I set out from home on a perfect morning in May. A light breeze scattered the scent of spring over the warm fields; white clouds soft as lambs-wool drifted in the blue haze of the sky. The bright sun, gaining power once more after the long decline of winter, painted the flowers by the hedge in vibrant colours. Deep in the dark woods the new growth was strong and vigorous. Lusty wood pigeons swayed dangerously in the upper branches. As I emerged from the cool interior of the cottage into the garden, the light was dazzling.
My rucksack was propped up in the porch, looking neat and purposeful amid the jumble of garden tools and old paint brushes. As I laced up my boots, I mentally checked off everything I had packed. All there. Then I heaved the load onto my back and adjusted the straps. I was away.
It's a great feeling, starting out on a fine morning with time on your side and an inclination to roam, and the open road running onward. The world seems a magical place. No cares, no anxious thoughts of wind or rain, hunger and tiredness. Just a sense of excitement and a longing to hasten on and see what lies ahead. My way that morning lay along a narrow lane that ran down through the shade of fissured oak trees into a little valley. There, where the Lymington River wound slowly in the sunshine, sleek cows moved ponderously among the spring flowers, licking up the sweet grasses. Insects hummed over the dappled surface of the water. From out of the hedgerows a riot of birds proclaimed the birth of summer. Hidden away in the dim seclusion of the woods, bluebells reclined on deep couches of dark green leaves. As I came out of the trees a fresh breeze caught my face. It brushed through the fields, combing out the long grass. I passed Brockenhurst church, silent, yew-wrapped. High above, over forest and heath, small white clouds floated serenely in a pure sky.
The New Forest has a smell and feel that you find nowhere else. It is not the prettiest woodland in England, in a picture postcard sense, but it is unique after its own fashion. It has a discrete charm that grows imperceptibly with the years. Things change slowly in the Forest. These woods are the mute remains of the lives of generations long gone, fragments of an older world deep-rooted. The landscape is an understatement. There is a quiet, intimate feel to the inclosures and forest lawns, the brown streams and the thatched cottages. And it is a southern landscape, mild as a summer morning, bright as the light from the sea. When the wind blows here you can smell salt in the air.
I suppose that Brockenhurst would be a good example of a typical forest village. It is a bit straggly on the whole, homely rather than beautiful; but it feels lived in. There is little danger of the National Trust acquiring it and turning it into a museum or a teashop. Although it is a tourist centre it seems able to remember where it is coming from. The shops sell souvenirs almost as an afterthought, and there are pubs friendly to walkers.
From the Forester, where I stopped for brief refreshment, I pushed on into the woods. Most of the walking was on gravel tracks, and I swung along at an easy pace. The inclosures, so still and bare and forlorn just a few months before, had been transformed by the sudden spring. Along the edge of the path the thrusting bracken was thick and tall. Foxgloves flowered in the sunlit glades, and the woods echoed with birdsong. The air was warm, but it was the invigorating warmth of May, not the sultry heat of high summer. There is something about the summer sun that saps the energy. August days are better spent in idleness. If you must move at that time of year, wait for the cool of evening and walk on deep into the night.
After some miles I climbed the low gravel slope that leads out onto the old aerodrome at Stoney Cross, the highest point in the Forest. I was walking across the level grass when I noticed a pony in distress. It staggered and fell, then struggled to its feet once more. It was only as I drew closer that I realized it was in labour. I could make out the head and forelegs of the foal. As the little creature slowly emerged another pony came and placed herself protectively in front of the stricken mare. Unwilling to cause her distress, I took a couple of photos then moved quietly away. As I looked back I saw that the newborn foal had struggled along her flank, and was nuzzling her affectionately. She licked the little face that was pressed to her own, and the absurd knock-kneed creature stretched out on the warm turf secure by her side.
In the autumn the cottagers in the deep oak woods around Fritham have the right to let their pigs wander among the trees, foraging for acorns. This ancient custom, known as pannage, is attached to forest properties rather than to people or families. It comes with the dwelling place. You normally see a few fat sows on the lawn at Fritham at the right time of the year, and more out in the woods. The pub there, the Royal Oak, is always worth a visit whatever the season. I have been there in winter, coming out of the forest on a cold dark afternoon when the clouds were massing over the trees and it smelt like snow. There was always a fire in the small front bar, and you could dump your rucksack in the corner, and sit on a bench with a pint and thaw out. The conversation at the bar was mostly about the village, and the Forest and local affairs. A welcome refuge for walkers. I hope that it survives.
From Fritham to Woodgreen is pleasant going all the way. Out on Hampton Ridge I could sense the fall of the ground ahead, marking the western edge of the forest and the valley of the Hampshire Avon. Away through the blue haze lay the first slopes of the downs. The northern part of the New Forest is higher and more open than the south, and seems to look to Salisbury instead of the sea. As I emerged from the campsite at Sandyballs I was walking for the first time through beech hangers, a sure sign of the approaching chalk. The Forest briefly reasserted itself near Woodgreen, before it was left behind for good. I stopped for a moment on Castle Hill, and looked out across the valley of the Avon. A light breeze toyed with the new leaves in the tree-tops. At my feet the clear stream bent in a wide curve, and swans grazed the green fields. In the distance wooded slopes rose up like morning mist and faded away into the distance.
I crossed the river by a converted water-mill, and past the stately facade of Breamore House I entered another world. Oak and pine plantations were gone, and the woods were of hazel and beech. The trees clustered together in narrow belts and hilltop clumps; sweeping slopes reflected the wide skies. Once this would have been turf, thick with flowers and roamed by immense flocks of sheep; but now it is fenced off and ploughed. Only on Salisbury Plain where unexploded shells keep the barbarians at bay do you get any idea of what these downs would once have looked like.
In hot weather the downland tracks are hard on the feet. The winter mud dries like cement. There is no shade, and as you cross the exposed hills you feel that you are not moving, pinned to the earth by the fierce sun. The breeze that blows over the chalk dries the mouth, and there is no water. As I walked that afternoon I was buffeted by a wind that sprang up from nowhere. The clouds began to gather overhead, black and foreboding, and I pushed on to Salisbury as quickly as possible. The spire of the cathedral, rising tranquil over the twilight city, was a welcome sight.
I needed to find shelter, and fast, since the rain was already starting to fall as I went from the streets out into the gathering night. Old Sarum seemed a good bet, at least on the map. Not on the ground though. The fields around the base of the hill fort were too exposed for discreet camping, and when I struggled out of the ditch and peered over the ramparts I discovered that the flat inner area had been appropriated by a troop of scouts. Eventually I came upon a spot that was flat and nettle-free, in woodland on the north western side of the ring. And there, worn out after thirty miles of sun and wind and rain, I slept.