14 April 2016
Back in Southampton I needed something to cheer me up after the marathon disaster, even though it wasn’t me who’d been injured and unable to run. Not only that, I needed to get some miles in because I was falling behind on the coastal challenge. When I looked out on beautiful sunshine this morning I thought I’d kill two birds with one stone and take a proper look at Telegraph Woods. Hopefully this time it wouldn’t rain on me.
The walk began with a meander through Hum Hole. It seemed a far more pleasant way to get to the top of the hill that stomping up the main road. There was blossom on the trees, clumps of ransoms on the grassy slopes and everything felt fresh and new. This is what I like about spring. Apart from the spot where water always trickles across the path, it was relatively dry too. Even the trails were more or less mud free. There was colour in the russet of the new sycamore leaves, a few early rhododendron flowers and the drifts of bluebells at the top of the trail. They’ve come on a treat since I last walked this way.
This time I cut through the village to Harefield and came upon a motorbike and sidecar in full camouflage get up. It’s not every day you see one of those for sure. As I spent my very early years in a sidecar (although I honestly don’t remember it) I couldn’t help but smile at the sight. Approaching the edge of Harefield I couldn’t help but glance towards the unexplored trail I saw last time. Maybe one day I’ll walk it, although I have a feeling it won’t be as interesting as I think.
Pretty soon I was standing at the gate to the woods. In front of me on the ground I found a key ring with a photo of a smiling mother and child. It was a little damp and there were no keys but I picked it up and put it on the gate, hoping it would be found. Then I set off. There are twenty acres of ancient woodland here so it was obvious I’d only be scratching the surface on this walk.
Research told me there was a lot of history amongst the trees too. Mistakenly I thought the woods got their name form the tall pines being used to make telegraph poles. In actual fact there was a shutter telegraph station here during the Napoleonic Wars, part of a line from London to Plymouth.For anyone who is wondering what exactly a shutter telegraph station is I have kindly looked it up because I didn’t know either. Apparently, it’s a system invented in 1792 by Frenchman Claude Chappe to conveying information by way of towers with pivoting shutters. The position of the shutter acted in much the same way as a semaphore flag and could be read from some distance. Usually they were in lines of relay stations and were the forerunners of the electrical telegraph.
Wondering exactly what all these towers looked like (I hadn’t found a photograph at that point) and exactly where they had been, I strolled along the path I’d looked longingly at last time. Visibility was considerably better this time. When I’d been researching I’d discovered the woods were in military use long before the telegraph station. In around 600 to 100 BC there was an Iron Age fort here. Looking to my right I could see a green grassy hillock. Was this the site of the fort?
Past experience has taught me that Iron Age forts are almost always less exciting than they sound, mostly because there is very little left to see. Even so, I thought I might take a look on my way back if I had the time and I could find a way through the green metal fence. Ahead there was a trail going off to the left and I could see an information board. Perhaps it would tell me more? When I got there the trail led towards the road, the houses were just visible through the trees. The information board blew my theory about the hill. The fort was marked much further along the trail I was on and the hill looked like some kind of playing field. Sensibly, I took a photo to use as reference and carried on.
The sky above was blue but the trail was shady and cool so I marched along. Every so often I passed piles of logs and little, muddy side trails. All the while I was looking out for signs of the hill fort. When I spotted a bank to my right I climbed it, thinking I’d found the spot but it dropped sharply away almost at once so I assumed it was just a bank, nothing more, and carried on.
Not long after this I discovered where all the logs were coming from. A huge swathe of the wood to the left of the trail was a sea of stumps. There were more hillocks that turned out to be just banks too and several large boggy puddles. Walking off the trail looked like it would be a bad idea, even in my stout boots. Some of those puddles were more or less lakes!
Before I set out I’d been hoping to see a wood full of bluebells. In fact I’d been told Telegraph Wood was usually full of them. Through the trees I could see the distant hills but there wasn’t a bluebell in sight until I came to a kissing gate and found a very small clump. Perhaps they all bloomed early, like so much else, and I missed them?
A quick look at Google Maps told me the gate was almost certainly the end of the woods but curiosity led me through it. On the other side there was a grassy hill. It was to my right and nowhere near where the map on the sign said the fort was but I climbed it anyway and there was the Rose Bowl cricket ground like a mass of white tents. Now I knew I’d gone too far.
There was another, far more rustic, wooden gate ahead and a trail beyond it. For a moment I considered going through just to see where it led but, in the end, I decided against it and turned back. Somehow I must have missed the fort on my travels, perhaps I’d see it on the way back, although I doubted it somehow. The map on the sign didn’t seem to be to any kind of scale and the fort was almost certainly one of the hillocks I’d already seen.
So I retraced my steps. There were celandines and violets I hadn’t spotted on my outward walk but nothing else I hadn’t already seen. In the end I climbed a small hillock I thought was in about the right place. It may have been the hill fort, then again, it may not. Really you think they’d have a sign.
The woods seemed to have thrown up more questions than answers with so many trails leading this way and that and not enough time to explore them. Just before I reached the gate and left the woods behind I spotted some steps leading off to the left. Yet another trail to lure me back. Obviously some further research is needed before I return.