Deer in the New Forest
Winter might be just around the corner, says Roly Smith, but the colours of autumn give the landscape of this National Park a final glorious flourish as its deer and ponies prepare for the most important time of their year
With heathland,beechits rich woodlands,mosaicoak and of
the New Forest hasn’t
changed that much since
William the Conqueror and
his nobles hunted there nine
centuries ago. It’s one of my
favourite places in the
country for an autumn walk.
Nowhere in England has such a variety of native and ornamental trees, seen at their best when autumn paints their leaves into a kaleidoscope of colours. Add the swathes of royal-hued heather on the forest’s rare lowland heaths, and you have a near-perfect picture of autumn.
Animal life abounds at this time of the year too, as the herds of ‘belling’ (bellowing ) red and fallow deer stags start their annual rut. The frisky New Forest ponies are gathered in ‘drifts’ to be given a condition check and for the annual sales in the pens at Beaulieu Road railway station, in the heart of the forest. The sales are also a highlight of the New Forest social year, when the commoners, verderers (officials who regulate the ponies and other stock) and agisters (employed by the verderers for the daily management of the stock) gather to examine or buy and sell the ponies.
My easy, three-mile autumnal walk starts from the Beaulieu Road railway station on the B3056 three miles south of Lyndhurst. Head due south, parallel with the BournemouthWaterloo railway line, crossing the open heathland of Shatterford. Note the slightly raised mounds of a couple of 4,000-year-old Bronze Age
“Nowhere in England has such a variety of native and ornamental trees”
tumuli (burial mounds) to your right. As the path swings slightly to the south-west, you’ll cross the insignificant banks and ditches of the Bishop’s Dyke to enter what is known as the Bishop of Winchester’s Purlieu.
A purlieu, a name from Norman French, denotes an area next to a forest that was once part of it and then disafforested. The boundaries had to be walked (or perambulated) to establish its limits.
The local legend is that John de Pontoise, the corpulent Bishop of Winchester in the reign of Edward I (1272–1307), was promised as much land as he could crawl around on his hands and knees in a day. He did well, because his purlieu enclosed around 500 acres of open, mainly poor, boggy ground, which is still a favourite feeding ground for ponies.
BRONZE AGE TUMULUS
Passing another Bronze Age tumulus, cross a footbridge and turn right to skirt the mixed woodland of Denny Lodge Inclosure by Woodfidley Passage. Woodfidley is a landmark knoll on which a spinney of native beeches overtops the surrounding Scots pine and oaks planted in Victorian times. ‘Woodfidley rain’ is the local name for persistent rain coming from this direction. Follow the earthwork and fence that heads west around the northern edge of Denny Lodge Inclosure, then cut across the open heath directly towards the triple gables of Victorian Denny Lodge.
Embowered in the trees of Denny Wood, this was formerly the groom keeper’s lodge and later the home of the head forester. Denny Wood, one of the Forestry Commission’s ‘ancient and ornamental’ woodlands, has some of the finest old beech woods in the forest. Their beauty is enhanced by self-sown birches, their silvery bark and yellow leaves contrasting beautifully with the copper of the beeches.
END IN SIGHT
At a junction of paths just north of Denny Lodge, turn right on a path through the autumntinged woodlands to eventually leave the trees behind.
TO THE PUB
Now head north-east across the low-lying area known as Shatterford Bottom. There are many ‘bottoms’ in the New Forest and indeed throughout the south of England. The name comes from the Old English and means a valley. In a few steps you will find yourself back at Beaulieu Road station, having earned yourself a welcome pint at The Drift Inn.
Fallow deer feed in the New Forest’s deciduous woodland, especially on autumn ‘mast’ – the various nuts on the forest floor
ABOVE The boggy heathland of Shatterford Bottom is a good place to see birds
ABOVE RIGHT The ponies are rounded up for inspection in autumn