If you want a snapshot of the history of the New Forest, it’s easy to get one: just look into the eyes of a deer. Try to approach one of these timid animals and it will run from you in the same way that deer have been running away in these parts for 900 years. The fear on its face is exactly the same as it has always been, from the time when deer were pursued by kings and princes with frightening political power, right up to today, when they try to avoid curious tourists. There is something democratic in a wild animal’s reaction, which is the same whoever you are.
Hampshire’s New Forest is famous for its history and natural history, and even the most casual visitor can get immersed in both without trying. You probably cannot make a completely novel footfall anywhere on the forest’s 571 square kilometres. Everywhere you go you will be borrowing a trail with a human history, possibly bloody and almost always intriguing, while nowhere can you escape the all-pervading wildlife. The ponies wander the area’s villages as if they are idly window-shopping. This is a place of intermingling: local with visitor, wild with domestic, past with present.
William the Conqueror really didn’t know what he was starting when he first designated his Nova Foresta on the south coast of England as a place to hunt as long ago as 1079. But it so happens that several patterns were set right from the beginning. Firstly, the forest would become a place where significant conflicts are played out; secondly, people and wildlife would live together in an almost uncomfortably close intimacy; and thirdly, the New Forest would become a land of preservation, where places would be protected and looked after through the generations. Thus, the erstwhile tract set out as a royal hunting ground would transmogrify, some 900 years later in 2005, into a national park for the benefit of all. William I would not have approved.
It is probably the third aspect that brings most tourists to the New Forest, especially at this time of year when the wildlife is shouting the loudest. There is nowhere better to sample the plump indulgence of early summer than in the quiet corners of heath, bog and woodland that abound within the national park’s spaces.
In the old woodlands around Acres Down, for example, near the village of Emery Down, the birdsong can be so loud that you just have to let go and allow it to wash over you. Some birds hereabouts will be singing from perches that could have been used for the same purpose for as much as 200 years. Imagine that: before the age of cars or telephones, people could have been standing in your spot, listening to the same songs on the same trees. And happily, the New Forest has been so well preserved that some species, including redstarts and wood warblers, are breeding here, while they have almost disappeared elsewhere in southern England. And incidentally, if you start your walk at Acres Down and continue south-west, towards Burley, you can remain under some sort of tree cover for nearly five miles. The forest’s flanking conurbations of Bournemouth in the west and Southampton to the east can seem an irrelevance under this vast canopy.
You only have to step into the woods to be enveloped in a world you might not be used to. More often than not, you’ll find that these are a far cry from the carefully managed woods of much of Britain, and are more open and far less tidy. Trees fall where they die, and branches snap off where they rot; wood skeletons litter the floor. On sunny days you walk beneath heavy canopy – where the atmosphere is like an auditorium just before a performance, with an enclosed feel yet with an excited buzz from birds and insects above you in the branches – and brilliantly lit glades with a more airy feel. Inside the wood you can almost smell the tannin – and, if not, then the slightly aerosol-like scent of bracken – while outside you can catch a pleasing whiff of dead leaves under the sun. Everywhere it feels as though the whole ecosystem is switched on and running at full capacity.
The long periods of preservation in the forest are perfectly embodied in the Knightwood Oak, the largest oak tree in the area, along the Bolderwood Ornamental Drive. It is a giant with a girth of 7.4m (24ft), and is at least 400 years old. That doesn’t make it the oldest in the forest – a yew tree in Brockenhurst Cemetery is thought to be 1,000 years old, pre-dating the formation of the Nova Foresta – and it doesn’t make it the tallest, which is a 55m (180ft) giant sequoia along Rhinefield Ornamental Drive. But the fact that it can grow large and a little skew-whiff and bulging and ugly for so long is a healthy sign of continuity in this ancient land.
British tree power
Mind you, the Knightwood Oak was perhaps a little fortunate to have escaped the axe, because as mentioned above, the New Forest has also, over the years, been involved in significant human conflicts.
Or at least, it has indirectly, in that for hundreds of years (especially 1700-1862) the Navy used vast amounts of local timber to build ships, at a time when Britain was the prominent sea power in the world. For example, three of the 33 British ships that confronted the French and Spanish fleets in the battle of Trafalgar, fought in October 1805, were built of New Forest oaks (2,000 alone were used to construct HMS Agamemnon). There was a major shipbuilding port at Buckler’s Hard, on the Beaulieu Estuary, which produced 50 vessels between 1745 and 1818, and it could be argued that it was New Forest resources that kept Britain powerful and independent for some 200 years of its history.
It’s worth reflecting on this as you walk through the peaceful woodland corridors on a warm summer day. Buckler’s Hard is still a small and very picturesque port and has a museum to celebrate its erstwhile importance.
Forest at war
Later years did not diminish the area’s importance. The forest’s strategic location in the middle of the south coast ensured that it was busy during both the First and Second World Wars. For example, many tourists driving past the plush Balmer Lawn Hotel, near Brockenhurst, would be surprised nowadays to hear that it was the headquarters for Operation Overlord, and that General Eisenhower and Lord Montgomery walked its corridors as they planned the D-Day invasions of 1944.
Indeed, the casual visitor might spare a thought for the troops, too, who massed all around the New Forest in the weeks leading up to the landings. The forest is full of abandoned bombing ranges, airfields and other necessities of war. As you walk over the heaths, there is a high chance that some of the craters and other irregularities were forged in the name of combat. It is easy to forget that the New Forest isn’t just a forest. Just over half is actually open ground, and indeed, for sheer wildness and, perhaps, otherworldliness, the New Forest heaths and bogs take some beating. We people are quite used to woods, but large, open areas, especially those with wet and treacherous outcrops, are curiously unsettling.
If you want to stray out of your comfort zone, take a walk on one of the large, open heaths on a warm summer’s night. Avoid the bogs, go a little further than you dare, and then switch off your torch. You might well hear the bizarre ‘churring’ song of the nightjar, a moth-eating bird that breeds here in the summer; the strange, wooden, hollow trilling is unlike the sound of any other British bird. You might hear the gorgeous bubbling of a curlew, too, here in an outpost in the south of England. Thirteen of Britain’s 16 species of breeding bats also occur, and you might catch sight of one flickering past in the darkness, adding an extra frisson to the experience. Try Beaulieu Heath or the backwater of Ocknell Plain for this adventure.
It’s also easy to forget that the New Forest has a coastline, but it certainly does – 26 miles of it. In common with the rest of the forest, it blends old and new, nowhere more eclectically than at Calshot Spit, at the western tip of Southampton Water. Here, for example, a large hangar built in 1917 for constructing seaplanes has been converted into a splendid activities centre with artificial climbing walls and, amazingly enough, a velodrome (in the New Forest!) And here, too, you can stand on the ramparts of Calshot Castle, built by Henry VIII in 1539, and find yourself shoulder to shoulder with Fawley Refinery, the largest oil refinery in the UK, replete with pipes, towers and 21st-century technology. At the same time you catch enjoy watching the ships coming in and out of Southampton Water.
Henry VIII built both Calshot Castle and Hurst Castle, a few miles to the west, but this belligerent king’s influence on the New Forest would also be seen in another, less well known way. One inhabitant of the forest that almost everybody has heard of is the celebrated New Forest Pony, found here since at least 1016. Over the years the royals have made a number of attempts to improve the breed, not least Henry III, who introduced ponies from Wales in around 1208, perhaps to induce a little extra hardiness. However, Henry VIII clearly took exception to the diminutive size of the breed, and sometime around 1500, he decreed that every horse below 14½ hands in height should be slaughtered, leaving only the biggest animals to continue the line. His butchery, you see, extended well beyond the murder of wives.
Galloping through history
So, as you drive through the forest and enjoy the ponies, be assured that they have wandered over this ground since medieval times, and in some small way their physical appearance has been moulded by a king’s brutality. They are, if you like, four-footed embodiments of the New Forest’s rich history – just like the fleet-footed deer.