In which I walk through two plantations and across a wide plain under a cold blue sky
Roe Wood…is a delicious wood with a stream, the Linbrook, running through it…Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest, published 1934
Milkham is the plain one of the family.Ibid.
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, we’re walking through two inclosures, both of which Joan knew and described, although she did not walk them along exactly the same route as I do this time. I’ve walked through Roe Inclosure before, coming down from Amie’s Corner and on the way back to Ringwood. It was spring then, but this time the first chills of autumn are in the air and the sky is a cold blue. We start in Milkham.
I think Joan is a little mean about Milkham Inclosure. It’s one of a group of plantations – Milkham and Roe, Great and Little Linford – and she calls it “the plain one of the family.” I understand where she’s coming from. At first glance, by and large, it is stacked full of tall regimented pines, the undergrowth is straggly, like a poorly grown beard, and the forest is broken by large areas of heath now yellowing under the autumn sun.
Milkham is the plain one of the family. It is a war victim, for most of its trees, pines planted in 1861, fell by the axe and became pit and trench props during the war. To this is due its ragged appearance, its sparse population of pine and self-sown oaklings, and the big, bare patches of coarse, yellow grass.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest, published 1934
Time has, however, moved on since Joan was walking with Bill and Mr Bundy. In the 1930s, the gaps left by the pines cut for timber for the First World War – according to Heywood Sumner, many of these were Scots Pines – would have been stark. I guess that the yellow grass that Joan notes would be early opportunistic growth in the cleared areas, and not yet any sort of proper heathland. It takes longer than fifteen years – from 1918, the end of the war, to 1934, when Walking in the New Forest was published – to revive a plantation.
Now, the more recent – and still dominant, it’s true – pine plantings are softened by valley oaks from the original inclosure, a reviving vegetation of lowland heath in the open parts, and there are plans to restore Milkham to a mix of bare heathland and wooded heath over time. The inclosure is beginning to breathe more easily, to find and tentatively spread its roots in the poor gravelly soils in which it grows. Where there are oaks and beeches and other woodland shrubs and trees, there are also lichens, fungi and mosses. Tiny insects hang in the air, glinting gold, ethereal beings, in the early sun; spiders hang jewelled webs over the undergrowth. Beech trees, still holding on to this year’s browning leaves, are already growing their long thin buds for next year, as seasons cycle into each other.
On such a clear and beautiful morning I find it sad – is that the right word? Maybe unsettling is a better one – when Joan talks about ‘the war’. She walked in a time between world wars, with little idea of the devastation to come, though doubtless she would have been aware of the politics and troubles emerging in 1930s Europe and beyond. I imagine her passing under the trees of Milkham in the present day, Bill and Mr Bundy by her side, and finding some kind of peace in the plantation’s slow rejuvenation.
But I’m running ahead of myself here.
I park in the Milkham Inclosure car park just as the sun rises. It’s chilly and fresh; the sky is glass-blue, ribboned with clouds and vapour trails.
Walking west from the car park, the sun rising at my back, I follow the path, keeping straight and not following the cycle path as it turns to the left. To the south is the Linford Brook, which travels through here from its source on Broomy Plain. My path goes downhill towards a small offshoot of the brook which, despite recent rain, is still barely even a muddy puddle. There are some water plants, though, showing green, and the stump of a felled tree that is covered with lichen and the borings of insects. Life continues.
From here, the path keeps straight, rising uphill, becomes a ride (though the ride is little different in condition from the grassy path) and crosses another path. I love the view looking back from this point, along the tree- and gorse-lined track and into the bright sky.
The ride then meets a corner of the cycle track. There’s a gate, and it’s locked, with no stile. I feel a bit grumpy that there had been no indication of this at the beginning of the path, but climb over easily. (If you’re following this route and don’t fancy climbing a gate, sticking to the cycle track from the car park will get you to the same point.) I keep going straight, crossing more rather dry streamlets running down to Linford Brook, before turning left down a ride and reaching Roe Inclosure.
Roe Wood, then, was planted four years before the Battle of Waterloo. It is a delicious wood with a stream, the Linbrook, running through it, and its oak trees seasoned here and there with fine sweet chestnuts and a pine or two ‘to taste’, growing close together above bracken and thorn. Foxgloves grow high and beautiful here, and near the stream towards the lower end of the wood wild columbines prink and preen.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest, pub. 1934
Joan is kinder to Roe Inclosure than she is to Milkham. Roe is the older inclosure, dating to 1811 and subsequently enlarged. There are more pines and firs here – planted in the 1950s – than when Joan was walking, but otherwise there are still oaks (some planted after the Second World War) and sweet chestnut, hawthorn and hazel. It feels older, more established; it remains a working plantation.
The path heads roughly south-east at first, crossing the Linford Brook itself, its streambed dry and pebbly, littered with leaves and fallen branches. The way then turns to cross an earthwork called Castle Piece on the map. It’s all that remains of an Iron Age hillfort, and if you didn’t know it was there, you might think the ground raised in a circular pattern was either natural, or a more recent bank and ditch arrangement. The oaks looking down on it know better, as their roots reach back through time to when this was heathland and early peoples were living and working here.
From this point, heading towards Green Ford, the path, marked clearly on the OS map, is very (and I mean very) indistinct. You can just about make it out as either a vaguely grassy track, or sometimes something like a small ditch. I made it, arriving back at the cycle track once again.
Here, I turned eastwards to begin the return to Milkham car park. I could have walked back through Roe Inclosure on the cycle track, but I’m not a fan of their gravelly straightness, preferring grassy, or even muddy ways. So, I took the path that runs alongside a shallow tributary of Linford Brook. If you happen to follow this walk but don’t like clambering over fallen trees, negotiating ankle-turning ruts, or even sometimes losing the path beneath fallen leaves and branches, then I recommend keeping to the cycle track. I, however, like a bit of forest adventure, so I stuck with the fun of the ‘less-travelled’ way.
Eventually, though, I had to join the cycle track once more, as it headed out though a gate and onto Bratley Plain.
It’s always something of a shock going from wood to plain in the New Forest. There is seldom a transition: you go through a gate and the wide sky and heath is suddenly before you. You look back, beneath the wood’s eaves, and it is all green darkness and mossy scents. Ahead is expanse, clarity.
Ling was still blooming on Bratley Plain, lifting the colours of the dying bracken. I trudged towards the heavy traffic noise of the A31, ignoring a path that would have taken me through Milkham Bottom, and instead turning left and northwards when I had almost reached the road. This path, through prickly gorse, takes you to a pond that I’ve visited before. The water was much lower than on my previous visit, but ponies were there – this is a favourite watering hole for them locally.
From here, I walked back along the road to the car park (although I think there is probably a more direct rough track across the heath). Some donkeys were soaking up the autumn sunshine near my car, looking content.
This was a surprisingly lovely walk. I usually prefer the older and ancient woodlands of the New Forest, but Milkham and Roe Inclosures showed how nature can breathe life, and a little delightful chaos, into the most ordered plantation as time passes. If you’re not comfortable with or able to manage rougher, sometimes invisible, paths and rides with fallen trees to climb over, then the cycle tracks will still provide a magical walk.