21 March 2015
While I was keeping a worried eye on the clouds the ponies, who’d been grazing some way off beside Beaulieu Road, had noticed us. Maybe it was the rustling of sandwich bags or the smell of the cold bacon rolls but they decided we were interesting enough to investigate. Very slowly they sauntered towards us. Once or twice I may have mentioned that I find ponies a little scary. As they wandered nonchalantly in our direction, trying to pretend they were just looking for juicier grass I watched them nervously.
They munched their way closer and closer trying to pretend they weren’t interested in us at all. Of course Pete wasn’t worried, although he did warn, “if you’re too friendly with them they’ll follow you and you’ll never get rid of them,” as he reached out to stroke the smaller, brown pony which was, by this time, right in front of us. Having listened to a tale of being bitten not very long before, I drew the line at stroking but I did bravely stand my ground. If I’d been on my own I’d have been marching off in the opposite direction as quickly as I could.
Meanwhile, the black pony had made a bee line for the log bench and was getting a little too close to the food for comfort. It’s actually illegal to feed the ponies, although I’m sure some people do, and I’m pretty sure bacon rolls are not good for them. This was our signal to pack up and get moving again. When everyone began to pack their food back into their bags the black pony decided to see if I had anything interesting. Suddenly, the windy moor seemed like a far better place to be and I was glad to be on my way. Beautiful as they are, I prefer my ponies at a safer distance, out of biting range.
Thankfully, it didn’t take long to cross White Moor. We were spurred on by the cold wind that nipped at our ears but at least the rain held off and we made it to the underpass surprisingly quickly. In previous years it has been a muddy trudge down the slope and under the road. This year most of us decided to risk crossing above ground, although Pete braved the mud.
For a while we walked single file along Southampton Road with the traffic whizzing past. It wasn’t for long though and we were soon turning off onto one of the trails I’d looked so wistfully at when I was walking back from my visit to Alice In Wonderland’s grave in November. Back then they looked pretty boggy but they’ve dried out a lot since then. We made good progress through the birches, beeches and oaks of Rushpole Wood and almost imperceptibly moved into the tall pines of Busketts Wood.
“Is it my imagination or is everyone moving a lot faster now we’re getting nearer to the the pub?” Pete joked.
“Are we nearly there yet?” Someone joked back.
We did seem to be speeding up and it wasn’t long before we were leaving the last wood of the day and turning onto Woodlands Road by the old red telephone box I recognised from previous walks. Someone said, “I think I can smell the beer,” and someone else mentioned that the pub had recently been closed for refurbishment and hoped it was open when we got there. Eleven miles seemed a long way to walk to a closed pub even if I was only planning on using the loo and having a swift diet coke.
The village of Woodlands started life in the seventeenth century as a few enclosure plots, followed by an encroachment on Fletcherwood Common a hundred years later. In 1905, Richard Leys built Woodlands House, a coach house and some stables. He was a major employer in the area and, in the 1920’s, houses began to grow up around his estate. The Gamekeeper, once the Royal Oak, dates from the early twentieth century.
Large expensive houses line the road opposite the wood but there is no footpath so we walked facing oncoming traffic and did the verge hop dance whenever a car came past. One of the advantages of living in the suburbs is nice tarmac footpaths, although having the forest outside your front door probably makes up for walking in the road.
“Is it me or does this road get longer every year?” Someone asked.
“I’m pretty sure it does,” I said, “at this rate the whole fifteen miles will just be on this road in a few year’s time.”
When we turned the corner and passed the first thatched cottage I knew we were almost there. Sure enough it wasn’t long before we saw the sign for The Gamekeeper in the distance. There was a collective sigh of relief when we saw the pub was open.
Inside we found a roaring log fire and staff who’d been expecting us. Pretty soon we were all clutching drinks and resting legs weary from the previous eleven miles. Soon after I’d finished my drink Pete said he had to go to meet up with the five mile group who had, by now, set off. This was my cue to leave too. After the Gamekeeper the walk tends to turn into a bit of a pub crawl, with the New Forest Hotel, followed quickly by The Happy Cheese, The New Forest Inn and, finally, The New Inn again. As a non drinker this seems like a lot of pubs and, if I did drink I’m pretty sure I’d never make it to the end of the walk.
The first time I left the group to finish the walk on my own, even though I was armed with comprehensive instructions, I was a little worried I would get hopelessly lost. It wouldn’t be the first time after all. This is the fourth year of the Care For A Walk fifteen mile walk though and by now even I know the way so I let Pete March on ahead and took a more leisurely approach myself. At least this time I didn’t need waders to get through the mud on the rutted lane.
There are farms and farm houses along Woodlands Drove and it wasn’t long before I spotted purple primroses growing beside the hedgerow. Beside me there were cows in a field, behind me a dog walker and in front I could still just about see Pete. By the time I’d stopped for more primroses further on Pete was around the corner out of sight and the dog walker had disappeared into one of the farm buildings so I was alone for the first time all day.
After the bend I was on Fletcherwood Lane where things start to become less rural. A few houses sit beside Bartley Water and a hint of blue sky plus my natural curiosity had me peeking over a rather fancy wooden gate into a pretty garden to set my house envy off. All too soon I was at the end of the lane and turning back onto Woodlands Road not far from the place we’d left the woods. This time I was heading away from the pub though, around the sharp bend towards Lyndhurst Road.
There were still a few miles left but, from now on, they would all be along busy roads. At least there were pavements. With one last look over the railway bridge at the distant forest, I set off towards Totton. Those last miles of road walking are always the hardest, especially after leaving the conversation of my companions behind.
To cheer me up and keep me going there were catkins to look at along with primroses and daffodils on the grass verge. When I saw the row of cottages with the white diamond windows I knew I was almost back at the New Inn. This time though there would be no Commando to pick me up, he was at the football with Commando Junior.
Pleased as I was to see the pub I was also sad that another Care For A Walk adventure had come to an end and it would be a whole year before I could do it all again. That is if Pete, Mike and everyone else who give their time and energy to make these walks possible decide to make it five years in a row. As if to cheer me up on my way to the bus stop the trees beside the road were filled with bright blossom.