First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
A quarter to six on a cool, drizzly morning and Andy Page was there, smack on time outside the New Forest Inn – a man so in love with his native patch that, despite the duties and responsibilities of his post as Head Keeper of the northern sector of the Forest, he’d got himself out of bed before five o’clock just to show me around.
‘I left school and didn’t know what to do,’ he told me as we strolled the banks of the Dockens Water in slowly broadening daylight. ‘But I knew it had to be something out of doors, something to do with the Forest. I wanted to look forward to going to work every day, and that’s just what I’ve done ever since. So I’m a lucky man – I know that!’
The New Forest, one of our most ancient forests, is a complicated mosaic of woodland, water, bog, wetland, scrub and open heath. Everything meshes in with everything else, so that the health of the whole organism is a finely balanced affair. And the pieces of the jigsaw are not fixed – they swap places and character through the centuries.
Above the Dockens Water Andy and I traversed patches of open scrub which had once been dense woodland, as attested by sprays of wood anemone leaves. Delicate yellow flowerheads of petty whin nodded on their thorny stalks among spider webs thickly pearled with raindrops. We slipped and slid through patches of bog where pink heads of lousewort contested the breeze with feathery strands of cotton grass. The holly was properly in flower just now, its pink and cream blooms cupped in the prickly green hands of the leaves.
New Forest ponies have been around here since time out of mind. A month-old foal, so well camouflaged I hadn’t spotted him, got up from his bracken bed on long legs and skittered off to join his mother. We glimpsed a female redstart zapping between the trees, too quick for me but not for my companion. Out in the open heath of Rakes Brakes Bottom we heard the clicking calls of stonechats, the ‘chupa-chup’ of snipe, and the sweet falling cadence of a willow warbler. Among the trees of Sloden Inclosure I stood enchanted by a wood warbler on a twig, reeling out his chittering, wren-like song, the early light showing off the lemon yellow sheen of his belly.
‘There’s a cuckoo – see him flying?’ Andy’s finger pointed up into the cloudy sky. A sparrowhawk shape with a long tail and rapidly beating wings was passing over the trees. How many cuckoos have I heard calling in the spring? But I’d never in a million years have recognised one on the wing. Such was the magic of this rainy early morning in the Forest.
Start & finish: Royal Oak PH, Fritham SO43 7HJ (OS ref SU 232141)
Getting there: M27 to Jct 1; B3079, B3078 towards North Charford; Fritham signposted.
Walk (5 and a half miles, easy grade, OS Explorer OL22): The New Forest is for wandering, so precise instructions are hard to give. General directions for map readers: Royal Oak; north bank of Dockens Water – Rakes Brakes Bottom – right (north) at 220124 approx; left (218131) through Sloden Wood – right at Watergreen Bottom (206125). Sloden Inclosure – left (209128) – right (207132) between Sloden and Amberwood Inclosures – Hiscocks Hill – Fritham.
NB: Detailed instructions, online map, more walks: www.christophersomerville.co.uk
Lunch: Royal Oak PH, Fritham (023-8081-2606).
Accommodation: The New Forest Inn, Emery Down, Lyndhurst (023-8028-4690; www.thenewforestinn.co.uk) – £75-85 dble.
More info: Lyndhurst TIC (023-8028-2269; www.thenewforest.co.uk)
Walks led by keepers/rangers: tel 023-8028-6840; www.forestry.gov.uk