The New Forest
The New Forest
Tourist Information: Southern Tourist Board, The Old Town Hall, Leigh Road, Eastleigh. 0703 616027 or High Street, Lyndhurst. 042 128 2269 (summer only).
(posted Nov 2011): Southampton (0703 29077/8).
The ‘perambulation of the New Forest’, as it is called, is difficult to explain except with the help of a map. At its southern end it touches the waters of the Solent near Lymington and then runs along to Beaulieu River, the border travels north west parallel with Southampton Water and rounds off its northern border before it reaches Romsey or Salisbury and swings south along the River Avon, then before it reaches Ringwood it sweeps east, taking in Brockenhurst and back down again to the coast.
The New Forest is just under three hundred square miles of what was a primitive wilderness turned royal hunting forest, an area of heath, moor, bog, glades and valleys, ponds and streams, paths and marshland, and an abundance of wild life.
I have been going to the New Forest ever since I was a boy and I have always found something new each time. If you walk through the woods kicking up fallen beech leaves you will disturb the animals in the carpet beneath your feet. If you sit, wait and watch you will be rewarded with seeing deer, perhaps the rare yellow necked field mouse, certainly the meandering ponies, maybe a Dartford warbler, or a pied flycatcher. This medieval crown forest became ‘new’ when William the Conqueror created it, in 1079. William was a man who ‘loved the tall deer as if he were their father’ and he was responsible for setting it apart as a hunting ground and also ordering the planting of more trees in a restoration programme. It was the work of later kings which led to many of those trees being felled, but we must thank Charles II and William III for ordering more planting to save the shrinking forest from extinction. The Forestry Commission, together with the remnants of the ancient controllers ‘the Court of Verderers’, now controls the production and protection of the forest. Lyndhurst, the capital of the Forest, is where the Verderers’ court sits. It is partly elected, partly appointed and sits in the seventeenth-century Queens House, which still has an enormous criminal dock, and where the Rufus Stirrup hangs over the fireplace – it was used as a gauge to see if dogs were small enough to enter the forest and not be a threat to wildlife. The criminal dock was once the place where very severe sentences were meted out to anyone disturbing the rights of the Crown. I remember as a boy being told that if a man so much as disturbed a deer he could have his eyes gouged out – it quite spoiled my day. The Verderers still hold court, but they are much less ferocious these days, although I hear their green jacketed Agisters, who ride around keeping an eye on things, can be pretty stern.
In the churchyard at Lyndhurst is the grave of Mrs Reginald Hargreaves, better known as Alice Liddell, the original ‘Alice in Wonderland’. The spire of the Victorian Gothic Church climbs 160ft, and inside are windows by Burne-Jones and William Morris. South-west of the town, at Knightwood, is the mightiest oak of the forest and to the north-west is Bramble Hill, where you can get a decent sight of the forest from its ‘summit’ of 400ft. Minstead is a favourite haunt of mine ever since I discovered its pub and church, and Furzey Gardens. Outside the pub hangs the sign of the Trusty Servant – a pig whose snout is padlocked in order that he keeps his master’s secrets. In a corner of the churchyard lie Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his wife. Inside Minstead church itself are a number of rarities, including a three-tiered seventeenth-century pulpit. Do not leave the Minstead area without going to Furzey Gardens, eight acres built around a pretty thatched cottage deep in the woods. The sixteenth-century cottage is a lovely setting for the colour of the gardens and it shows how the foresters lived then. The kitchen, with its utensils of the period, the smoking rail in the chimney, the great wide fireplace and round bread oven, the parlour in part modernised, the upstairs rooms with floors and beam supports made from ships’ timbers, and the narrow scullery and pantry all give you the impression of a house once ‘lived in’ by a family with fourteen children. The gardens are almost merged into the surrounding forest and fields. Daffodils and crocus flowers carpet the grass, rare azaleas and calico bushes light up your way in this peaceful haven.