One of the highlights of spring for me is the annual Care For A Walk fifteen mile hike through the New Forest to raise money for McMillan Cancer Care. The best part about it, for someone like me who’s so good at getting lost, is that it’s organised by Pete and Mike (amongst others) who live in the forest and know all the trails like the backs of their hands. The 2012 walk was warm and sunny, I was hoping for the same in 2013…
23 March 2015
This morning at six fifteen the whole idea of a fifteen mile hike in the New Forest didn’t sound like such a good idea. When I looked outside, it seemed even worse. More rain! All day yesterday it rained so I decided to give the trainers a miss and wear my short leather Skechers instead. They’re more waterproof. The fact I’ve never walked more than four miles in them was a mere detail, it was that or wet feet.
By half past seven Commando and I were standing in the New Inn, Totton with bacon sandwiches in our hands hoping the rain was going to stop before we left. Well I was hoping, Commando was going home to a nice warm house. In all fairness, he does have a 10k run tomorrow and he’s not into merely walking. As it happened it was still raining at eight, but not hard. We set off into it, about twenty of us in assorted wet weather gear and walking boots.
The first mile and a half on tarmac roads wasn’t too bad. Even when we turned off Deepleap Lane and through the first little patch of woods there was a good solid gravel path, although beside the path the ground was boggy looking with many huge puddles. When we came out into a grassy, sandy clearing a while later the ground beside the path, and even the path itself, was dotted with mini lakes But the rain had at least eased to a fine drizzle. At this point my boots were still clean and dry. We avoided the lakes by going round them onto the soggy, mossy grass.
On we continued through the woods and clearings until we came to a bridge. The stream under it had burst its banks and we walked on a gravel island above the water. Out on the open heath again now, the going got tougher. The path was a series of deep sandy ruts with gravelly, grassy or clayey islands, some firmer underfoot than others. It became a case of hopping from one island to the next to avoid the puddles in between.
At about three miles, just before Matley Woods, things got worse. The mud stretched right across the path and, short of trying to climb through thick gorse and heather, the only way forward was through it. The mud was patchy, firmer in some places than others and the first few people manged to make it. Behind we zig zagging our way across carefully. Then the woman in front of me sank in to almost the top of her trainer, it was touch and go whether the shoe came back out with her foot or stayed put in the mud. Luckily it was the former. We all doubled back a little way and decided to try another route through. Each step I took was a gamble, a case of tentatively putting my foot down to see if it would sink or not.
On the other side, my boots thick with mud, the path through the trees was good firm gravel and leaf mold. Every so often we came to a big puddle or a small patch of mud, but nothing we couldn’t get round. The trees were still bare, not a sign of new leaves, the only green was the luxuriant moss creeping up from their feet and the bright lichens hanging from the bare branches. Everything was damp and dripping. Liz commented that this time last year, when we did the same walk, the bright green of new leaves starting to burst had been everywhere. We’d also stripped off all our layers by this time and, by the end, even had the odd spot of sunburn. No chance of that today.
A short while before we reached Beaulieu Road, we came to the campsite. This year the caravans have already started appearing. I’m not sure I fancy a camping trip in this weather. This was the spot I got lost and ended up walking in a big circle back in November, when I was coming from Lyndhurst. With the caravans there it was easier to spot the right path, I also had the advantage of having Pete and Mike who know this Forest like the backs of their hands.
Instead of heading for Lyndhurst we crossed Bealieu Road. After a quick stop by a lake that should have been just a grassy dip, we let the back markers catch up then set off into more woods. A poor, wet pony stood under a leafless tree that provided scant shelter, his wet coat clinging to his skin, and looked at us balefully as we passed. I felt sorry for him. I know the New Forest ponies are a hardy bunch but he looked so cold and fed up.
The trees were clothed in robes of rich green velvet moss, their upper branches sported frilly blue green lichen pretending to be leaves. Everything was damp and smelled of rotting leaves. We had walked four miles. Between the trees in every direction there were ponies grazing on wet grass or maybe moss, it seemed more moss than grass everywhere, encouraged by the damp weather it had spread and flourished, thicker and greener than ever. The lichen too had grown more luxuriant, the frilly curls standing out like blue green leaves, the branching, greener types like thick angora wool. The tree branches were alive with it and, even on the ground, here and there little patches were growing amongst the grass beside the firm gravel path.
A little later we turned off the main path and crossed a small stream with mossy banks. On we went through more woods, these empty of ponies, until, at almost exactly five miles, we reached a gate and a clearing. Here there was another crossroads but Mike pointed off to the right so that was the way we went. On through the woods for another mile and a quarter along Beechen Lane. We were glad of the solid gravel path and made good time. At around six and a half miles we turned right onto Limewood then, after another quarter of a mile we headed towards Beaulieu Road again. We’d basically walked a loop of about three miles through the woods to come back to the main road a mile closer to Lyndhurst than we’d left it.
On the other side of Beaulieu Road, we stopped again to let people catch up. We were on the open heath now and without the trees to protect us it felt cold, especially standing around. I could just make out the spire of St Michael of All Angels in Lyndhurst in the distance. I’m pretty sure we stopped at the same place last year because I remember the burnt gorse. Gorse is highly flammable, but, even when burnt right to the ground, it grows again from the black stumps, plus the heat of the fire opens the seed pods. It also tends to be invasive, crowding out other plants and taking over, so an ideal solution is regular burning to keep it under control.
Not only had we lost the shelter of the trees, we’d also lost the nice gravel path and we set off across the heath in the general direction of Southampton Road in the narrow sand and clay ruts between islands of heather and grass. The ground was a little higher so there was less in the way of puddles and mud but every so often we’d come to a boggy patch or some slippery grass. It was only about half a mile though, until we came to the tunnel under the road. Pete was at the top snapping photos as we passed beneath. A short loop through the woods later and we were walking along the road itself.
Three quarters of a mile of walking on real tarmac and it was off road again. Now we were back in the woods with a nice wide gravel track. A series of cyclists passed us along this snaking path. The first lot in a bunch, all got up in bright Lycra and gaudy helmets. They said good morning as they passed. A few minutes later a couple of stragglers came by, looking a lot less comfortable than the first group. Then, a few minutes later still, another little gaggle of them, these ones red in the face and panting. They looked like the effort of keeping going was about all they could manage and there were no more ‘good mornings.’
At about nine and a quarter miles a man on a bike came along, cycling behind a small girl on a pony. I guess he was her dad and the bike was the best way of keeping up with her and making sure she was safe. They had a small dog trotting along with them. A few minutes later, just as we here coming up to a fork in the path, another dog came bounding towards us. I’m pretty sure it was a black cocker spaniel, its long ears were flapping up and down as it ran in a most comical way. Seeing us, it stopped dead in its tracks and ran back to the fork in the path then dashed off down the other track for a few yards. Then it pulled up short, came back to our path and ran madly through the middle of us all, ears going in all directions. I’m pretty sure it belonged to the the girl on the horse.
We turned right in the direction the cocker spaniel had come from and carried on through the woods. A mile later and a bit of zig zagging, we were out on Woodlands road. This road has no footpaths so it was a case of keeping to the right and watching out for cars. Steve, Liz’s partner, is deaf, so we had to make sure we warned him if we heard a car. One of the problems with not being able to hear in situations like these is the lack of warning when cars are apoproaching.
Three quarters of a mile later, having passed some rather nice, but probably equally pricey, houses, we came to the lovely Thatched cottage just before the Gamekeeper pub. Last year I left the group at this point and carried on alone for the last four miles. We had a football match in the afternoon so I couldn’t afford to stop and risk missing the kick off. Today I joined the group in the pub. I didn’t have a drink, unless you count the collapsible bottle of frappachino I’d bought with me but I did take advantage of the toilets. I can’t believe this was my only toilet stop of the trip. Last year Liz and I had at least three trips into the woods.
The collapsible bottle worked brilliantly. The frappachino was just what I needed after eleven miles of walking and the bottle, once empty rolled up to almost nothing to go back in my backpack. I’ll be taking a few of those with me for the Moonwalk for sure. Out in the little garden at the back of the pub, there was a charming little water feature. Three barrels, each smaller in size, stacked on top of each other topped with an old rusty pump. The bottom barrel was filled with fish. The barrels were old, half rotten and moss covered and little clumps of grasses grew from them. Fish in a barrel! Now I’ve seen everything.
After a short stop at the pub we were off again down the lane that winds towards Lyndhurst Road and Ashurst. This was one of the muddiest bits of the whole walk, apart from that one place just before Matley Woods. The track was so muddy we ended up walking on the narrow ridge of grass and scrub beside it. On the other side of this was a water filled ditch, not a great combination, especially as the grass was slippery in places. There was one point when I came close to going up on my arse but, thankfully, I just about saved myself. There was just over a mile of this before we came to Woodlands Road, a decent gravel path through the trees.
At Ashurst, just over twelve and a half miles into the fifteen, we reached the New Forest Hotel, the second of three pub stops on the walk and my cue to say goodbye to the group and continue on alone. From there it was all straight road with pavements. Slowly the trees gave way to little shops and houses. The road widened. The housing became denser. When I saw the row of identical cottages with white, diamond paned windows I knew I was close to the finish. I’d texted Commando when I left the group and, as I came up to the New Inn at Totton, I could see him standing waiting for me.