In which I hear my first Cuckoo, see my first Swallow, and smell my first woodland carpet of Bluebells
By now I was all excitement for I knew that the trees ahead were those of Roydon Wood, and so only half a mile lay between us and the ‘House on the Boldre.’Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest, pub. 1934
We’re back! Joan, Bill, Mr Bundy and I are rearing to go on more walks through the New Forest. After a month’s absence (holidaying in lovely Scotland), I returned to find the woods full of the honey scent of Bluebells, starry Stitchwort and nodding Wood Anenomes; the leaves were bright and green on the trees, and the sun was shining. The Gorse is as glorious as I’ve ever seen it.
Regular readers of this blog will know that I am following walks, or parts of walks, described by Joan Begbie in Walking in the New Forest, which was published back in 1934. 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”.
The day after I returned home I headed out into the Forest, where I met Joan and the dogs marching across Setley Plain before we made our way into Roydon Wood. This way touches some of the same steps along a longer walk Joan took, from Wilverley Inclosure into Set Thorns Inclosure, across Setley Plain and down into Boldre, then Roydon Wood, Hinchelsea Bog, and back to Wilverley. If you have a copy of Walking in the New Forest, she describes the full walk on pages 162 to 172. Today, we’re contenting ourselves with Setley and Roydon Wood alone.
The sketch map shows the approximately three-mile walk, much of which is ‘there-and-back’ from Setley Pond with a little circuit in part of Roydon Woods Nature Reserve. I only walked through a small section of the Reserve: there is far more to explore. Roads are shown as solid double lines, bridleways and gravel tracks as dashed double lines, and footpaths as single dotted lines. The red line shows the way I walked. Not all paths and streams are shown, for simplicity. I’ve shown the footpaths on Setley Plain indicated on the OS map, but in fact there are other well-worn paths criss-crossing it, so although it looks as if I went off the path (a big ‘no’ in the ground-nesting bird breeding season), I promise you I didn’t! I parked at Setley Pond as there is no parking on the nature reserve. If you do the same, take care crossing the A337: it’s a single carriageway, but can be busy.
I arrive at the car park by Setley Pond feeling a bit bothered. I am really looking forward to the walk I’d planned into Roydon Woods, a Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust nature reserve just southeast of Brockenhurst. I am promising myself Bluebells. But…I’ve forgotten my smartphone. Goodness, how wedded we are now to them! In my case, I use the OS app to navigate my way around Forest walks. Joan raises her eyebrows at me as I make cross-with-myself noises. Back in the 1930s, mobile phones, never mind the smart variety, were of course undreamed of. What’s wrong with a map and just knowing where you’re going, Joan is clearly thinking. Well, I don’t have a paper map with me, either, but I have a rough idea of where to go, so we set off.
I needn’t have worried. Freed of a map of any kind, I wander in the approximate direction of the wood, find it, use the sun to navigate (sort of), and make my way back at the end of the walk with no ‘getting lost’ moments. It is quite liberating.
Setley Pond: still water
Setley Pond lies still and lovely in the early light. A pony laps a drink of the water before returning to its morning contemplation, and two or three dogs run beside their owners. An Oak spreads its branches over the lake, showing off its fresh green leaves, new and vibrant.
So peaceful is it that it’s hard to believe that Setley Pond is used for model yacht sailing and racing. In particular, it is the venue of the Boxing Day Lymington Yacht Club races, which sound great fun and attract good crowds. This morning, though, all is calm.
This is not an ancient pond. There used to be gravel pits here, dating back to Victorian times and later used to provide gravel for the World War Two airfield at Stoney Cross. Now, left to their own devices, the southern part of the gravel pits has flooded, though it is not very deep, and created this lovely small stretch of water. Joan, of course, is just seeing some rather ugly pits, so she is keen to move on, and that’s what we do, Mr Bundy trotting faithfully at Joan’s heels and Bill loping ahead, nosing about amongst the Gorse.
Setley Plain: golden Gorse
…Setley Plain, where the gorse bushes came to its edge and made its last lap a golden alleyway.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest, 1934
Heading northwards across the plain, our path is lined with gold. The Gorse has been looking wonderful – bright yellow flowers laden onto thorny branches – across the Forest, and it is particularly beautiful here. Its hazy glow stretches for miles in all directions, and the sweet coconut smell is heady as morning dew evaporates and carries the scent from the sun-warmed blooms. Joan is also walking in a good year for Gorse blossom. Almost a hundred years apart, we walk side by side among the deep yellow flowers, lost in wonder at the display.
I find other, less showy flowers, too. The tiny, delicate blue and cream of Milkwort, little Heath Violets, the pleasingly symmetrical four-petalled Tormentil. The Forest and its heaths are coming to life after the frosts of winter and early spring. Vying with the Gorse for praise, a Wild Crab Apple has spun glorious pink-tinged blossom against the blue of the sky. Then I hear it, my first Cuckoo of the year, calling from a grove of trees in the near distance.
Looking back, we see Sway Tower reaching skywards above the woods and heaths in the distance. It hasn’t changed since Joan walked this way in the 1930s. It was built by one Andrew Thomas Turton Peterson – apparently something of an eccentric – to prove that concrete was good as building material, and to provide local work. He died in 1896 and wanted to be buried in his tower, and indeed, back in the 1930s, that’s where his remains would still have been. He was exhumed and reburied with his wife in 1957, however. The Tower is now Grade-II listed and is privately owned.
Eventually, we reach the road from Brockenhurst down to Lymington – the A337 – just by where the Filly Inn sits on the other side of the road. We run across the road – Joan and the dogs are rather surprised by the increase in traffic since they first walked this way – and head down a track behind the Inn and into Roydon Wood.
Roydon Woods Nature Reserve
At first, the way is one of a track and hedges. Clouds of Greater Stitchwort brighten the verges, their flowers of notched petals nodding in a lazy breeze.
Then, we pass the sign telling us we are entering the Nature Reserve. It wasn’t a Nature Reserve in Joan’s time, but she knew Roydon Wood.
The land that is now Roydon Woods Nature Reserve was donated to Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust by Peter Barker-Mill, artist, printmaker, wood engraver, muralist and patron of arts and crafts, who died in 1994. His family established a charitable foundation in 1995 in his memory – the Barker-Mill Foundation.
Joan has a particular reason for wanting to visit Roydon Wood. Within its depths nestles Roydon Manor, which she calls Roydon Farm. This is where, back in the earliest years of the twentieth century, William Henry Hudson stayed as a guest of the owners and wrote Hampshire Days, first published in 1903, and in which he refers to the Manor as ‘the House on the Boldre’.
It was in this house that he began and ended Hampshire Days, the guest of a family after his own heart, people who kept neither cat nor dog, and who in their relations with the wild things practised his creed of ‘pet nothing, persecute nothing.’Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest, 1934
Joan clearly loves this book – I imagine her sitting in a comfortable armchair at her home in Ringwood, lost in its pages – and was excited to catch sight of the place that inspired him. I am rather ashamed to say I had only vaguely heard of Hudson before I came across him in Joan’s book, but I am now intrigued. He was a British-Argentinian author, naturalist and keen observer of birds and other wildlife. One of his best-known works – A Shepherd’s Life, a description of life as a shepherd near Breamore – inspired modern author and farmer James Rebanks, so Hudson’s legacy remains alive and admired.
Joan’s description of her joy in looking out over the Manor sings vibrantly from the pages of Walking in the New Forest, as she remembers Hudson’s writing in Hampshire Days.
I stood on the primrose-covered green in front of the house and gazed at the baby yew avenue in which Hudson found the nests of such fairy birds as gold-crests and long-tailed tits, and the outbuildings in which he discovered the retreats of other shy and tiny wildlings. It was here that he was able to watch the doings of a young cuckoo in a robin’s nest, and so learned about the innocent usurper’s habits. It was here also that he witnessed the diverting affair between the hornet and the bank vole and the trickle of sap; and in these woods it was that he saw the great spotted woodpecker clinging motionless to a sunlit tree, all black, white, and crimson, ‘like a bird-figure carved from some beautiful vari-coloured stone.’Joan Begbie, writing of William Henry Hudson in her book Walking in the New Forest, 1934
It makes me want to read Hampshire Days cover to cover as soon as possible (I’ve started, and it’s just as wonderful as Joan says – you can read it free online), and also to spend many, many hours in Roydon Woods. Unfortunately, I don’t have many hours today, and don’t even make it as far as catching sight of the Manor. Joan and the dogs have left me behind as they continue on their little pilgrimage for a glimpse of the place where Hudson stayed. Back here, in the deeps of the wood, I have been distracted by Bluebells.
Bluebells in Roydon Woods
Roydon Woods Nature Reserve has a sleepy, peaceful feel on this warm spring morning. After waving farewell to Joan, Bill and Mr Bundy as they head off on their longer walk, I turn away from the main track along a smaller footpath that heads down to Dawkins Bottom, crossing a small, trickling brook, and then up the other side. Here, the wood is all twisty Oak, Beech, and the velvety green leaves of Hazel, with not a human in sight. The birds are singing their lungs out, and a deer spots me and scuttles away into the understory.
I have been seeing a few Bluebells, but it is not until I am nearly back to the main bridleway that I see my first carpet of them. They are far enough away that I see them before catching their scent, but the honey smell reaches me as I step towards them. Visitors to Roydon Woods are asked not to leave the main paths, to protect the sensitive habitats. From the path, it is clear that this fully justified request has not been observed by some: many boots have trodden and trampled a footpath between the Bluebells, and I feel sad that so many of the lovely flowers have been lost, even though plenty remain. At least people have kept to the same trodden path. I admit that I do myself ‘trespass’ across the verge and to the edge of the Bluebell carpet, but no further. No bluebells have been trampled by me. I sit on a log and empty my mind of all but the scent and sight of blue and green beneath the gnarled trees.
The return to Setley
Eventually, I force myself to leave the Bluebells, and make my way back. I find other delights before I leave the woods: Common Dog-violet, unfurling ferns, a bankside full of Lesser Celandines, and a freshly emerged Speckled Wood butterfly.
Just before I get to the main road, by a cottage, I see a bird perched on the cable above. My first Swallow of 2022! It looks down coolly, unfazed by the curious human below, before flying off.
The A337 is busier now, so I’m quite nervous crossing, but I make it safely, and then back southwards down Setley Plain to Setley Pond and my car.
This was a wonderful walk – spur-of-the-moment, unguided by a map, and with a Cuckoo, Bluebells and a Swallow. The Forest is full of life and waiting to be explored.
A note: I have decided that posts on this blog will for a time – at least for the spring and summer of this year – be fortnightly rather than weekly, in order to give more time for some other projects. It will make each walk with Joan, Bill and Mr Bundy all the more precious. I’m already planning our next one!