In which I walk across a wide plain towards a twisty secretive wood
Unlike most beech woods, where, as a rule, nearly all plant life is choked by the mass of mast and leaf shed by the trees, Berry encourages grass, bracken, bramble and moss to grow under its shelter with the most charming results.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest, published 1934
At the end of last week’s post, Joan, Bill, Mr. Bundy and I left you at the north-western corner of Ridley Wood, famous for its smugglers’ market of yesteryear and the stately beauty of its pollarded Beeches. This week, we are continuing our walk, turning eastwards across the plain and towards Berry Beeches, where we are promised examples of ingrowth (when branches fuse together making wonderful shapes and twists: it’s caused when the branches rub against each other in the wind, and as the bark wears away the branches can self-graft).
As a reminder, and as regular readers of this blog will know, I am following walks, or parts of walks, described by Joan Begbie in her delightful 1934 book Walking in the New Forest. I want to find out 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”.
Normally, if I have to choose between wood and plain, I would go for wood each time. Walking beneath the trees, listening to their secretive whispering, feet treading softly on mossy paths: there is little better. This time, walking only a few days after Storms Eunice and Franklin, with several trees fallen, and feeling nervous, as the breeze strengthens to more of a wind, that a weakened branch may suddenly fall on my head, I am, for once, quite glad to step into the open spaces of Ridley Plain, with nothing above but sky.
Joan and the dogs are walking this way on a calm April day, so have none of the same fear, but they, too, are delighted by the wide plain.
Walking at first northwards, we pass a little wood of Oaks, Yew and Holly called, simply and delightfully, Little Wood. A Chaffinch and a Wren call from within the wood, and I step within it to greet some Yews, which seem sturdy and unlikely to fall on me. I always find Yews to be mindful trees, perhaps because they live so long and, like Tolkien’s Ents, have learned to take things slowly. They have allowed lichen and mosses to grow along their branches, the grey-green colouring of which is eye-catching against the reddish bark of the Yews.
Ridley and Backley Plains
Just beyond Little Wood there is a meeting of ways, and we turn eastwards along a good track across the wide open heath. The sun is attempting to come out, and as we look behind we can see blue sky chasing away the clouds. A row of pines stands on the horizon northwards, guarding the plain; some have very little foliage, as if their sentry duty has been hard and they are battle-weary and injured.
As we continue eastwards, we pass a point where a path peels off to the right, round about where Ridley and Backley Plains meet, but we continue straight onwards. A little further, as we approach a wooden footbridge, I see a sign. Joan can’t see it, because it was erected in 2004, and marks The Commoners’ Passageway, dedicated to two long-serving members of the New Forest Commoners’ Defence Association. There are some pony hairs (tail or mane) caught in one of the screws that fixes the plaque to the post, which seems very appropriate.
We cross two footbridges through Harvest Slade Bottom; despite the bridges, for which we are grateful, the way is getting very muddy, and we have to sidestep and zigzag our way towards the woods ahead. The wind is getting stronger, whistling across the plain and rushing through the trees – Scots Pines, twisty willows – that are gathered round the peaty water in the valley.
Then we are there, in Berry Beeches.
The OS map marks Berry Wood and, just above it, Berry Beeches. Joan only refers to Berry Beeches, as does Heywood Sumner, and I am not sure where one ends and the other begins. Not that the trees think anything about that. As we turn right along a clear grassy track at the end of the Commoners’ Passageway, branches of old dry gorse are creaking in the wind, and we reach the trees.
The trees of Berry Beeches are old and have not tasted the bitterness of pollarding, but they are sufferers from ingrowth, which ‘catches’ them in the stem.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest, 1934
Berry Beeches; not pollarded; crown the ridge that leads from Burley moor to Backley Plain, and are specially fine on the Eastern slopes of the ridge; they are remarkable both for their beauty and for the curious examples of ingrowth shown in their stems and branches.Heywood Sumner, The New Forest, 1923
The Beeches of Berry do show a lot of ingrowth.
Other trees, especially Oaks, are demonstrating a fair amount of craziness in the way their branches twist and writhe.
I had intended to walk into Berry Beeches and then southwards through the wood, but the wind is getting quite a bit stronger now – not gale-level, but definitely blowy, with some scary gusts. I decide to keep to the wood’s edge, but to return at a later date to explore properly.
Back through Ridley Wood
I follow the road marked Sir Dudley’s Ride on the map, which heads roughly westwards, back towards the pollarded Beeches and smuggling history of Ridley Wood. The Ride is named after Sir Dudley Forwood, who moved to the New Forest after the Second World War, where he became a Verderer and Master of the New Forest Buckhounds, among other things.
We continue along the track and past Ridley Green, near where a tree stands by a small still pool, its surface ruffled by the wind.
We pass over a wooden footbridge that crosses Mill Lawn Brook, and then we’re back beneath the trees of Ridley Wood, greeted by the caws of Rooks and the murmuring of the wind in the trees. Soon, we pick up the path that we came in on, and return along it.
This was a wonderful walk, despite the unnerving wind gusts and creaking branches of the trees. I think it would be particularly lovely in spring, but I’m not sorry to have walked it in late winter, with its desolate edges and scurrying skies.
New Forest pony in Ridley Wood