In which I walk through an old wood of twisting trees
…under Bratley’s lovely old beeches…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”. This week, we’re heading to Bratley Wood, a wood that Joan mentions a few times, but never describes visiting. She knows of its “lovely old beeches”, though, so I believe she, Bill and Mr Bundy must have passed that way.
It was, in some ways, a strange day for a walk. The world felt unsettled. Storms Eunice and Franklin had swept across the land, tearing down trees and adding an edge of danger to a walk in the woods. It was, even more disturbingly, only two days since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I had driven to Bratley View Car Park listening to the radio news, experiencing a mix of compassion and helplessness. Climbing to the top of Mogshade Hill (see my last post) had distracted me for a while but, as I set out towards Bratley Wood, it was hard not to dwell on the war and the humanitarian crisis that would be coming.
I felt Joan’s steadying hand on my arm. She, too, lived through a time of uncertainty. Walking in the New Forest was published in 1934, at a time when Hitler and the Nazis were beginning their march towards war and oppression in Europe. Joan spent the years of the Second World War at her home in Ringwood, where she volunteered as an assistant billeting officer. “You do what you can,” I think, or had Joan whispered that in my ear?
I set out for the wood.
I leave Bratley View car park and head in the direction of the Canadian Memorial until we find our path – straight and grassy – heading roughly southwest and downhill towards Bratley Water. A Greenfinch is calling with its harsh cry, mellowed by the cheerful song of a wren and the squabbles of Chaffinches. The Gorse to either side of the path is alive with the chuckles and squeaks of small birds.
In the distance, on the other side of the valley, I can see the trees of Bratley Wood and Bratley Inclosure.
The distant view of Bushy Bratley from Mogshade Hill, on the way from Lyndhurst to Ringwood, is a vision that haunts one’s mind’s eye. The old trees rising eminent in massed verdure – the irregular verge of self-sown beeches, making shadowy bays and sunlit promontories of foliage, the surrounding stretches of fern brake and heather, and Bratley Water below, meandering through thickets.Heywood Sumner, The New Forest, 1924
This view has changed little since Heywood Sumner wrote those words. Walking downhill, the wood gets closer and individual trees come into focus. The ground becomes boggier underfoot, a Crow calls across the heath and a breeze whistles in my ears. I am all alone, apart from three ponies grazing on the other side of Bratley Water. The way to get across Bratley Water is by wading – there is no footbridge – but it’s fortunately not too deep, and my new boots prove their waterproofing powers. The mud by the stream is well-churned by pony hoofs, but I squelch my way through while the ponies look on, with bemused glints in their eyes. The path goes straight on, between twin little streams, one each side of the track. As the left-hand (more southerly) stream becomes choked with leaves and twiggy debris and peters out, the right-hand (northerly) stream turns and makes its way between the trees of Bratley Inclosure.
Bratley Inclosure was first enclosed in 1828, and is predominantly an Oak plantation. It is no longer fenced, though the old earth banks are still visible, marking its edges. I continue along the path outside the Inclosure. To my left is the open wood pasture of Bushy Bratley, which links across to Bratley Wood. Bushy Bratley is not marked on the modern OS map, but it was on earlier versions. There is a Bushy Bradley marked on the modern map to the west of Bratley Wood, and both are marked on OS maps from the 1900s. I wonder why Bushy Bratley got dropped? The suffix -ley is Anglo-Saxon in origin, and means a clearing or pasture wood. While Brad probably means broad, I’m not sure about Brat. I found two conflicting explanations – one that it is just a different form of Brad, and another that Brat is derived from the Middle English word for tree, broten. I’ll leave it to the etymologists to decide!
Bushy Bratley is a slightly unsettling place – not in the sense of feeling unwelcome, but of feeling that the trees have no interest in you at all. They are twisting and old, lichen- and moss-covered, creaking in the wind. Many show signs of previous pollarding, now growing out in writhing shapes, as if the trees – Oaks and Beeches – are wanting to be free of the touch of human hands. To my right, the trees of the Inclosure are, in contrast, tall and straight. I’m not sure the trees of Bratley Inclosure and Bushy Bratley talk to each other very much.
Ahead, I can see glints of metal and hear the sound of cars rushing along the A31, oblivious to my presence here, alone in this ancient wood. As I turn left onto the southward path within the western edge of Bratley Wood, I find myself on a more peopled path, with a few walkers and cyclists also braving the aftermath of the recent storms.
There is a lot of evidence of uprooted trees and damaged branches in Bratley Wood, some clearly from the recent storms, but some older. There are hollow trees and fallen trees, black with fungus and green with moss, and showing the tangle of their roots. Ahead, out on the plain, a tree stump looks like a cowled wizard leaning on a staff. Most trees, though, still stand and grow in this lovely old wood, full of early spring birdsong. There is Birch and Beech, Oak and Holly. Deeper in the wood I find a little grove of thin Beeches – presumably self-seeded – watched over protectively by older, larger trees.
The path continues on to a track called Sandy Ridge, and here I find a fallen Yew, completely upended, that has taken the turf with it. Its bark is warm to the touch, and I feel sad that the life of such a long-living tree has been prematurely ended.
After a short step, I turn left along a grassy path through the heather towards North Oakley Inclosure and Bolderwood beyond. North Oakley was planted in 1853, predominantly with Oak and some Beech, with conifers planted later, in the twentieth century. Its trees are tall and imposing, standing in straight rows to watch over me as I enter the Inclosure. I walked up through South and North Oakley before, so I am now treading in my earlier footsteps, and eager to go and greet a wonderful tree I first met on yet another walk in this beautiful part of the New Forest. The tree is a stately Giant Redwood, and I stand beneath it for a while, admiring its tawny soft bark and its branches radiating outwards overhead. Nearby, I see a lovely Comma butterfly, resting and basking in the spring sunshine.
I walk on, spy some deer, and then reach the road near the Bolderwood car park, but quickly turn left to follow a Holly-lined path that that eventually reaches the cycle track heading towards the Canadian Memorial. I follow the track towards the Memorial: the wooden cross here, overlooked by the Canadian and UK flags rippling in the breeze, remembers the Canadian soldiers stationed nearby during World War Two, and marks the place where they held church services.
From here, I walk back along the road to find my car and return home.