In which I follow in the footsteps of New Forest smugglers, find some Water-crowfoot, and admire the pollarded Beeches of Ridley Wood
As we climbed up to Berry Beeches, which is the wood covering the ridge between Burley Moor and Backley Plain, the warm brown dome of Ridley Wood rose above Vereley’s descending trees, and behind Ridley we recognised Picket Plain’s spartan line; ahead the tawny vale called Harvest Slade Bottom slowly unfolded itself, and on the right beyond the medley of house and tree that is Burley, there showed the crest of the moor above Mill Lawn.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest, published 1934
Regular readers of this blog will know that I am following walks, or parts of walks, described by Joan Begbie in her entertaining and delightful 1934 book Walking in the New Forest. I’m interested to discover what has changed and what has not in the Forest, as I walk alongside Joan and her two characterful dogs, Bill, a white bull terrier who loves to charge out of sight across the heaths, and Mr. Bundy, “a rough-haired brindled griffon of diminutive size and choleric disposition”.
On a morning in early April, Joan and the dogs walked from Burley Street, through Berry Wood and Berry Beeches and across Backley Plain, before turning back at Bratley Wood and returning to Burley Street via Ridley and Vereley Woods. I was interested in her description of the trees of Berry Beeches as “sufferers of ingrowth” (where parts of branches ‘fuse’ together, a bit like being grafted), compared with her description of the old pollarded trees of Ridley Wood as “flawless…straight and tall.” I wanted to see them for myself.
If you happen to have a copy of Walking in the New Forest, Joan describes her walk on pages 144 to 151. I didn’t go as far as Bratley Wood – that’s a visit for another day – and started from the Forestry Commission car park at Vereley rather than Burley Street. I also walked in the opposite direction to Joan, heading first for Ridley Wood, but otherwise, I was walking on many of the same tracks that Joan, Bill and Mr. Bundy followed. I will therefore imagine that they are walking with me on my clockwise route.
In this post, I describe the first part of the walk – there was a lot to see and learn. Next week we’ll head across Ridley and Backley Plains to make our way to Berry Beeches but, this week, we’re wandering beneath the Beeches of Ridley Wood.
At the edge of Vereley Wood
I feel quite envious of Joan, walking this way “early one April morning when the cherry and thorn blossom were at their best…”. I am walking on a dreary day in mid-February with a cold nip in the air. The sun is trying to come out, but its warmth has yet to make it through the grey clouds scurrying across the sky. It’s breezy, too. This is only two or three days after the gales of Storms Eunice and Franklin, and occasional gusts of wind are still quite strong, though nothing like at the height of the storms.
We follow a gravelly path that skirts the western edge of Vereley Wood. The wood looks like a sleepy, milder-mannered Fangorn Forest, and I half expect to see hobbits and elves tumbling out from under its eaves (Joan completely misses this reference – J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings was first published in 1954, and neither had its predecessor, The Hobbit, yet been published). Within the wood I spot my first storm casualty – I can see the pale, torn inner heart of a tree where a branch has been ripped away. It’s startling to see the white wood exposed to the lingering shadows of the forest. Nearer to the path, there are trees clustering, whispering and rustling in the breeze, as if regrouping after the devastation of the wind.
We pass a Beech that has had a branch neatly sawn off, presumably because it crossed the path. The internal structure of its wood makes fascinating patterns – no neat concentric rings, but four separate segments across the cross-section, their growth spreading outwards and merging. The branch itself, still attached to its tree, is covered in fungi – little cup fungi and King Alfred’s Cakes. These grow on dead and decaying wood, so the branch must be dead, and maybe the tree itself.
We leave Vereley behind, heading along the eastern flank of Picket Plain. The traffic noise from the A31 is loud, but it’s no match for the bird song as we wind our way downhill towards Mill Lawn Brook at the southern edge of Ridley Bottom. The plain is scattered with Holly and Gorse, and clumps of silvery Birch gleam ahead. More trees by the path have newly torn off branches, and I feel wistful at their injury after all those years growing. As we grow closer to the ford marked on the map, a Woodpecker drums out of Vereley behind us, wishing us farewell and a good walk.
The ford turns out to be a footbridge. The ground before it is boggy with sticky mud, imprinted by boots, dog paws and hooves, and the brook appears still and sluggish at first glance, though a closer look shows little channels of water moving more speedily through it, surfaces wrinkled by the breeze.
In the boggy puddles and in the brook itself I spot some Water-crowfoot. In the early spring, Water-crowfoot produces beautifully delicate, tiny white, yellow-centred flowers that dip their heads over their leaves in the water. At other times of year it is quite a boring looking little water plant to many people. Not to me. I spent a season on The Lizard in Cornwall a few years back surveying for one of the Water-crowfoot species – Three-lobed Water-crowfoot, which is classified as Vulnerable in the UK – and I grew to love the frail and fragile beauty of its leaves. Along with The Lizard, the New Forest is a stronghold of Three-lobed Water-crowfoot, and other Water-crowfoot species grow here, too. They can be hard to tell apart, not helped by the inter- and intra-species variability and the fact they can hybridise with each other. Three-lobed and Round-leaved Water-crowfoot can hybridise to form a rare hybrid – Ranunculus novae-forestae – named for the New Forest, where it was first found. If you’re interested in the botanical details, here is a crib sheet produced for the Freshwater Habitats Trust’s PondNet project.
Over the footbridge we went, and eastwards into Ridley Wood.
From stately trunks flawless boughs shoot up straight and tall like the lances of an army of giants…The trees do not crowd each other but grow close enough to hide the sky when all their leaves are out. Birds and squirrels love Ridley, and though the birds may become silent and the squirrels hide if a body of laughing and talking people march through the wood, if you come quietly they will not mind you much.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest, 1934
Gerald Lascelles, Deputy Surveyor of the Forest from 1880 to 1914, writing almost twenty years earlier than Joan, agreed:
Ridley Wood…is one of the most beautiful woods in the New Forest. It consists almost entirely of pollarded beeches, with wide spreading heads of numerous different stems, some of them very large dimensions, forming, both individually and as a whole, woodland scenes of very great beauty.Gerald Lascelles, Thirty-Five Years in the New Forest, 1915
My expectations are therefore high as I enter the wood. We’re greeted first by a Robin, and then by a magnificent old Beech. Above us there is bird song, which my bird song ID app tells me is almost certainly a Firecrest. I peer up with my binoculars, but I can’t see it.
The old Beech in whose branches the Firecrest is mischievously hiding has definitely been pollarded in its past, with five branches rising out from above head height. Joan has confidently declared there is no ingrowth in Ridley Wood. (Ingrowth is when branches fuse together: it’s caused when they rub against each other in the wind as they grow, and when the bark wears away as a result, the branches can self-graft. It can also happen between two neighbouring trees, when it’s called inosculation.) As we stand beneath the welcoming Beech, I whisper to Joan, Can’t you see a little bit of ingrowth, too? Joan looks. Hmmph, maybe, she says. To be fair, further into Ridley Wood it’s all about the coppicing and much less ingrowth.
Ridley Wood and the smugglers’ market
A little ahead, just beyond our new friend the Beech and to the right of the path, is what looks like a sunken lane, a long linear depression in the ground, along the sides of which tree roots are hardened and gnarled against the air. It looks like the perfect spot for a hidden meeting place or illegal activity. I’m fairly sure, in fact, that’s exactly what it was used for in the past.
The Western side of this wood is approached by a hollow way, and there is authentic hearsay tradition that this concealed hollow was used as a meeting-place by smugglers and their local customers.Heywood Sumner, The New Forest, 1923
Turn time back to the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and smuggling was rife in the New Forest, as indeed it was across much of the country. Higher and higher taxation raised to fund wars across the Channel was the main reason for a massive growth in this illegal but very well-organised trading. There’s a really good article all about smuggling in the New Forest on the Real New Forest Guide website, and I recommend a read of it. In Ridley Wood, where we are standing now, a regular smugglers’ market was held, and the hollow way we are looking at was, apparently, one of the sites used.
In fact, the track we’ve walked up to get here was part of the Smugglers’ Road – you’ll see it marked on the OS map as running between Knaves Ash and Picket Plain, on the other side of the road to where we parked, but it continues on to reach the eaves of Ridley. Illegally traded goods – such as tobacco, fine cloth and brandy – were brought up from the many coves and hidden places round the coast and then brought into the Forest. A locally famous smuggling family lived at Knaves Ash in the early part of the eighteenth century – Peter and John Warne and their sister Lovey – from where they would take their goods to the Ridley Wood market. Lovey would act as a lookout for her brothers; standing atop Vereley Hill as Peter and John walked the Smugglers’ Road, she would turn her cloak inside out to show the red lining as a warning if Customs men were about. Lovey wasn’t just a lookout; she also took an active role in the business, collecting fine silks from the ships at Christchurch Harbour, and hiding them from the local officials by winding them round herself beneath her clothes. Her tale is a popular local one in the New Forest: Hampshire-born folk singer Louise Jordan wrote a song about her – listen here on Bandcamp – and Ringwood Brewery have named an ale after this famous young smuggler.
The pollards of Ridley Wood
Leaving the smugglers’ market behind, we wander through Ridley Wood until we find a track running north and south. There are several fallen trees. Some look as if they fell years ago, judging from the moss and lichen twisting round their upended roots, and the level of decay. Others were more recently fallen, probably in the recent storms: the torn wood is too fresh, too jagged, and untouched as yet by other vegetation. A wren, tail pertly in the air, hops across an old, downed tree that is moist with decay and sporting some interesting fungi. Another, newly fallen, tree is adorned with graffiti, which, I think, says GB 1967, with more initials underneath, possibly GH. I wonder who carved the letters and date?
As we turn towards the wood’s northern edge, we pass several squirrels (or, rather, they pass us, being much faster). I feel sad to think that the Grey Squirrels I see would have been Red Squirrels when Joan, Bill and Mr. Bundy first walked beneath these lovely pollarded trees.
The wind is picking up now, and I start to feel a little nervous. Trees weakened after the fierce storms may suddenly drop their branches, and I don’t want to find myself under one. Joan, walking on her April morning with not a gale in sight, smiles at my fear, but she, Bill and Mr. Bundy are happy to pick up speed with me until we emerge out from under the trees and onto the wide expanse of Ridley Plain.
Join us next week as Joan, Bill, Mr. Bundy and I continue on across the plain before making our way into Berry Beeches.