18 March 2017
Care For a Walk day has come round again and, with it, the joy of a walk in the New Forest with zero chance of getting lost or ending up somewhere other than where I meant to. The annual spring walk for Macmillan Cancer Support is planned by Pete and Mike, experts on all the trails and paths because they are lucky enough to live in the forest. This means I don’t have to worry about anything other than putting one foot in front of the other and enjoying the scenery. Actually, this time, I did have to worry about not losing CJ, who has discovered he loves a walk too and wanted to come along.
Usually there are five mile, ten mile and fifteen mile options and I choose the longest. This year there weren’t enough people wanting to do the longest walk for some bizarre reason so ten miles it was. It all began in the New Inn in Totton with the usual suspects at the bar having a pre walk drink (mostly non alcoholic as it was still early morning) and bacon rolls. CJ was very excited to see we had a black Labrador swelling our numbers. He loves animals of all kinds and would have a dog of his own in an instant if he could. With the dog and the ponies we would undoubtedly run into along the way I knew I’d have my work cut out keeping him on the trail.
While we were walking Commando would be running a route of his own. He’d plotted out and eighteen mile run in the forest as part of his training for the Vancouver marathon. As we were only walking ten miles it was obvious he was going to finish long before us. Our route was going to be a little different to previous years too so I wasn’t sure if we’d bump into him along the way. It began with a walk along the busy A35 towards Hunters Hill as it always does. We passed the row of cottages with pretty diamond leaded windows and the Colbury Memorial Hall with me telling CJ we’d soon be heading off into the real forest. This turned out to be far sooner than I’d expected. Just past the hall we turned into Pound Lane rather than carrying on to Deerleap Lane as we usually do.
On the corner a lovely flint clad cottage had me lagging behind, my house envy working overtime. It was easy to imagine living somewhere like this on the edge of the forest. The lane was narrow, with no footpaths so we had to scootch onto the verge a couple of times as cars passed. Pretty soon we came to our first horses and CJ was off horse whispering. As this was the point we turned from the road to a trail through the woods he had to be hurried along in case he lost us. Walking in a group is not at all the same as walking alone or with just us two when we can stop whenever we want. We were now lagging behind and had to hurry to catch up.
The narrow trail was firm underfoot and closely bordered by tall trees. Other trails went off in other directions and it would be easy to get lost here if you didn’t know where you were going. Of course, it’s Pete and Mike leading the way there was no danger of that.
The trail took us out into Colbury churchyard on Deerleap Lane. The church, properly called Christ Church, serves Colbury, Ashhurst and Denny Lodge. The land it stands on was donated to the parish by Frederick Ibbotson, a businessman who came from Yorkshire to Hampshire when his wife, Marianne, inherited the Barker Mill Estate, three thousand acres of land including parts of Hounsdown, Eling, Marchwood, Colbury, Ashurst, Longdown, Nursling and Rownhams. He built the church for the benefit of his estate workers. It was designed by architect Benijamin Ferrey in the gothic revival style and the foundation stone laid in 1870.
The pretty little flint clad church, dressed with corsham stone is certainly worth a future visit, especially when it’s open and we can go inside. In fact the graveyard alone is worth visiting. It’s a designated Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery, with The graves of five local men killed during the Second World War and the colourful graves of travellers who lived in the area in 1960. Today we were just passing through so there was no time to read gravestones or look for the damage caused by bombing in 1941.
In no time at all we were passing through the lych gate onto Deerleap lane. The gate was built using money donated by local people as a memorial to villagers killed in World War I. Marianne Vaudrey-Barker-Mill, Frederick Ibbotson’s daughter made a substantial contribution and her son William Claude Vaudrey-Barker Mill was one of those commemorated.
Soon after we left the church we passed Longdown Dairy Farm.
“I remember coming here with school,” CJ said, “or maybe it was playschool. I was very little.”
When we turned into Deerleap Inclosure things began to look more familiar, at least to me. CJ picked up a stick to throw for the Labrador and Steve thought it looked like a water diviner. Of course, water is not all that hard to come by around these parts and having a Labrador means there is never any trouble in finding it.
The long, undulating gravel trail, bordered mostly by tall pines, was easy walking. The labrador disappeared into the wet ditches now and then and enjoyed chasing sticks thrown by CJ. He ran back and forth and circled us, walking at least twice the distance we were.
Pete has often talked about seeing deer here, it is called Deerleap after all, but I had never seen one until then. It was Steve who alerted us, making his hands into antlers above his head. Sure enough, a little way ahead on the path there was a deer. The photo I took may not have been the sharpest but it disappeared into the forest a second later so I was glad to capture it at all. After that we kept our eyes peeled in case there were more. If there were they were well hidden and we didn’t see them.
When we emerged through the gate onto the open heathland I knew we’d be turning right towards Matley. Knowing exactly where I was in the forest felt a little strange. Perhaps, after so many walks with Pete, I’m getting better at finding my way around the forest? Opposite the gate we came upon our second horses of the day and CJ strode off ahead to talk to them. Yet again I had to hurry him along in case he missed the turn and got lost.
By the time he left the horses and caught up the group were well ahead of us. Once again we’d gone from being at the front of the pack to lagging behind. At least I knew where we were heading now though and we caught up fairly quickly. Moments later we came to the railway bridge with the wobbly white wooden fence and the weight limit sign that always makes me smile.
Once we’d crossed the railway bridge we began to see the first of the expected mud. The heathland between the bridge at Deerleap and the woods at Matley is usually the boggiest, most treacherous part of the walk. As we walked I told CJ about previous years where the mud had been so thick someone had lost a boot and staying upright was a matter of luck more than judgement.
Today the grass beside the path was boggy but the path was relatively dry. Beaulieu River flowers across the trail here and the area is also dotted with small ponds and pools where the water runs off the sandy soil. We were in no danger of losing any boots but we did lose a Labrador for a while in each of the small ponds we passed and had to avoid being soaked when he shook himself dry.
There were cows on the heath as there often are. In fact we came across a whole herd grazing quietly a little way from the trail. Luckily they ignored us completely and we passed by without incident.
A cold wind whipped across the open heathland so it was a relief to see the trees of Matley ahead. First we had to cross the area where we’ve encountered the worst of the mud in past years. As we approached it I told CJ how we’d had to step from one patch of gorse to another to get across, with the mud sucking at our boots with each step, never knowing how far a foot would sink until it was planted. Today there was mud but nothing to compare with previous years and we crossed with relative ease.
Now we were in Matley woods, a place I have been lost in many times in the past when I’ve walked alone. Once or twice I’ve even found myself accidentally going round in circles. With Pete and Mike to guide us, today the only danger was of losing CJ as he stoooed to talk to ponies beside the track.
For the most part the trail was dry, with just a few boggy patches here and there that were easy enough to get around. The trees here are mainly broadleaved mixed with holly and we came across a few that had fallen. One had been caught by a neighbor and was frozen in the act of falling, its rootball half out of the ground and its sturdy trunk at an odd angle. Whether it can survive like this only time will tell but I suspect not.
Some trees had wonderfully knobby trunks, others were as smooth as if they’d been sanded. The holly trees were all bare at the base with domes of green prickly leaves above like little shelters. Perhaps this is because the ponies graze on them, they certainly eat the bark, although I should think the prickles would be hard to manage. None of the deciduous trees showed any sign of new leaves. A few weeks from now, when the canopy is green, this will look like a very different place.
We came upon a young family gathering fallen branches and piling them up at the base of one holly tree. The children seemed to be enjoying the game and I couldn’t help wondering if this was where all the teepee like shelters I keep seeing came from. Perhaps it’s a game a lot of children play?
A little further on a very old very dead tree across the path made us squelch through the mud to get around it. It was completely bare of bark and the trunk was split and rotten. Over time I suppose it will decay to nothing and return to the forest it came from.
A little over an hour after we set out we came to Matley Campsite and Beaulieu Road. In previous years we’ve crossed the road here and walked through Denny Wood, near where the recent CC6 was. Today though we were doing something different…
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