In which Meadow Pipits chatter across an old common and birch trees illuminate the last days of winter
The common is crossed and recrossed by tracks…Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest, published 1934
This week, I visited a favourite haunt of Joan Begbie’s, and of mine: Rockford Common in the north of the New Forest. The Common, which is managed by the National Trust, is indeed criss-crossed by many different tracks, and it is possible to spend hours here, meandering from path to path, or standing still to enjoy the clear air and birdsong of late winter.
I’ve walked here before in Joan’s bootsteps, as part of a longer walk from Ringwood and back via Linwood. It was later in spring that time, towards the end of April, and the trees were already glowing with new leaves. Now, in mid-February, the branches of deciduous trees are still bare, stark silhouettes against a washed-out blue sky and scudding clouds.
Walking here in late spring, back in the 1930s, Joan once saw:
…a group of pines…whose branches one May day shook out three cuckoos as we passed by…Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest, 1934
There are still pines in the same spot, and I have heard Cuckoos on Rockford Common, their calls resonating across the heath. Joan would like that.
Joan took many 10-miles-plus walks with her two dogs, Bill, a white bull terrier, and Mr Bundy, a diminutive griffon, and described them in her delightful 1934 book, Walking in the New Forest (you can still find second-hand copies of the book, or Hampshire libraries carry a few copies). Today, I am not so much following one of these longer walks (I’m still a little bit lacking in energy post-COVID, though I’m much better), as following some of the tracks along which she and the dogs hiked (Joan), trotted (Mr. Bundy) and charged (Bill).
It’s impossible to tire of Rockford Common. There is always something new to find; the mood is different on each visit as the light changes, and colours and smells pivot with the moving seasons. It has changed in some ways with time, as well. Joan describes Rockford Common in the 1930s:
Goats are tethered among the gorse bushes on the common, ponies and long-legged Forest cattle with clonking bells graze here.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest, 1934
There are still ponies, of course, but no cowbells or goats.
Joan also mentions the remains of bee gardens – earthwork enclosures used in previous centuries to protect bee hives from the hooves and curiosity of ponies, cattle and deer. You can still see them, but I’ve yet to reliably identify one.
There was, however, an abundance of Meadow Pipits, squabbling, flying, chattering and displaying to each other amongst the dry heather and gorse. I was walking with a friend, who commented that the Pipits seemed to be following us as we made our way around the Common – wherever we were, there were also the streaky brown, chit-chatting Meadow Pipits. It’s sad to realise, on such a Meadow Pipit-filled day, that this little bird of heaths and grasslands is Amber-listed in the UK due to a decline in numbers since the mid-1970s.
Take a close look at a Meadow Pipit’s feet, if you can, and you’ll notice it has a very long hind-claw. This is an adaptation to perching on the ground (the species is ground-nesting), and distinguishes it from the otherwise very similar Tree Pipit, which has no such long claw. Also interesting, but less pleasant for the Meadow Pipit, is that this is one of the favoured species for Cuckoo parasitisation. While I thrill at hearing my first Cuckoo of the year later in spring, I wonder if that deceptively plaintive call makes the little heart of a Meadow Pipit tremble, or if it is heedless of the danger to come.
The graceful birch tree: Lady of the Wood
There are many birch trees growing in clumps across Rockford Common, seeded from the woods that edge the heath. Their almost luminous white bark, on a grey day, is quite ghostly, especially when stands of them form rows against the heath beyond, as if spirit guardians of the woods and plain. This feeling is enhanced by the way they sometimes grow in twists and bends, leaning towards each other to share an anecdote or whisper tales of the woods.
One of the first species of tree to recolonise Britain after the glaciers retreated some 10,000 years ago, birches are what are known as pioneer species. There are two native species in the UK – the Silver Birch and Downy Birch. I am not confident at distinguishing them, so haven’t tried, but I expect both can be found on Rockford Common. Both species are prolific in their production of wind-borne seeds, and this is why they can so easily colonise a landscape. Lovely as they are, this is not so good for lowland heathland, which is an internationally rare habitat: the New Forest heaths are important because they comprise 75% of the lowland heaths that still remain in Europe. Ponies don’t like to eat birch seedlings, so land managers – the National Trust in the case of Rockford Common – need to fell birch and other tree species in order to protect the heaths. We passed several tree stumps at the edge of the common, already being colonised by moss, fungi and lichen. It was interesting to see the cross-section of the trunk – the rings still visible through the saw marks, the central section of yellowish wood, and a darker ring just within the gnarled bark.
The edges of Rockford Common remain graced by many birches, I’m happy to say. Known by some as the Lady of the Woods, the birch is considered a symbol of purity, perhaps for its white bark. Its pioneering spirit makes it a tree for new adventures, for changes in direction, for rebirth and regrowth. I love the swaying, shuffling movement of birch leaves as the tree sways in the breezes, a call to the imagination, or a beckoning to go voyaging to different places, different thoughts.
More practically, perhaps, birches are important as a food source for Greenfinches, Redpolls and Siskins, which eat the seeds, and as nesting sites for woodpeckers. Hoof Bracket loves to grow on birches.
…Appleslade Enclosure dips and climbs. It is only a small wood of no particular beauty, but its name is said to mean Apple Valley (slade means valley in the Forest), and children gather sweet chestnuts here in good years, so it cannot be passed by without a word. Wild apple-trees are common still in the Forest, but Appleslade has none now.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest, 1934
It took us a couple of failed attempts to find a non-boggy path into Appleslade, but eventually we met a track that wasn’t too squelchy with thick, boot-clinging mud. A Sweet Chestnut leaned out of the wood to greet us as we passed through what was left of a gateway, its fence posts softening and pale, their hollowed tops filled with seeds and leaves.
Appleslade Inclosure was first enclosed in 1829, and a few of the oaks from that original planting still remain. It is now mostly Pine and Douglas Fir with some Western Hemlock. You might see it as a poorer, less magical relation to the neighbouring ancient woodland of Red Shoot. Maybe it is, but it has its own charm, especially where birches grow silvery in the shadowed light.
Eventually, we left the wood and made our way back along the northern edge of Rockford Common and back to the car at Moyles Court, leaving behind the chattering Meadow Pipits, graceful birches, and the lowland heaths of Rockford Common.