A walk­ing life

Past con­flicts are for­got­ten as the New For­est’s time­less land­scape be­guiles

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Fiona Reynolds Fol­low her on Twit­ter: @fionacreynolds

Fiona Reynolds is be­guiled by the time­less New For­est

IT’S au­tumn in the New For­est. Am­ber­shaded leaves quiver in the misty at­mos­phere, but there’s no chill on this warm au­tumn day. Ponies graze on the heath­land, lawns and greens and I’m en­tranced by the time­less qual­ity of this an­cient land­scape.

I’m vis­it­ing af­ter too long an ab­sence. I came here on camp­ing trips as a child in the 1960s and as a young cam­paigner in the 1980s; what strikes me most to­day is how lit­tle— once you get off the main roads and away from the ever-ad­vanc­ing sub­urbs—has changed. For years, we ar­gued that the New For­est should be a na­tional park and, since 2005, it has been, pro­vid­ing safe­guards against in­ap­pro­pri­ate change and sup­port for the con­tin­u­ing in­tri­cate man­age­ment by Com­mon­ers, foresters and the lo­cal com­mu­nity that makes the for­est so spe­cial.

‘Misty lay­ers of the for­est ridges dis­ap­pear­ing into the semi-dark­ness, ponies snort­ing as they set­tle for the evening’

My visit is cen­tred on Bur­ley, a place full of sto­ries. Like most vil­lages here, its core is carved out of for­est, with en­clo­sures defin­ing his­toric bound­aries and shaped by past wran­gles. Long tra­di­tions of wood­land man­age­ment, com­mon graz­ing and hunt­ing have, for cen­turies, kept the area largely open, but, pe­ri­od­i­cally, there have been out­bursts of con­flict, of­ten over deer con­trol, forced en­clo­sures, new plan­ta­tions and un­wel­come out­sider in­flu­ence.

For the time be­ing, how­ever, peace reigns. My walk is a ragged eight-mile cir­cle around the vil­lage. I be­gin in the bustling main street, where lo­cal witch­craft le­gends are re­called in quirky shopfronts and ponies graze peace­ably among the af­ter­noon shop­pers. I walk south-west to­wards Church Moor and turn north up Cas­tle Hill lane, which di­vides the vil­lage’s west­ern edge from the open for­est.

Leaves crunch un­der my feet as I tackle the gen­tle slope up to the Iron Age hill fort, Cas­tle Hill, which pre­sides over this land­scape and has tremen­dous views across Cranes Moor to the dis­tant Purbeck Hills. Af­ter pac­ing its ram­parts, I turn east along Ran­dalls Lane and past Bur­ley Street garage be­fore strik­ing out into the open moor north-east of the vil­lage.

This, sud­denly, is free­dom, the un­du­lat­ing heath­land meshed with streams and ponds and groups of ponies nuz­zling each other in the soft af­ter­noon light. Ahead is the largest plan­ta­tion in the for­est, this end of which is South Oak­ley In­clo­sure, one of the con­tro­ver­sial beech-and-oak plan­ta­tions of the 1860s that were im­posed to sup­ply ur­gently needed wood for ships for the Navy. To­day, it’s more mixed, with large stands of pine and conifers along­side the broadleaves, di­vided into com­part­ments by wide rides and the oc­ca­sional an­cient sentinel tree.

As I walk, the af­ter­noon sun­light fil­ters through the trees, cast­ing patch­work pat­terns on the tracks. All too soon I reach the large cen­tral ride, now a cy­cle track busy with fam­i­lies en­joy­ing their af­ter­noon out, and walk back to­wards the vil­lage, catch­ing glimpses of the lush green sward of Bur­ley Lawn be­tween the cot­tages on my left.

I’d planned to end my walk here, but I’m drawn to ex­plore more. As I pass Bur­ley Lawn, I turn into Beech­wood Lane, then through the golf course to re­join the open heath­land via the junc­tion at Cott Bot­tom. And now, al­though evening is draw­ing in, comes the best part. There’s the gen­tle de­scent through Holm­s­ley Bog to the old rail­way line, a peace­ful walk west along its bed to Bur­bush Hill, then a de­light­ful track back over Shap­pen Hill to the heart of the vil­lage.

I’m cap­ti­vated by the gloam­ing: the misty lay­ers of the for­est ridges dis­ap­pear­ing into the semi-dark­ness, ponies snort­ing as they set­tle for the evening and the deep hush as dusk set­tles on this age-old land­scape. I hope I’ll be back soon. Fiona’s book ‘The Fight for Beauty’ is avail­able from Oneworld

Cap­ti­vated by the gloam­ing: Wind and Rain, New For­est Ponies by Lucy Kemp-welch

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