The forest after rain: Beaulieu River and King’s Hat in the New Forest

In which I visit two ponds near the Beaulieu River and walk through an old plantation that’s going just a little and delightfully wild

One of the nicest things about the Forest is that it always seems to comfort you with something rare or charming if you lose yourself.

Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest, published 1934

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am following in the bootsteps of Joan Begbie and her two dogs (Bill, a white bull terrier, and Mr Bundy, a diminutive griffon). Joan wrote about her walks in the New Forest in her delightful 1934 book Walking in the New Forest, and I’m writing in this blog about what she saw, and about what has changed and what remains the same in the almost a hundred years that separate our tramps through woods and across heaths. 

For this week and the next post, I’ll be describing walking through places that Joan and the dogs visited during a longer walk from Buckler’s Hard; I walked in the area around Beaulieu Heath and King’s Hat Enclosure. (Joan describes her full walk on pages 189 to 202 of Walking in the New Forest, if you have a copy and want to follow her account.) In this post, I’m walking down to the banks of the Beaulieu River and then through King’s Hat Inclosure. In the following post, we’ll walk across Beaulieu Heath, through the ancient woodland of The Noads, and visit some tumuli on the way back.

A sketch map of the walk, which is about four miles in total. This post describes the detour at the beginning to Starpole Pond, and then the section of the route through King’s Hat Inclosure. Roads are shown in brown, footpaths as single dotted lines, rivers and streams in blue, and the total route (including the later section, to be described in the next post) is shown as a red line. For simplicity, not all footpaths are shown, so do consult a good map (OS or similar), especially if you wish to explore further.

There is something captivating about woodland in the early morning after a night of summer rain. You know that feeling when a heavy shower of rain stops as you’re out walking – you throw back your hood and blink away the raindrops from your eyes. Maybe that’s how it feels for a wood, too. The trees shake their leaves free of the rain, small creatures poke their noses out of their hiding places, and insects take hopefully to the wing. In the way that we might pull back our hunched shoulders as rainfall ends, so a wood unfurls and breathes out its soul to welcome the sun. 

The Beaulieu River and two ponds

It had rained overnight as I arrive at King’s Hat car park, a little north of Beaulieu, but sunlight is now beginning to dazzle my eyes. Birds are singing and the air smells of pine.

King’s Hat Inclosure is the other side of the road, but first I let Joan, Bill and Mr Bundy lead me to two ponds she discovered near the Beaulieu River. As we step beneath the trees, the car park pines ceding space to Oak, Holly and Beech, it’s as if the rain hasn’t stopped because leaves and branches are steadily dripping. Somewhere out of sight a Wren sings its trilling song.

I’m pretty sure, from comparing modern and old maps, that we are taking the right path for the first of Joan’s ponds. It is indeed marked on the map as a small circle of water huddled within a bend of the Beaulieu River.

Here we came suddenly to a green glade with a lily pool under an oak. The stream…went twisting swiftly past, deep and wide, with ferns and kingcups on its low banks and wild iris already three feet high standing in its shallows. The lilies were golden, the grass vividly green and brightly sprinkled with eyebright and daisies, betony and moneywort; at the foot of the oak a briar and a bramble were entwined.

Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest, published 1934

Waterlily leaves in Joan’s pond, near a bend of the Beaulieu River, close to King’s Hat

I can feel Joan’s disappointment as we reach the place. There is a little water and mud, and some waterlily leaves, but that’s about it. Earlier in the year, when summer has not yet dried away the winter and spring rains, it may be more of a pond. And yet, stay awhile and see that, although the banks may not be glistening with Kingcups and Iris, there is Lesser Spearwort, with its delicate yellow flowers and long, branching stems, and a Grey Wagtail nodding by the water. As I linger, leaning on the rail of the wooden footbridge across the river, something about this little corner of the wood charms me. It’s peaceful and hushed. A place that used to be secret and that even now, despite walkers and the nearby car park and road, keeps its own counsel.

Lesser Spearwort by the banks of the Beaulieu River. A member of the Buttercup family, Lesser Spearwort can be found by streams and in damp grasslands.

We walk on, crossing the Beaulieu River. I’ve crossed it further north at Longwater Lawn, where I could just step over; further south, at Buckler’s Hard where the river is wide and deep, I’ve taken a boat trip. Here, it is a steep-banked stream. The trees that line its banks are a tunnel filtering bright sunlight into green shadows as they spread their roots in shallow twisting patterns across the path. 

We emerge into sunlight and heathland. Cross-leaved Heath is beginning to bloom, and some Rooks and a Stonechat vie for who can croak the loudest.

We soon find Starpole Pond. It was here that Joan and the dogs saw Shelduck on the water, and tarried to enjoy a tranquil scene.

The pond was bright blue, its surface teased by the light wind into tiny waves; on two sides were the green, and gold, and purple moorland slopes; at one end a cloud of alders shut out the trees, at the other the bog entered, meandering down between the heather, tufted with trees and full of flowers.

Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest, published 1934.

It isn’t looking much like that today. I’m not sure whether it’s only because the spell of hot weather has dried it (it certainly looks shallow enough to be an ephemeral, or seasonal, pond), or whether there are other longer-term changes, but Starpole Pond is almost completely dry. I did find some recent references to it being an important place for some rarer aquatic organisms and plants, so am sure all is well. The pond has indeed survived many years – it is marked on the old Drivers maps of 1789 and 1814. I do feel a little cheated, though. I’ll just have to come back at a wetter time of year. 

This little patch of heath is lovely, circled by woods and the hidden bend of the river. I leave it with some regret, as we go back the way we came. Do you, like me, find that if you retrace your steps you see things that you completely missed in the other direction? I now see Bog Myrtle and some Bell Heather, the latter growing in dryer spots away from its damp-loving cousin the Cross-leaved Heath. A tawny-coloured moth – a Purple-bordered Gold (I think) – flicks by and hides among the Ling. Above, a Skylark is singing, but I cannot see him – he must be high up. 

King’s Hat Inclosure

Though pines darken the gate into King’s Hat Enclosure they soon give way and the wood becomes a pleasant blend of oaks, yews, and hollies…Sweet chestnuts grace the gateway on to the tarmac road which comes up from Beaulieu to cross Dibden Bottom…

Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest, published 1934

We pass back through the car park and turn northwards along the road verge – where Selfheal, low Bell Heather and Bird’s-foot Trefoil grow among the daisies – for less than 100 metres, and find the gate into King’s Hat.

King’s Hat was planted and enclosed in 1843, and some of the original Oak and Beech planting remains, with later Scots Pine plantings. There are still Sweet Chestnuts, Joan is glad to see. The place was originally mainly heathland. You can see King’s Hat marked on the old maps (the Drivers maps of 1789 and 1814) as heath around a little wooded spot. The word hat has always been used in the New Forest to describe a small and rounded clump of trees, often on a hill – you’ll see it in placenames elsewhere in the Forest.

King’s Hat Inclosure has a hint of wildness 

There is, of course, no chance of finding the original hat of King’s Hat; it is long lost to the plantation. But this isn’t a regimented place. It’s a little wild. As if to make the point that this is not a tame wood, a Roe scampers away as we latch the gate behind us. Oaks and Beech – originally planted for commercial forestry – have ‘gone native’, twisting their branches among the Holly and Brambles of the lower canopy, and a Rowan has settled in a gap by the path. 

A Foxglove speckled with raindrops in King’s Hat Inclosure, New Forest

Where the path splits into three, a pile of felled logs look as if they have been there for years, sprouting Turkeytail fungi and dressed with mosses. We take the left-hand path because it looks overgrown and interesting. A Song Thrush alarm-calls, and a hoverfly hangs nearby emitting a high-pitched buzz. Foxgloves are nearing their end, but still standing tall among the grasses and holding sun-glinted raindrops on their petals. 

The path curves its way through the wood until we reach its eastern edge, and walk though the gate and onto open heathland. Straight ahead lie the ancient woodlands of The Noads. Joan is glad to see them but, glancing away, is puzzled by a mass of plantation further to the south east. 

What’s that? she says, frowning. 

That, though, is a tale for the next post.

6 thoughts on “The forest after rain: Beaulieu River and King’s Hat in the New Forest

  1. Carolyn Lambert

    What a tantalising end to this lovely walk! My mind is whirring! Once again I am stunned by your beautiful photos….and ability to transport me to these magical places. It’s rained so much here, in the west of Scotland…but still our ponds and pools are much lower than usual….we’re puzzled!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Carolyn! Everything is getting very dry here in the south of England…today, it’s so hot I’m not sure I even want to go outside – although the cooling shade of the Forest isn’t so far away. I’m jealous of your rain!


  2. Gail

    This is an area that I have never explored! Thank you. I am not as good with my wild flowers as I was when I was younger…my excuse is that I have had some much other stuff to learn and remember, that my poor brain cannot cope with it all ;-).. Having just test postivie, grrrrrr, I shall have to leave following your directions for a week or so 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh no, I’m sorry to hear you’ve tested positive – hopefully it will be mild and you’ll soon recover. I hadn’t explored near Beaulieu before, and it was really lovely around King’s Hat – a real mix of plantation gone a bit wild, proper old pasture woodland and heathland (the last with lots of tumuli). I’ll be going back to into some of the other parts – lots to find, I think!


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