First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
Notwithstanding its name, the New Forest is not a monolithic block of trees. These 150 square miles of ancient royal hunting ground comprise woodland, wetland, heathland, water and farmland, a wonderful patchwork of accessible countryside from which to tease out a walk for a short winter’s day.
Waymarks are thin on the ground in the New Forest, but the patch of open heath that stretches south of Burley is crisscrossed with good clear paths. We set out on a cold sunny morning along a gravelly track that ran between flowering gorse, sombre winter-dark heather and individual silver birch trees whose slim trunks and dusky red twigs glowed in the clear light.
New Forest ponies cropped the grass by the path, delicately snipping off precise bites with their strong grey teeth. From Turf Hill the southern skyline was spiky with ranks of conifers. We caught a glimpse of a pale blue whaleback hill on the distant Isle of Wight. Between hill and trees rose the slender rocket shape of Sway Tower, a Victorian folly 218 feet tall, built entirely of concrete and still standing proud in the landscape.
It’s easy to get the impression that these heaths form a flat tableland, but in fact they are burrowed with surprisingly steep valleys known as ‘bottoms’. We dropped down into Shappen Bottom past the tufted mire of Holmsley Bog, and crossed the long disused track of the Southampton-Dorchester railway, savouring the smell of bog myrtle cones that we pinched and rubbed to release their spicy fragrance.
Up on Holmsley Ridge beyond we strode west into the sun and wind, buoyed up on exercise and exhilaration. Three ponies had caught the same mood; they came cantering across the path, hooves drumming, tails flying, the leading pony neighing wildly and kicking up his heels as he frisked along.
Down in the hollow of Whitten Bottom streams, pools and flooded ruts led to Whitten Pond, the wind-ruffled water steel blue, the grassy margins a brilliant green in the low afternoon sun. A broad track beyond climbed the gently domed nape of Dur Hill Down, before looping off across the heath towards the old railway.
It’s a shame that Slap Bottom signifies nothing more exciting than ‘sloping valley’. There we steered around a group of ponies grazing the bank of a stream, and sauntered back to Burley in the cold bright sunlight.
How hard is it? 5¼ miles; easy; heathland tracks, wet in parts.
Start: Burley Cricket car park, Cott Lane, Burley, Ringwood BH24 4AP (OS ref SU 214029)
Getting there: Bus 125 (Ringwood)
Road – Burley is signed off A35 (Christchurch-Lyndhurst) and A31 (Ringwood-Southampton)
Walk (OS Explorer OL22): Cross road; down track (‘Forestry Commission Burley’). In 50m left on gravel track. In nearly 1 mile cross old railway (219015); in 200m fork right (219013). In ¾ mile keep ahead (right) at fork (209010) to Whitten Bottom. Cross stream by outlet at Whitten Pond (203012); ahead to cross road at barrier (201013). On along track over Dur Hill Down. In ½ mile at post, right (194013) along line of trees, on track curving right across heath to road (201017). Left across old railway; right into Burbush car park. Aim left towards power lines; in 50m, right on path between trees, across stream into open. Ahead up slope; in 500m, left (206018) on clear track. In ½ mile at Goat’s Pen Cottage join gravel drive (212025); at tarred road, right to car park.