In which I walk among gnarly old trees and pass by graves from long ago on a high plain
We negotiated the highway, exchanging it for the less frequented road crossing Black Bush plain…All round are woods and lesser heights…nearer at hand rise the Wiltshire hills with their creamy fields and purple-brown coverts.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 1934 book Walking in the New Forest, a delightful read, full of her entertaining observations, knowledge, and her own lovely little sketches. All lovers of New Forest walks and history should grab themselves a copy (available second-hand from various outlets, or the library service has copies). I’m writing in this blog about what Joan 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, it’s a shorter walk than usual, and not one that Joan exactly wrote about, though she did cross Black Bush Plain on her way to Nomansland and Bramshaw Wood. I followed her on that earlier, longer walk (c. 6.5 miles) back in May 2021, following the golden road from Eyeworth. This time, however, I wanted a shorter walk at the end of a long day, before the light was lost, and wishing for the freckled sunlight of evening through the trees.
The part of the northern Forest around Pipers Wait and Black Bush Plain is amongst the highest in the area: indeed, at 129 m above sea level, Pipers Wait is the highest point in the New Forest. It feels it. Driving along the B3078 from Fordingbridge towards the crossroads with the Fritham/Nomansland road, the plain stretches to left and right, ahead and behind. It’s now tinged with the purple of heather, though I feel it’s not yet at its full glory – if indeed it can reach it after the effects of the scorching summer on the blossom.
I miss the entrance to the Bramble Hill Walk car park, which would have been the one most convenient for the walk I’d planned. I turn instead, on the other side of the road, into Longcross car park, if only to hear the breezes and murmurings of leaves in the lovely Coppice of Linwood, even though I’m not going that way.
The woods south of Bramshaw Wood and Black Bush and to the west of the road between Long Cross and Bramshaw aren’t given a name on the OS map, but elsewhere they are named Great Wood. I’m not sure why. These woods are neither the most extensive, nor the most stirring in the New Forest. But there is something a little mystical, even fey about them. Maybe it’s the time of day: it’s late afternoon, and the light slants through the trees, casting shadows and speckles of green and grey. Or maybe it’s that this feels like an old wood, not just in years, but in disposition. Beeches and oaks twist and turn, pointing long fingers to right and left. The traffic from the road is clearly audible, modern and sometimes intrusive, and yet this wood draws you in along ancient routes. It is whispering: Come this way, follow that path. You think the track goes there, but no, here it is.
The OS map does mark paths through the wood, but they seem to bear only a partial relation to the actual tracks. A clear way will suddenly meander, hide itself under grass and the early fall of leaves, and then abandon you among bracken and brambles or bar your way with a fallen moss- and lichen- covered tree. I think Joan, Bill and Mr Bundy would have liked this place.
It may still be August, but fungi is already starting to sprout, maybe encouraged by the recent wetter weather. Acorns and holly berries are ripening, still green, but autumn colour is beginning to wash across their skin.
A sturdy wooden bridge crosses Shepherd’s Gutter, and the way goes through woods called Black Bush (or, on some maps, Black Bush Hat). For a while the path leading to the bridge has been clear, heading straight for the crossing place. Once across, the wood starts yet again to become tricksy. Ways that should be tracks are overgrown with bracken, and other paths open up that are not marked on the map. I make my way as best I can until I meet the southern edge of Bramshaw Wood, and turn west and then south across Black Bush Plain. You feel the relative height of the land here, in the breeze on your face and the quality of the evening light. I pass a cluster of tumuli, ancient graves of an ancient people. Ponies are grazing nearby.
I skirt the edge of the woods I walked through before until I meet the road and cross to the car park. The trees of the Coppice of Linwood are still murmuring, whispering to each other of losing yourself in the woods.