In which I walk through frost and mist under a low winter sun
It was not too hot on the plain, though the heat haze had blotted out the Dorset downs and set the horizon hills dancing and the sun had fired the windows of the houses on Thorney Hill making them flash like diamonds among their trees.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest, published 1934
If you read last week’s post, you’ll know I failed in an attempt to meet Joan Begbie in Wilverley Inclosure as I was unable to cross the A35 due to the major roadworks currently underway. Instead, I took a different route, shivered in a freezing sleet shower, met up with some cheerful siskins, crossed an eerie plain and investigated something that may or may not have been the ancient remains of a goats’ pen. However, I did all this largely, and unintentionally, without the usual pleasurable company of Joan and her two dogs, Bill, a white bull terrier, and Mr Bundy, a diminutive griffon.
Regular readers of this blog will know that I am following walks described by Joan Begbie in her 1934 book Walking in the New Forest. Her opening words of the first chapter are:
We think it is a splendid country for walking…Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest, 1934
I thought of those words on this week’s walk because it was, indeed, splendid. Unlike the previous week, there was no sleet, no lowering skies, no spooky heathland. Instead, there were those watercolour-blue skies you get on bright, frosty winter days, icy droplets shimmering in the gorse and heather, mist wisping above the ground, and the sun in all its winter-low, dazzling glory.
This week, I followed in the steps of Joan’s stout shoes as exactly as I could. We started from the same place as last week – the Burley Forestry Commission car park – and made our way down to Greenberry Bridge. After that, we tramped through Holmsley Inclosure, then to Thorney Hill Holms and back to the car via Shappen Hill. Joan and the dogs are walking “on a cloudless day in April”, and I am walking in January, also on a cloudless day, but much colder. If you happen to have a copy of Walking in the New Forest, you will find this walk described on pages 153 to 160.
Turf Hill and Greenberry Bridge
What a difference a week makes. Last week I was quickly engulfed by a sleet shower, short but sharp, halfway down Turf Hill. This week, the sun is low but bright above the horizon, and the grass is gleaming with ice crystals. Ponies are silhouettes outlined in gleaming silver as the sun catches their manes and coats, hidden among the curling mist and frosted shadows. Nearby I hear the intricate song of a thrush – a Song Thrush – breaking through the cold haze and calling to all who will listen that spring is not so very far away.
Turf Hill is ringing with bird song and calls: their rattles and warbles cry out from among the gorse and the still-bare trees. Already, they are thinking about claiming territories and clamouring for mates. This seems early in the year, when puddles underfoot are still iced over, but it has been, overall, another milder winter, and the sunlight lays its warmth on the slopes above Shappen Bottom to my right. Joan comments on the gorse blossom:
A light breeze was about its pleasing job of fanning the gorse blooms and mingling their golden smell with the good summer scent drawn out by the sun from the lilac sand under our feet.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest, 1934
Here in January, the gorse is already blooming (it always is, somewhere), but its scent is subdued by the cold air. Standing close, though, I catch its “golden smell”.
The plain dips downwards and I can see ahead to where Holmsley Inclosure lies beyond Avon Water. I hear a fast, repetitive knocking noise and for a few seconds think it is a woodpecker, but then realise it is mechanical, probably a pneumatic breaker from the A35 roadworks, and nothing like as fast as a clever woodpecker.
We pass over Avon Water, which is a still pool by the footbridge but its water trickles away further eastwards into Holmsley, and reach Greenberry Bridge. As explained in last week’s post, this was a bridge over a working railway line in Joan’s time – known as Castleman’s Corkscrew after the local solicitor who championed its construction and its winding route – but which fell victim to the Beeching cuts in the 1960s. The bridge is largely gone and the old railway track is now a cycle route, but I can still see some of the brickwork as I walk down and then up towards Holmsley.
Grass is still glittering with ice nearby as I say farewell to the plain and make my way beneath the trees of Holmsley Inclosure.
From the bridge, we follow footpaths past Holmsley Lodge, touch briefly on the minor road running down from Burley (a gravel road for Joan and a tarmac road for me), over a cattle grid, and straight into the woods.
Holmsley Inclosure, planted in 1811, is now a mix of more recent (post-World War II) conifers, Oaks (some from the original planting, some younger). I also spot some Sweet Chestnut, Birch, Beech and Holly, together with Alder in some of the wetter parts near to streams. For Joan, there would have been no well-gravelled cycle paths, of which there are now quite a few to the west of the minor road running through the Inclosure. Even so, it still feels to me a little wilder, a little older, somewhere touched, however remotely, by the god of wild things. Mist, rising from the vegetation as a thaw takes hold, drifts between the thorns and bracken and the air is moist and chilly despite the slanting sun. Dead wood is left in a tangle, nourishing the earth and the life it holds, while the first green shoots nudge through the leaf litter.
At first we are alone as we turn left up a footpath around Lodge Hill, but there is none of the unsettled feeling I experienced on Goatspen Plain last week. We are welcome here.
Joan tells me a story of a brave fox she had seen in Holmsley: “It was in Holmsley and about this time of year that I witnessed a wonderful act of valour, the hero of which was a fox.” The fox had gone to earth but not in a safe place, and was in danger of being dug out, when:
…with glorious courage the fox leapt out into the air, flung himself backwards over the top of the ruined earth within a few yards of the assembled pack, and sped off into the friendly bushes….I am glad to say that [the fox], having cast the enclosure behind him, raced across the moors and went securely to ground again in a nice stony bit where he was left to rest on his laurels.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest, 1934
Joan, from her description, was clearly hunting herself on that day. I like to think her admiration of this fox’s valour was among the things that turned her against going fox hunting with hounds in later years.
While she is recounting the tale of the fox, we are passed by a group of runners. They wave a cheerful greeting and then run on into the thinning mist and the bright sun.
The path loops back onto the minor road and we walk along it for a little, passing over two footbridges, each with an icy metal hand grip, crossing two streams. Joan remembers these parallel streams:
…we came to where side by side two streams flow out of the wood, titter down little falls, cross the road and disappear between primrose banks into the trees again.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest, 1934
Here, Joan’s primrose-lined streams still flow, although it is too early yet for primroses.
We turn right onto a cycle path (a woodland ride for Joan, Bill and Mr. Bundy). Here, on her April walk, Joan found the wood more open (though I find it less so) and describes seeing “…a lot of brown speckled butterflies which were hovering like little dusty leaves above the dry grasses.” These must be Speckled Woods, one of my favourite butterflies, so I may return later in the year to see if this lovely woodland butterfly still graces the trees of Holmsley. We cross an old ride, edged by a scramble of bracken and ditch on either side, both streamlets full of green life. Then we bear right and uphill, before turning down the second ride to the left, one that is clearly unused given the amount of leaf litter and moss underfoot. We cross another cycle track and take a little shady footpath towards the edge of the Inclosure. Birdsong is all around, hidden in the trees, and with a quietness between notes that distant traffic noise cannot perturb. The god of wild things lingers here.
Thorney Hill Holms
We emerge from the sun-flecked wood via a gate onto the open heathland once more. Joan, Bill and Mr. Bundy rest at this point.
Outside the gate we lay down under some splendid pines to cool off and share biscuits, looking at the billowy moors and droves of holly bushes before us, and listening to the murmur of traffic on the Lyndhurst highway, the hushing of the wind in the dark boughs above us, and the muffled thunder of the guns on Salisbury Plain. The breeze brought us the fitful clonking of cowbells, and once the hoarse cuck-cuck of a cock pheasant, the faint smell of wood fires, and now and then the barking of a dog.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest
Be it 1934 or 2022, apart from the cowbells, what’s the difference?
Soon, we are heading towards Thorney Hill Holms, passing above Magpie Green (we don’t see any Magpies). The path is wide and grassy with the imprint of truck tracks. The sun is bright, but where gorse shades the path, ice still crunches in the flooded ruts. The path narrows through Gorse and then we are immersed in the Hollies of Thorney Hill Holms. The deep colour of the Holly leaves tinges the dark shadows beneath them in flushes of dark and mossy green, and even the rays of the sun that push their way into the Holm glisten with emerald. I leave the path for a while to stand among the trees, and find a Yew, upright but leafless and presumably dead, cut off from light by the dense growth of the surrounding Hollies. I lean against the Yew for a while, its bark warm against my back.
In her 1930s walk, Joan was surprised by the way the Hollies and Yews she saw were scattered, as she had been expecting a dense Holly wood. She tells me she met a friendly old gypsy woman who explained that fire had burned down many of the trees, which is why they were so sparse. Here in the 2020s, the Hollies have recovered, and the wood is once again thick and lustrous.
Holmsley Ridge and Shappen Hill
Joan follows a track with the dogs towards Whitten Bottom. I decide to take a shortcut across the heath towards Holmsley Ridge (it’s outside ground-nesting bird season; I wouldn’t leave the track in the spring and summer). My cross-country route may be a bit of a mistake, I think, as I zig-zag through puddles and mud and navigate winding pony paths through dense gorse. Every turning I take, I end up back in the boggy mire of the stream flowing down from Whitten Bottom. Eventually I make it, scratched and muddy, and meet Joan back on the track, where I share in her delighted view of Whitten Pond.
It was lovely there on the hill. Whitten Pond lay like an acquamarine [sic.] in a pale jade ring amongst the sombre heather away down in the bottom – a brilliant accent in a landscape of heathy ridges and valleys, and low, wooded hills.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest, 1934
The path along Holmsley Ridge is very muddy, and other walkers and I commiserate with each other. A Red Admiral flies by, making the most of the winter sun to emerge from its sleep and find some early nectar. We turn back towards Greenberry Bridge, and the track becomes stony, heading downhill.
Joan has no wish to retrace her steps back to Burley, so turns left on a grassy path alongside the railway track to reach a level crossing below Shappen Bottom. I agree with her (I hate going back the same way!), but I can of course walk along the route of the railway track itself. Looking right, I can see feathery Willows in the mire. I’m not sure I will be able to tell where the level crossing used to be, but it’s obvious. The wooden posts are still there, and some metal posts are almost buried at the edge of the track. Joan, Bill and Mr Bundy head down from their grassy path, and together we pass over Avon Water once more and head up Shappen Hill.
This last part of the walk is uphill, but not too steep. We turn right at the top of Shappen Hill, meet a minor tarmac road at Goatspen Cottage, and then head up a little woodland path and arrive back at the car park.
This was a wonderful walk, taking in heath, landscapes, woods, and some railway history as well. The ponies hiding in the frosty glow at the top of Turf Hill, and the curling mist in Holmsley, where the god of the wild things treads, are what most linger in my thoughts. This walk would, though, be just as beautiful in days of summer, flowers and butterflies, or among the golden colours of autumn.