New forest, old forest: Beaulieu Heath and its woods

In which I visit an ancient wood, a new wood and some ancient barrows on Beaulieu Heath

The Noads are a green and pleasant fraternity of little woods. They grow on the slope of the heath and look over the stark basin called Dibden Bottom to lovely wild country where moors melt into woods and hills rise in sylvan tiers as far as eye can see.

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. 

This week, we’re continuing our walk from King’s Hat and will now be making our way across Beaulieu Heath. (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.) 

A sketch map of the entire walk, which is about four miles in total. This post describes the section of the route across Beaulieu Heath and back to the start at King’s Hat Inclosure via The Noads and Dibden and Crabhat Inclosure. Roads are shown in brown, footpaths as single dotted lines, rivers and streams in blue, and the total route (including the earlier section, described in the previous 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.

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 lies the ancient woodland of The Noads. Joan is glad to see them but, glancing away, is puzzled by the mass of plantation further to the south east. What’s that? she says, frowning. That, though, is a tale for the next post.

That’s how I ended the last post, standing at the eastern edge of King’s Hat with Joan Begbie and her two dogs, as we prepared to set out on the second part of our walk. Joan expected to see a complete sweep of heathland, broken only by the lovely old woodland of The Noads. Instead, massed beyond the woods to east and west, is a plantation. Most of the Forest’s inclosures carry some age, but Dibden Inclosure – for that’s what we’re seeing – is only about sixty years old. It’s one among what are known as the Verderers’ Inclosures. The ability to create these was legislated for in section 12 of the New Forest Act 1949, by which the New Forest Verderers were able to authorise inclosures and then rent/lease them to the Forestry Commission, as compensation for loss of grazing. (Find out more about the history and role of the Verderers of the New Forest on their website; the New Forest Explorers Guide gives a very good explanation of the history of inclosures in the New Forest, ending with the 1949 Act and Verderers’ Inclosures.) Turf Hill, where we’ve walked before, is another example.

Joan looks a bit cross – she is mourning what used to be the wide expanse of Beaulieu Heath, feeling kinship with the naturalist and author William Henry Hudson (1841 to 1922), who wrote about this part of the New Forest in his book Hampshire Days. Joan quotes him to me:

“…that wildness which I best loved – the rude incult heath, the beautiful desolation; to have harsh furze and ling and bramble and bracken to grow on me, and only wild creatures for visitors and company.

W. H. Hudson, Hampshire Days, originally published 1903 (OUP edition, 1980)

There’s still plenty of heathland here, though, I say. Let’s see what we can find. And so we set off, a Cuckoo bidding farewell to us from the depths of King’s Hat behind us.

The Noads and Dibden Inclosure

Straight ahead lie The Noads. These woods are old – they are recorded on the Drivers maps of 1789 and 1814, gracing this land when it was still simply open heathland – and we are keen to reach them.

First, though, we cross a northern section of Beaulieu Heath. To our left we can see gravelly paths leading towards the mires of Dibden Bottom, and in front of them a herd of pale cows (Longhorns, I think). Silver-studded Blue butterflies flicker at speed among the heather and Gorse, and, as we get closer to the trees of The Noads, a Blackcap sings us onwards. 

A herd of cows on Beaulieu Heath in the New Forest

The trees of The Noads – Oak and Birch, Beech and Holly – are tightly packed, and there is no footpath through, though we can see pony paths breaking the leafy outer barrier. We walk round the edge, passing a small Scots Pine bent over as if struggling against a strong wind. Eventually, we step among the trees for a few moments. It’s dark. The overstorey is dense and the woodland floor is fairly barren of undergrowth, and I feel a vague sense of…well, not exactly unease; it’s as if the wood is waiting for something, or holding a secret close to its leafy heart. But then we pass a patch of sunlight, the birds begin to sing, and I can see the sunlit path ahead, passing southwards through the woods on the way to Dibden Inclosure. I now understand what Joan means when she refers to The Noads as a “green and pleasant fraternity of little woods.” Woods do have a habit of changing character – weather, season, mood all contribute.  

The bent Scots Pine growing outside The Noads in the New Forest

The way into Dibden from The Noads is open, with no enclosing fence. We head along a straight track making its way southeast through the Inclosure. I’ve read in a Forestry Commission report that the plan is to revert this part of the Inclosure to wooded heathland, but for now it’s still fairly densely planted. There is Sweet Chestnut, Beech, Oak and Holly. Chiffchaffs are chiffchaffing away in the treetops, and a Large Skipper butterfly lands on a sun-kissed patch of Bramble, cocking its bronze wings open in that unique skipper-ish way as it basks in the warmth. 

The Large Skipper in Dibden Inclosure moved off too fast for a photo, but this is an image I took last year, just to illustrate the way it holds its wings to bask.

There’s a tumulus marked on the map, a step or two away from the path. It’s only a small mound, covered in fallen dry leaves and pine needles. A three-stemmed Holly bush is growing out one end. Not so long ago, of course, this prehistoric burial mound would have been in the middle of open heathland. I wonder what the people who once walked here – distant in time, culture, beliefs, way of life – would have thought of the plantation? I wonder who they were? The Holly’s roots entwine round the spaces where once bones would have been lain to rest; perhaps the mycelial network, though young in this new forest, has absorbed and now protects a memory of those Bronze Age folk. Yes, I know that’s fanciful, but even practical Joan picks up on the mood. Beaulieu Heath is renowned for its large number of prehistoric barrows – called butts locally – and Joan has read W. H. Hudson’s description of spending time by one.

And then as the stars came out his [W. H. Hudson’s] thoughts turned to the men who lie in the barrows and he says, ‘…they were with me in the twilight on the barrow in crowds, sitting and standing in groups, and many lying on their sides on the turf below, their heads resting on their hands.’ 

Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest, published 1934; quoting W. H. Hudson, Hampshire Days, published 1903

In this passage, Hudson goes on to imagine the despair of the ancient barrow peoples at seeing their sacred burial sites despoiled, a practice both he and, later, Joan despise. Both would be glad to see the much greater care taken today.

With these thoughts murmuring in our heads, we leave the trees and find ourselves back on Beaulieu Heath. Here, like when she first saw Dibden Inclosure in the distance, Joan has another What on ever is that? moment.

Beaulieu Heath and its tumuli

Fawley Refinery, as seen (through a zoomed in lens) from Beaulieu Heath at the edge of Dibden Inclosure

What’s that? says Joan. Even Bill and Mr Bundy look a bit taken aback.

Fawley Refinery and Petrochemical Plant was first opened in 1951. It squats on the horizon, beyond the National Park boundary, and is the first thing we see as we leave the Inclosure. This is a different age from when W. H. Hudson was writing in the earliest years of the twentieth century; Joan, writing in the 1930s before the Second World War, also lived in a less industrial time (although neither writer could be called pre-industrial). Even when the refinery is only seen at a distance, it must change the ambience. The heath is still wild – a Skylark sings above us, bright blue sparks of butterflies dance in the heather – but the refinery is a constant visual reminder of the march of industry and technology.

We turn our backs on the horizon to the east, and head for a group of barrows to the south. To take her mind off the refinery view, Joan tells me an amusing tale about how she first learned that the barrows were called butts, and not barrows, in the New Forest.

These mounds are not called barrows locally, as I learned on asking a labourer to direct me to some a little while back. ‘Barrows?’ he said puzzledly; and then with a sudden lightening of countenance, ‘Oh, you mean rabbit burrows! Yes, yes, there’s a-plenty of they up there.’

Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest, published 1934

These butts are larger than the small secret one hidden in Dibden Inclosure. The way curves round them but doesn’t touch them, and I am mindful of not leaving the path because of the danger of disturbing ground-nesting birds, and also not to cause any damage to the barrows. As if to underline this point, a Skylark calls from one of the mounds, so I retreat back along the track, whispering my apologies at the unintended intrusion. Even from further away I can see many Silver-studded Blue butterflies frisking through the Cross-leaved Heath and Bell Heather that covers the mounds.

These particular butts (two bell barrows, two bowl barrows and a short length of field boundary) are a Scheduled Monument, and you can find out more about them on the Historic England website. More generally on the New Forest barrows, the New Forest National Park Authority has produced a short (1:31-minute) film.

Two of the barrows, seen from the path and zoomed in. During the summer it is important not to stray from the main tracks because of the danger of disturbing ground-nesting birds.

Crabhat and Foxhunting Inclosures

We leave the barrows, making our way back to the main path westward across the heath towards Crabhat and Foxhunting Inclosures. These date back to 1843, the same time as King’s Hat, where we started our walk. Before that date, Crabhat was mainly heathland, and Foxhunting was a pasture woodland; on the 1789 and 1814 editions of the Drivers map they are marked as Crab Tree Hat (probably an old reference to wild crab apple) and Foxhunting Wood. A Robin is chuntering as we approach Crabhat and turn to walk along its eastern edge, where its old bank is full of Bracken, Gorse and Holly. Turning left, we walk through the Inclosure’s central path, between young, tall, thin Birches and then evergreens, including a grand old Scots Pine.

A stand of Birches in Crabhat Inclosure in the New Forest

Where the path meets Foxhunting Inclosure, there is a pony pound (where ponies are examined and registered during the New Forest drifts). This pound is dedicated to Brian Ingram and Don Stephens for long service to the life of the New Forest and commoning.

On this heath sundew spreads its sticky fingers for the unwary flies, and prepared us for the spongy places we found in our way.

Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest, published 1934

Turning right past Crabhat Pound and along the border of Foxhunting Inclosure, we find ourselves walking along a bog-edged path. Back in the 1930s, Joan found Sundew here, and we are delighted to find it again. There was both Round-leaved and Oblong-leaved Sundew (relatively easy to tell apart – the clue’s in their names!). A third, much rarer, species of Sundew – Great Sundew – grows in the New Forest. It’s taller, and tends to grow in the centre of mires. We spend several minutes looking at the sundew, which was flowering, the tiny blooms held on impossibly thin stems.

Round-leaved Sundew, near Crabhat Inclosure in the New Forest

Then, we were back at the road and a short step away from Crabhat Inclosure car park, the starting point of our walk.

This was a wonderful place to visit if you want a not-too-arduous, not-too-long walk, through different habitats – heathland, ancient woodland, old and new plantations, as well as the river and ponds. There is so much else to explore in the area – Joan, Bill, Mr Bundy and I will be back.

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