks on the A35 taking place in the first half of 2022). So, I decided to leave my car at the Forestry Commission’s Burley car park and walk down Turf Hill towards the A35; I assumed that, though the A35 was closed for traffic, there would be a way for me to walk across it and join Joan in Wilverley, which lies on its other side. No such luck. The way across was barred to cars, cyclists and walkers alike. Instead, I turned back and returned to the car via Goatspen Plain.
The route I took (shown on the map below) therefore ended up being more like the first steps of another walk Joan took from Burley down to Holmsley Inclosure and Thorney Hill Holms (page 153 ff. in Walking in the New Forest; in hindsight, I’ve compared my walk to that and not the Wilverley one). If only I had planned for this other walk, I could have headed southwards into Holmsley and Thorney. But, on the day and not thinking straight, I was thrown by the inability to cross the A35.
As it happens, I ended up enjoying this, my first New Forest walk of the year, after a wet start, and came across things I would have missed according to my original plan. To use a well-worn cliché, every cloud has a silver lining.
Clouds and silver linings have a literal application to this January walk. As I set off on the gravel track by the golf course and down Turf Hill, it is raining, and cold. Joan, Bill and Mr. Bundy take a track a little further north near the road eastwards out of Burley, before dropping down into Holmsley Bog, but for them it is a “cloudless day in April”. For me, it starts to sleet. I can’t lift my eyes to search for the distant shapes of Joan and the dogs because my vision is narrowed beneath the hood of my waterproof; my head is down as I blink away freezing rain. I stick my hands in my pockets, wishing I had followed Joan’s example and waited until spring to walk this way.
Halfway down the Turf Hill track, it all changes. The sleety rain eases and, looking back, I see the sky clearing. The sun may not be quite out, but the sky is a washed-out blue, while yellow gorse brightens the heath as I catch its coconut scent in the damp air. Down comes the hood and I gaze around, enjoying the wide horizons and the land that Joan tells me Walter Scott loved.
I walk across a footbridge over the Avon Water. A smattering of rain still sparkles as it hits the brook, circular ripples dancing on the surface. By the side of the track, raindrops cling to the bushes, gleaming in the brightening day.
The old railway track: ‘Castleman’s Corkscrew’
A few steps further from Avon Water and I have reached Greenberry Bridge, where I catch up with Joan.
We went briskly over the plain and down into the green-brown bottom called Holmsley Bog, where the path steps over two waterways belonging to Avon Water and crosses the railway line running through the bottom by means of red brick Greenberry Bridge.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest
Joan, Bill and Mr. Bundy here cross an actual, working railway line. Known as Castleman’s Corkscrew (after a Dorset solicitor, Charles Castleman, who advocated for it to be built, and on account of its winding ‘corkscrew’ route), it was an extension through the New Forest of the main London to Southampton line. The extension was opened in 1847 but closed in the 1960s as part of the Beeching cuts, which saw the end of many stations and lines nationally. You can find a good description of Castleman’s Corkscrew and its history on the New Forest Explorers Guide (one of my favourite New Forest websites).
I’m no transport historian, but I do know that the 1930s marked the beginning of the change from steam to diesel trains. Joan is walking here in the earlier 1930s, though, and I like to imagine that, should a train pass by as she pauses on red-brick Greenberry Bridge, it would be a steam train trundling towards Holmsley Station, or westwards towards Ringwood.
The remains of Greenberry Bridge are still there, a little derelict, red bricks all higgledy piggledy and falling into the sandy ground, but still climbing above the disused rail route below, its tracks long gone and now a well-marked cycle path. This is where Joan, the dogs and I part, after our brief meeting. They are off to Holmsley Inclosure and Thorney Hill Holms, while I am still hoping to cross the A35 into Wilverley.
The old railway line goes straight south-eastwards from here, racing towards the A35. The sun is now almost out – the occasional ray gleams from behind a cloud or through the branches of a tree – and the rain has properly stopped. The track is sandy and gravelly, with some squelchy muddy patches and puddles reflecting the trees growing on the banks to either side, like portals to an upside-down world. Water runs cheerfully down the old embankments.
A little further on, I cross a minor road, Holmsley Passage (another railway relict name), and stand to admire its sinuous climb northwards before pressing on beneath the lichen-covered trees along the straight track. A woodpecker calls, and a pair of bullfinches hop along the grassy verge. The sun is now shining brightly.
Then, there is a clamouring among the treetops. A flurry of birds, chattering and feeding together. Siskins! – maybe up to thirty of them or more. I love these streaky yellow finches and stand still for ages watching them, through my binoculars but also without, so that I can take in the shape and flurry of the flock charging from branch to branch, bud to bud. I don’t know a collective noun for siskins, so spend some time thinking a few up. A quarrelling of siskins? They’re not really quarrelling, though – just gabbling to each other. So, a gabbling, maybe? A dashing? A swoop? They are constantly eating, so maybe a gobbling? They are delightful, and don’t really need me to name them. They have their own business to attend to, and their own skies to travel.
Old Holmsley Station
I eventually reach Station Road as it heads down from Burley and walk along it a few steps towards The Old Station Tea Rooms. I don’t call in for a cuppa this time, but have in the past, and can warmly recommend them. The Tea Rooms are in the old Holmsley Station building.
I quickly, and disappointedly, work out that there is no way to cross the A35 here, and avoiding the roadworks would have taken me a tidy step out of my way. I see a sole driver looking lost, and a group of cyclists doubling back, so it isn’t just me that hasn’t pre-planned carefully enough. I turn about, following the cyclists up Station Road. A sole cyclist travels along a track just to right of the road, as if he has come from the A35. He waits for me – he is a charming, gently spoken older man – and tells me he has made it across by climbing over the fences either side of the A35. Respect to him, I think. Now, I could have tried this myself. However, getting stuck trying to climb over things – fences, gates, etc. – is one of my main countryside ‘skills’ (the other two are losing the lens cap of my camera and falling over in muddy bits). Therefore, I decide instead to head on back to Burley via a slightly different route.
Just a short way along Station Road, a stony path heads off westwards across the open heath below Goatspen Plain, travelling roughly parallel to the section of the Corkscrew track I walked earlier. This path isn’t marked on the OS map, but it’s quite clear: sometimes gravelly, sometimes a muddy and narrow way between gorse, sometimes no more than a pony path, but always visible. The temperature is dropping and the sun has once again retreated. A pony neighs to my left, a reed bunting calls from near Avon Water, a cold breeze is tingling my fingertips. It’s become rather grey and I feel quite alone – not lonely, but a little…unsettled. I can’t work out why, but I suppose the landscape is flat and wintry, gorse and other shrubs hide what lies ahead round each corner, the air smells of moss and wet earth and, of course, there is no traffic noise from what would usually be the very busy A35. Not that I miss the constant thrum of cars and lorries – far from it – but I am becoming very aware of the silence underlying the sounds and smells of the heath. I pull my coat tight around me and move on, feeling as if I have wandered into an M. R. James ghost story. I miss the tree-lined railway track and the siskins.
Things look up when I reach Holmsley Passage again, as the sun comes out.
I’ve spotted an Enclosure on the map further along the road (written in curly writing – OS code for something historical and possibly interesting). I make my way up to it and am delighted to find it’s visible on the ground, formed of a D-shape of low banks, open at one end. Is it the remains of an enclosure for goats? Maybe yes, maybe no. I later find an article that suggests goats, which aren’t commonable animals, would more likely be tethered than penned, and Goatspen might instead be a corruption of a personal name, not a reference to a purpose. However, another later document (2013) suggests the enclosure was used for penning goats. The date of the enclosure is also apparently uncertain. The mystery takes me back into the eerie uncertainties of a ghost story, but I bravely wander around, accompanied by a chattering wren, trying to imagine people of a long-gone age working in this place. It’s high here, a great vantage point, and the views southwards are spectacular.
Back to Burley
Reaching the road out of Burley, I walk back along the tarmac to the car park, only diverting to investigate a pond surrounded by a tumbled mass of trees, including one bowed over into a complete archway. From ghost story to the land of the fae! But soon I am back in the here and now at Burley car park, and pile into my car for the drive home.
I’m conscious I may have made parts of this walk sound less than wonderful, but I’ve tried to be honest about how it went. So much is to do with weather and one’s own mood. I’m not, in fact, sure that it’s wrong to feel unsettled, or conscious of changing ambience. Being sensitive to changes in atmosphere, light, contrasts, scents and sounds, the feel of different breezes on your skin or of different earths beneath your feet is about learning to belong in and to know a place. It’s not all light and sun; grey and uncanny have their place, too.
In short, don’t be put off; the more I think about this walk, the more I feel how special it was, despite its unexpected detours and changing moods.
And the siskins were marvellous!