In which I see a Kingfisher and chat with a Robin
Out of this field the path enters another, and then another, where for a while it wanders hand in hand with a hazel-shadowed, golden stream where trout are to be found. The stream has an open bay where dogs like to swim and where children with glass jars, bare legs and infinite patience, catch minnows. Once I saw a kingfisher dart across this bay and speed a dim, blue flicker up the dusky hazel avenue beyond, and once—oh! memorable day—I surprised a great grey heron at his fishing.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest, published 1934
Blashford Lakes: a place of history and past change
Just beyond the western edge of the New Forest National Park’s present-day boundary lies the place that has, perhaps, seen the most change since Joan Begbie wrote about her forest walks in her book Walking in the New Forest in the 1930s. She would not recognise it now, this place of lakes, birds and woodland walks nestled alongside an old droveway, and one of the loveliest nature havens of the Forest.
This is, of course, Blashford Lakes Nature Reserve, managed by the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust. With bird watching hides, woodland and lakeside walks, a wildlife trail, an Education Centre, information boards, and so on, you would think it would feel busy and tame. It doesn’t. There is enough space to let the wildness in. Yes, you meet a few more people than on a New Forest walk, but they are always mutually respectful and friendly, focussed heart and soul on the birds and other wildlife.
Blashford Lakes did not exist in Joan’s lifetime. We are going to have to travel backwards through time to find her and her two dogs, Bill, a white bull terrier, and Mr Bundy, a diminutive griffon, as they walk not by lakes but through open summer fields.
More recently, before becoming a nature reserve, Blashford Lakes were, from the 1960s until towards the end of the twentieth century, old gravel quarries. The land was purchased by Amey Roadstone in the early 1960s for the extraction of aggregates, before which it had briefly been agricultural land.
Go further back, and we find that, for four years in the early 1950s, the site was a motor racing circuit. Cars and motor bikes raced round the old runways of RAF Ibsley, a World War Two airfield operational from 1940 until 1946. No trace of the runways of RAF Ibsley is visible now, though the remains of an old control tower, situated on private land, can be seen from the road. Officially opened in 1941, a squadron of Hurricanes was stationed at Ibsley in 1940 to provide cover for merchant vessels at sea, and the airfield was the base for many other squadrons during its lifetime. The airfield was built on Joan’s sunny meadows.
Joan moved in the early 1950s to Worth Matravers in Dorset. I wonder if she ever had cause to drive again along the Ringwood to Salisbury Road by the airfield that became a racing circuit that became gravel quarries. Would she have felt sad at the passing of what in the 1930s – when she wrote about her New Forest walks – had been sun-kissed fields of cows and long grass.
Yet, beneath the old concrete runways, now water-flooded, lingers a memory of earlier fields, kingfishers and herons, and a “hazel-shadowed, golden stream”. These fields, the banks of this stream, are where we would have found Joan walking on a spring day in the 1930s. Joan, and her two dogs walked (or dashed and trotted respectively in the case of Billand Mr Bundy) through the fields and by the stream before the airfield, the motor racing circuit or gravel pits had even been dreamed of. The steps they took are now concealed beneath water, trees and earth. We would not know of them if it were not for the words of her book, Walking in the New Forest, published in 1934. I described Joan’s walk here in an earlier blog post.
Today, though, I am going to take my own walk through Blashford Lakes Nature Reserve. I believe that Joan would have loved this place. Bill and Mr Bundy would have been less enamoured as dogs, other than guide dogs, are only allowed on a stretch of public footpath (see the website here), in order to protect the birds and sensitive habitats. I think, though, that Joan would have been happy to leave her companions at home for once and wander the trails of Blashford.
I leave my car in the main car park, just off Ellingham Drove, on a sunny but cold January morning, near one of the birdwatching hides. This is Tern Hide, which looks out over Ibsley Water. There is just one other person in the hide, and we nod to each other. On the water are lots of Coots, some Mallards, quirky little Tufted Ducks, and Pochards that are still asleep, heads tucked under their wings as they float placidly. My hide companion points out a Greenshank on a neighbouring spit of gravelly land, and we watch its long-legged walk as it probes the ground for worms and snails. Greenshanks overwinter here or are seen on passage in spring and autumn: their breeding territories are further north in Scotland and beyond.
I leave the hide, and another visitor asks me what I’ve seen. I quite like that my binoculars and camera make other folk think I am a seasoned birdwatcher – I’m most definitely not, though I love to see birds and watch their antics. I confess to my very amateur status, and the friendly chap recommends I cross the road to make my way to the Woodland Hide. So that’s what I do.
Regular readers of this blog may remember that I recently met a group of unruly, chattering Siskins near Holmsley. On my way to the Woodland Hide, I meet some more, high in the treetops and flitting among the newly growing yellow Hazel catkins, and they are just as wonderful as the Holmsley gang. My day is already made.
There are always woodland birds to see at the Woodland Hide because there are bird feeding stations posted outside. I stay a while there, enjoying the feeding frenzy as the sparky little birds take part in their pecking hierarchy, flitting to and fro from feeder to nearby branches, or hopping along the ground to pick up the leavings from above. There are Robins, Tits of many varieties, Goldfinches, Chaffinches, a Dunnock and a Nuthatch, and even a Siskin. A squirrel also arrives to join in, loping along through the leaf litter.
Ivy South Hide
From the Woodland Hide, I head off up what is signposted a Wild Walk, towards Ivy South Hide. On my way, a Robin lands on a tree stump, within an arm’s-length, and sings to me, for ages. Maybe he or she wants food, or maybe I am being warned I have strayed into the Robin’s territory and need to scarper quickly. I will, however, choose to remember it as a friendly Robin singing to greet me and have a gossip. I think Joan would agree, and be equally as delighted.
Ivy South Hide looks out over – you guessed it – the southerly part of Ivy Lake. Here there are more Coots, Tufted Ducks and Pochards (now woken up), as well as Black-headed Gulls, Wigeon, a Goosander and, in the distance, the white gleam of a Mute Swan.
“Spindle by badger”
After leaving Ivy South Hide, I retrace my steps towards the Education Centre.
I use a journaling app on my phone to take notes on my walks. Sometimes, though, my notes read back strangely due to a mixture of clumsy thumbs, shorthand that made sense at the time, and spelling autocorrect. My entry for the walk back from Ivy South reads:
Kingfisher fishing. Too far for hoot. See scenery shot. Spindle by badger.
Well, the first phrase is easy. I did see a beautiful Kingfisher, in the reedbeds on the other side of the pool of water that separates the path from Ellingham Lake. It took me a couple of minutes to work out what on ever I meant by Too far for hoot: it was a Kingfisher, not a Tawny Owl. Ah! – it was Too far for photo. Of course. Good old autocorrect. And it was indeed too far for my camera’s zoom, but I was content watching the Kingfisher through my binoculars.
See scenery shot. Also easy. I took a photo of the scene across the water, because it was calm and beautiful, and I was reminding myself to download the image.
Spindle by badger? It sounds like the title of a story (must remember that one). However, regular visitors to Blashford Lakes will have passed the wonderful life-size wooden carving of a Badger along this stretch of path. Behind the wooden Badger is a Spindle tree, some of its pink and orange fruits still clinging to its branches, silhouetted against the blue of the sky. This is one of my best-loved woodland trees. I like Badgers very much, too, so this is a nice spot to stand awhile.
A little further on, I see some Turkeytail, a fungus mainly of dead hardwood. The reserve wardens have labelled it – these little signs pop up all round the reserve, identifying things: the Spindle also had a sign. It’s a fantastic educational tool, so hats off to the staff and volunteers who care for and explain the wild things of Blashford Lakes.
An example of the identification signs that go up round the reserve when staff and volunteers spot something interesting. This one reads: “Turkey tail. Colourful bracket fungus that grows throughout the year in tiers on trees and dead wood. It was once popular as a table decoration and has even been used to decorate hats.”
You can just about see some of the Turkeytail at the bottom of the image.
Dockenswater, Goosander Hide and Ellingham Drove
I pass the Education Centre and then turn right, crossing Dockenswater – which is here chuckling and splashing over stones – and then cross Ellingham Drove and access the northern part of the reserve, turning left to reach Goosander Hide. Just before the hide there is a lovely green mossy lawn, full of puddles. The hide looks out over Ibsley Water (like Tern Hide), and there are once again lots of Coots, Tufted Ducks, Potchards and Wigeon, and also a Little Grebe. I don’t linger long but retrace my steps back to the main path and then continue northwards. A Blackbird sings, and the trees are blessed with lichen and mosses.
To my right appears Mockbeggar Lake but it seems overgrown, and I find myself walking on a boardwalk, tall reeds to either side, like a sunken passage open to the sky and breeze. In the distance I can see the sunlit reddish-bronze of young Willow twigs (possibly Grey Willow or Goat Willow, but I am not close enough to tell).
I loop round, heading towards Lapwing Hide but continue on past it and so back down to Ellingham Drove, where I turn right beneath the trees to get back to my car, and home.
Blashford Lakes Nature Reserve is well known by birdwatchers, who visit from far and wide, but it is also a lovely spot for a gentle woodland or lakeside walk, feeling the breeze and smelling the greenery and water. The information provided at the Education Centre (where there are often volunteers ready to help) and along the routes, including in the hides, is excellent. Do go, if you can.
Joan Begbie died in 1984, so she would never have known of Blashford Lakes. Were she to pass this way, I like to think that any regret at the loss of her fields and golden stream would be compensated for by the birds, the trees, the expanses of calm water, the Kingfishers and the Siskins, the Hazel, the friendly Robins and all the creatures of Blashford.