In which I walk in good company among the woods and heaths around Ober Water
Under the pines the ride dropped down to a gate and came out on to a heathy bottom framed by gentle pine tree covered hills and threaded by Ober Water.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, which is full of her entertaining observations, knowledge, and her own lovely little sketches. 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, Joan, Bill. Mr Bundy and I are in the company of other friends, humans and dogs. We joined a walk led by Jen Blaxall of New Forest Nature and Nurture, around and about Ober Heath, Ober Water and the surrounding inclosures. Back in the 1930s, Joan and her two dogs walked in this area and wrote about it in Walking in the New Forest. While we weren’t following exactly the same route as she did (she walked several routes – if you have a copy of her book, see pp. 129 to 142), we visited some of the same places in a landscape threaded by streams and history.
We meet at Whitefield Moor car park on the Rhinefield Road, nine humans and four excited but well-behaved dogs (not including Joan, Bill and Mr Bundy, who shadow us round the walk). This Forestry England car park is a starting point for several trails – you can tell it’s a popular spot for recreation because it has public (including accessible) toilets. But the schools have gone back after the summer, and only a couple of cars other than our own are parked here.
White Moor, Ober Water and Clumber Inclosure
We start off by crossing Rhinefield Road, and taking a path across the heath, with Red Hill, White Moor and Hinchelsea Moor to our south. There’s Ling in abundance, but the hot dry days of August don’t seem to have been good for the heather, and the purple and pink display is muted this year. We’re climbing a gentle slope, and soon we cross the delightfully named Silver Stream as it bends its way to join Ober Water. There’s a boardwalk across the water here, and we pause to watch the slow and hesitant movement of the stream, water plants gently swaying, Bog Myrtle seeding on its banks. I wonder how it got its name. The heathland here is wide and open, the light clear and fresh despite the cloudy sky. Perhaps it is this light, sparkling on the water, that named the Silver Stream.
To our right, Jen points out a large earthwork not marked on the OS map – a barrow that must shelter many old bones. The land near here is marked Crab Tree Earth (and has been for a long time), and we wonder what Earth means in this context. One of us suggests it refers to the barrow, and we all agree that sounds very possible. (Later, I find that erth is an Old English word for ploughland, but that seems pretty unlikely on what will have been heathland for centuries. We’ll stick with the barrow.) We pass woods, and take a right at the top of Holm Hill, heading northeast to meet Ober Water.
We cross Ober Water a little before Clumber Inclosure. When Joan and her dogs walked this way in the 1930s, they were heading south, passing Rhinefield Lodge (as it then was; it’s now a hotel). Joan describes the Inclosure and meeting Ober Water.
When the private oak pailings belonging to Rhinefield Lodge came to an end we took the second gate into Clumber Enclosure, a pleasant wood of oaks and sweet chestnuts, and went along the rather spongy ride ahead of us… Our ride got sounder when near the end of the wood, the change being due to pine trees whose roots hold the ground together and fill up any crevices with springy needles and hard cones. Under the pines the ride dropped down to a gate and came out on to a heathy bottom framed by gentle pine tree covered hills and threaded by Ober Water… By the timber bridge are pools big enough for total immersion…Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest, published 1934
Well, the pools by the bridge in 2022 are not currently deep enough for total immersion, but there is at least a decent amount of water running (unlike many of the New Forest brooks at the height of the heatwave), and the dogs have a good old splash around before we head on into Clumber Inclosure. Established in 1843, the 1940s to 1960s saw much Douglas Fir being planted in the western side, and I imagine Joan looking a bit sour at the loss of the deciduous woodland. I whisper to her that the eastern side of the inclosure is still full of Oak and Sweet Chestnut, and promise we’ll return for a look. For now, we come out of the Inclosure and we’re heading past the western side of the Rhinefield House Hotel.
Rhinefield House Hotel and Rhinefield Sandys Inclosure
Once known as Rhinefield Lodge (which is how Joan knew it), the hotel site has an interesting history, dating back to the time of William the Conqueror (though the current hotel building dates back to the 1880s). You can read all about the history of the buildings on the hotel’s website. In brief, the place was home to Forest Keepers and Nurseryman from 1709 but, in the 1880s, the site was acquired by the Walker-Munro family, who built themselves a country house – the hotel building we see today – which remained in the family until 1950. When Joan originally passed by, Mrs Walker-Munro may have still been alive, but she died in 1934, the year Joan published Walking in the New Forest, so maybe not. The architecture of the house is fascinating. One of our group told us about the Alhambra Room, built by Spanish workmen. I love the description in Discovering the New Forest, written by Patricia Sibley and Robin Fletcher (pub. Robert Hale Ltd., 1986).
…the most extraordinary feature of Rhinefield has to be the Alhambra Room: it is like being shut inside a jewel case. Quite small and lit by dim reddish light from a copper lamp in the dome above, walls and floor gleam with gold, ruby, emerald and lapis lazuli blue. The floor is deep red mosaic, walls and dome are covered in beaten copper surrounding rose windows, stars in Venetian glass and lattices through which the women of the harem would have peered, in a Moorish palace.Patricia Sibley and Robin Fletcher, Discovering the New Forest, 1986
“It is like being shut inside a jewel case”, the authors say. How wonderful!
As we leave the hotel behind, we spot two deer – Fallows – wandering through the bracken ahead. Joan gets very excited at seeing deer, and she reminds me that it is near Ober Water that she had a wonderful encounter with two bucks, who followed her nonchalantly along a ride before realising she was there. She sketched them, and here is what she told me in her own words, as told in Walking in the New Forest. I love her careful observation of their behaviour.
One buck crossed an intersecting ride and was under the trees and level with us before he realised we were there. then he stopped, pointing his shiny black muzzle at us, tilting his graceful antlers back as he raised his head to watch us with calm, almond-shaped eyes, confident that we had seen nothing. His friend remained in the bleached, tumbled growth of the clearing, matching it to perfection, his antlers looking like the dry branches of a little dead tree. When they judged that we had gone far enough from them to make swift movement safe they wheeled as at a word of command and fled away, back over the clearing, twisting and turning with incredible agility down the hidden deer-paths, leaping over the sharper corners and disappearing completely, long before they reached the trees, after the magic manner of their kind.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest, published 1934
We walk through a corner of Rhinefield Sandys Inclosure, which was established in 1809. We don’t see any more deer, but we do find a nice specimen of Chicken of the Woods. Then, we cross a road and into Fletchers Thorns Inclosure.
Chicken of the Woods in Rhinefield Sandys Inclosure
Fletchers Thorns Inclosure and Ober Heath
Dating to 1829, Fletchers Thorns Inclosure is still mainly Oak and Beech, and very lovely it is too. We see signs of Red Deer – their droppings, which are, as you would expect, larger than those of the smaller Fallows and Roes – but no Red Deer themselves. We find Fletchers Water, and it’s dry as a bone.
Fletchers Water was artificially straightened, back in Victorian times. The aim was to be able to drain the surrounding land quickly, but the longer-term effect was to erode the stream bed and negatively impact biodiversity, as there was no natural inundation of the floodplain. Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) funding more recently enabled the stream to be restored to its meandering state. It would have been lovely to see the stream winding happily along, full of water, but we were able to imagine it as we crossed the dry and gravelly stream bed, ignoring the bridge.
We turn back southwards, and we’re crossing Ober Heath itself. Ober is a strange name, and I’ve struggled to find a definitive root. There is an Old German word meaning someone who lives by [above] the bank of a stream, and there is, of course, over, which is Old English. Let’s leave it to the etymologists.
Aldridge Hill Inclosure
Then, we’re almost finished our five-mile walk, with just a last stretch through Aldridge Hill Inclosure.
The old stone marker for Aldridge Hill Inclosure
Aldridge Hill was first enclosed back in the 1770s, then re-enclosed with Oak in 1809, but it is now mainly post-First World War Oak and Beech. Later, Douglas Fir, Larch and Scots Pine were added to the mix, and the current day inclosure is a merry patchwork of different trees rubbing along together in happy friendship.
Then, we were back at the car park. Joan, Bill and Mr Bundy were walking on, heading towards Highland Water and the Queen Bower. The rest of us said our farewell to friends – human and canine – and left the woods and heaths behind us.
There are several guided walking groups in the New Forest – a Google search will bring up a few. Those organised by Jen Blaxall of New Forest Nature and Nurture are definitely among my favourite: relaxed, interesting, well-planned routes in good company, with the benefit of Jen’s wealth of information and insight about the Forest and its wildlife, byelaws and way of life.