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