First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
Blue sky overhead, and a hard frost gripping the trees and paths of the New Forest. We crunched the frozen lanes away from Brockenhurst, blowing on our fingers and shattering milky panes of ice in the puddles underfoot. Two forest ponies stood under the trees, their breath shooting in smoky columns from their nostrils. Every blade of the grasses they were champing glinted as though made of glass.
Big oak trees stood solo in the broad acres of Brockenhurst Park. When Edward Morant bought the estate in the 1770s with money from his Jamaican sugar plantations, he created an instant park by having all the field margins grubbed out, leaving only the well-grown hedge oaks to look like parkland specimens. Today the old oaks sheltered roe deer, half hidden in the sun dazzle, their presence betrayed by the flicking vees of their upstanding ears.
Beech leaves fringed with delicate frost lace gave out a peppery smell as our boots crushed them. We turned east beside handsome old Roydon Manor, walking under beech and oak whose fissured bark concealed hibernating insects – not well hidden enough, though, to escape the probing, down-curved beak of a treecreeper as it scuttled up an oak trunk, picking and swallowing.
Lapwings dug for worms in the fields around Dilton Farm as the sun softened the frozen ground. Beyond the farmyard lay the broad expanse of Beaulieu Heath, a great waste of gorse and heather where a rutted track led us past a herd of semi-wild ponies and out across the moor.
Somewhere under the scrub lay the runways of Beaulieu aerodrome, where young pioneers dared the skies in box-kite craft before the First World War. Now the old airfield lay as obscure as the Bronze Age burial mounds of the heath under a camouflage of bracken and gorse.
A cycle path crossed our track, and we followed it up to Lodge Heath where a cow had broken the skin of ice on the pond and was sipping the freezing cold water. We skimmed a stone across the ice for luck, and followed the tangled cycle paths back towards Brockenhurst through a forest stained brilliant orange by a wintry sun dipping towards the western skyline.
Start: Brockenhurst station, Hants SO42 7TW (OS ref SU 301020)
Getting there: Train to Brockenhurst.
Road – Brockenhurst is on A337 between Lyndhurst and Lymington.
Walk (8¾ miles, easy, OS Explorer OL22): Beside level crossing, turn into Mill Lane. On left bend, go right by Mulberry Cottage along lane. At St Nicholas’s Church, left (306017). In 200m, left opposite old stables (306015, ‘Bridleway’) for 1 mile. Opposite Roydon Manor, left through gates (316002, blue arrow) for 1 mile to Dilton Farm. Opposite first barn on left, turn right (331008, ‘bridleway’) on fenced path. Left round barn end; on through gate; head east (blue arrows) for 400m to gate onto heath (336008).
Right for 200m; angle back sharp left (335006) on grassy track at edge of gorse, heading NE across heath for ¾ mile to meet cycle path (344012). Left for ½ mile to Hedge Corner (338018). Through barrier; left along cycleway (signed). In 500m, right (332017) up roadway; at pond, left (333020) past info boards, along roadway to cross B3055 (329025). Ahead for ½ mile to pass New Copse Cottage (328033), then across railway (327034).
In 400m, left at crossroads (326037, cycleway ‘305’). In ⅔ mile, opposite Victoria Tilery Cottage (317035), ahead (‘306’) through gate. Left to car park (315036); left (‘291’, then ‘292’) on cycleway for 900m to B3055 (307032). Ahead to A337 (303032); left along pavement for ⅔ mile to Brockenhurst Station.
Lunch/Accommodation: Pig Hotel, Brockenhurst SO42 7QL (01590-622354, thepighotel.com) – quirky, stylish, fun
The January Man – A Year of Walking Britain by Christopher Somerville (Doubleday, £14.99). For 30% off, call 01206 255 777, quoting TIMES302017.