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New Forest

The perfect playground

All we need to do to escape the press of humanity is alter our trajectory, and dive back into the cool and empty forest. Within moments, we are utterly alone again and surrounded with silence.

Beech, birch, hawthorn, elder, alder, oak, chestnut; there were holly trees too, but for obvious reasons, I didn’t collect any of their leaves to press between the pages of my diary. I also have a sprig plucked from a thousand year old yew tree, and a spray of lichen picked from the underside of a twig. As I turn it over in my fingers and smell it, I get a faint green whiff of photosynthesis. I look out of the train window, and snapshots of the two days we have spent in the New Forest flick through my mind like slide shots; unreal, bright, and also melancholy in the way that the memory of near-perfection can be. On our last little walk before catching the train, we had wandered through a camp-site, past campers and a gang of ponies into a tangle of oaks, cool as water. Their branches formed tunnels like ripples, the same shapes that shoals of tiny fish make as they wheel and dart just below the surface of a river. I became suddenly and powerfully aware of the time it took for the light to reach my retina, that this was the past already, and I couldn’t help but be fleetingly saddened by it.

There are few countries in the world where the New Forest could maintain its ‘new’ without a strong sense of irony. The land was set aside by the upstart Norman invader, William the Conqueror, as his Nova Foresta, or new hunting ground, in 1079. But given that the ‘old’ British aristocracy likes to trace its roots to before the Norman conquest of 1066, and that many former royal parks date to the earlier Saxon era, the ‘new’ of the New Forest still serves its purpose. William established a system of stewarding the forest employing verderers, agisters, and commoners – judges, stockmen, and land-users – that remains in place to this day. The landscape of woodland, heath, pasture, and bog has survived virtually intact into the 21st century, a fact that is all the more remarkable given that the forest sits in one of the most crowded and urbanised corners of Europe. Though it started life as a hunting ground, this is no place to prove one’s manhood by killing some mighty stag on a windswept crag under thundery skies. The New Forest is nestled deep in the sheltered south of England. It is bright, pretty and welcoming. It is easier to imagine royal hunting parties coming here mob-handed, complete with musicians, pavilions with soft furnishings, and barrels of rich, red wine, and spending a gently bawdy time in the sunshine. For the early Norman kings of England, however, this forest was not destined to be such a happy place. It claimed the lives of two of William’s sons; Prince Richard of Normandy was killed in hunting accident in the early 1070s, and thirty years later, the deeply unpopular William II took an arrow to the heart. History does not reveal whether this arrow found its target by accident or design, as the hunting party scattered, abandoning the king where he fell.

While both history and countryside are a great draw, the New Forest is famous, first and foremost, for the ponies. On our arrival, I find myself worrying that, animals being what they are, they will prove elusive and I will have to confess in print to failing to see a single one. In retrospect, it’s a laughable anxiety; we don’t even have to go among the trees, as see our first ponies ambling down the middle of the street as we search for our hotel. They also wander through the car-parks, they gather in the forecourts of the shops, and they chew lazily at the lawns in people’s front gardens. We go on to see at least a couple of hundred of the creatures over the following two days. At last count, there were over four thousand ponies in the New Forest. While they are wild in the sense that they are free to roam within the park’s boundaries (the so-called perambulation zone, bordered by cattle grids and fencing to keep them away from the busier roads), each one is ‘owned’ by a New Forest commoner. We get gingerly closer to a huddle of them, and see that each is branded with its owner’s mark – most commonly a combination of letters and numbers – in the fur of a shoulder or flank. If you are quiet and careful, it’s possible to get very close indeed to the ponies, and the temptation to do so is understandable. We remind ourselves that these are not tame, however. Signs and tourist literature alike warn against over familiarity, leading to being kicked or bitten, and you are required by law not to feed them. It would take a very special kind of fool, so I understand, to get between a mare and her foal. We cross a piece of open land, passing a group of the animals cautiously. A grey mare that is friskier than her herd-mates eyes us suspiciously, and gives a little trotting sidestep in our direction, ears and tail flicking. She is smaller than the horses you might see at a riding school, but is still dauntingly large. The ponies are clearly the ones in charge inside the perambulation zone; drivers stop and wait for as long as it takes for them to cross the roads at their typical snail’s pace, or are forced to reverse and find alternative routes where they block access altogether. They are happy and healthy animals, and I am struck by how relaxed they are. These are not the highly-strung, tense, and bickering creatures I got to know during a brief stint shovelling manure in return for riding lessons. Instead of vying for status and provoking one another needlessly, they spend their days sauntering lazily about in groups of up to twenty or more, and are obviously affectionate and caring with one another. In the heat of the midday sun, they stand dozing in pools of shade in pairs, nose to tail. With each rhythmic swish of its tail, one pony flicks the flies from the eyes of its partner, who then returns the favour. Just as the flies have time to settle, they are whisked away by another lazy swish. Similarly, foals lie in swishing range of their mothers’ tails as they sleep. It is an arrangement that is both touching and economical.

While undeniably splendid with natural beauty, the New Forest is no wilderness. Mankind has always had a strong presence here and human settlement remains dense. Over 31,000 people live inside its boundary, making it both the most heavily populated and the smallest of the UK’s 15 national parks. Happily, it is beautifully and unobtrusively managed. More than once during our visit, I wonder if the Forestry Commission could be persuaded to manage the rest of the country too. The immaculately kept paths are broad, and often poker straight, stretching off to the horizon and resulting in vistas with a curiously Australian look to them. A numbering system along the paths means that it’s (almost) impossible to get lost; posts number from 1, near the village of Woodgreen, to 387 near Ashurst, stand at every turn and junction, enabling us to pinpoint exactly where we are on the map. There are discreetly placed and well designed public service areas dotted across the park, signposted with tasteful wooden placards. Skilfully carved wooden signs are scattered around the forest along specially curated walks, such as a Tall Tree Walk with redwoods and sequoias, and a bijoux arboretum with species from all over the world.

William staked his claim on the New Forest by torching and clearing 20 hamlets, and making much of the area out of bounds to anyone not on royal business. Given this initial exclusivity, there is a delicious irony to the park’s current accessibility, open to any who wish to walk its paths. Our gateway to it is Brockenhurst, a village in the heart of the forest. We arrive on one of over a hundred daily trains, many with direct connections to London’s Clapham Junction. Our hotel is just a short walk away, and from there, hundreds of miles of walking paths are ours to discover, looping their way through the trees. The forest is largely flat, and so welcoming to even the most sedate of visitors. Families, groups of teenagers, couples in the first flush of romance, as well as those celebrating decades together, and solo walkers all find space and peace to enjoy the sunshine. Travelling in the UK without your own transport is often expensive, frustrating, and limiting, but the New Forest is one of the country’s few rural destinations where not having a car isn’t a handicap. In fact, given the intransigence of the local equine population, a motor vehicle is something of a liability.

Brockenhurst is the most charming of the various New Forest settlements, with a tiny, low-key high street accessed at one end through a ford. It is all but devoid of the chain stores that strip the individuality from most British towns, and hosts the delightfully ramshackle St Nicholas’s church, dating back to Norman times and with a tranquil graveyard that is home to my thousand-year-old yew. Quiet charm aside, the village also sits right on top of the largest uninterrupted expanse of woodland in the park. In contrast, when we sprint through Lyndhurst the next morning – quite literally; the forest is ideal for runners, as well as walkers and cyclists – the so-called ‘capital’ of the New Forest leaves nature firmly behind in the rear view mirror; its busy main drag is bumper to bumper with cars. This is the obvious flipside to all this accessibility. Especially on a sunny summer Saturday, some spots draw a considerable crowd. We hear the most popular stopping off points, before we see them. There is something about the combination of children and water that inevitably results in much delighted squealing, and at a shallow, wide river near a carpark and camping ground, the water teems with happy paddlers. Bug-eyed spaniels and overweight Labradors wheeze in amongst them. We aren’t exactly enthusiastic about the prospect of joining the scrum at the ice-cream van with the under-tens, but happily, this is not the seafront and we are not hemmed in between waves and sea wall. All we need to do to escape the press of humanity is alter our trajectory, and dive back into the cool and empty forest. Within moments, we are utterly alone again and surrounded with silence.

In the meadows, we occasionally see cattle among the ponies. From a distance, they are surprisingly hard to tell apart. The other large denizens of the park are more elusive. There are four species of deer roaming the forests; fallow, roe, sika (an introduced Asian species), and red deer, with populations in that order of size. We don’t get close enough, or see them for long enough however, to work out which kind we are seeing. While even the largest 4-by-4 cannot persuade a pony to budge even an inch, the deer are skittish in the extreme, and many visitors aren’t lucky enough to see them outside the deer sanctuaries. We spot a distance group of them across a clearing, squinting at first to make sure they are not more ponies. Our second, and only other sighting of deer comes just a few minutes later, and is fleeting but magical. Ahead of us along the path, past a group of dozing ponies, a doe and her faun are briefly and dazzlingly silhouetted in a well of sunlight, ears erect and straining in our direction. Despite freezing and catching our breaths, she smells us on the breeze and they bound off, silently and without trace, into the dappled gloom beneath the oaks.

From oak woods, we pass through beeches, and then into a new vista of Douglas firs, their grizzled trunks plunging down into a lush carpet of ferns. Scrubby and dusty under a dazzling blue sky, this is how I imagine California to be. A little later, unhindered with authentic memory, my imagination conjures a parallel with South African veldt in a new landscape of red soil and patchy grass, twisted acacias along its edge. The ponies pick their way through the shade like elephants. The complexity and variety of ecosystems is dazzling, and with each turn, a new realm opens up like a page of a pop-up book. Air temperature, light levels, ambient sounds, and aromas all alter from one step to the next whenever we cross the invisible boundaries from one province of the forest to another. Out in the open, the air is sizzling hot. The very un-English weather and contented or boisterous campers remind me constantly of childhood trips to Europe – that other Europe that we in the UK always insist on talking about as though it were elsewhere.

Counting our way from numbered post to numbered post, we slowly make our back to our starting point in a great meandering loop. In need of refreshment after hours hiking through the forest, we fortuitously stumble upon our own private stretch of broad and shallow river, hidden in a dense oak grove just a ten minute stroll from our hotel – and without a squealing child in sight. We paddle into the deliciously cold water, which runs through our toes and over the smooth pebbles. The river is the colour of tea from the tannins in the oaks that huddle over it, and dragonflies hover above the surface, their bodies and wings the bright and eye-aching turquoise of Cleopatra’s eye shadow. We sit for a while, letting our feet dry and delaying the moment when we will have to return to the world we came from, the world of cars, laptops, tarmac, and traffic noise. I dabble a toe and realise I could do with a few more days of this, and more time to explore beyond the small corner of the New Forest we have seen. It does not feel like a single destination, but rather a small country, with its own laws, culture, and exquisitely slow pace of life. The perambulation zone forms its border complete with check points. It’s a frontier I fervently hope to cross again. I watch the dragonflies flit, and for a hallucinatory moment, I see a more hopeful future for our planet that will look just like this place. A world that is managed but not quite tamed, a beautiful garden for us to play in, but with a secret life all of its own. The New Forest is a special place; accessible yet set apart, safe yet wild. It is quite the perfect playground.

The National Parks of the UK

There are 15 national parks in the United Kingdom; two in Scotland, three in Wales, and ten across England. There are, as yet, no national parks in Northern Ireland. The first four were designated in 1951 – Peak District, Lake District, and Dartmoor in England, and Snowdonia in Wales. By the end of the 1950s, four more had been added; Yorkshire Dales, Exmoor, Northumberland in England, and the Brecon Beacons across the Welsh border. The Norfolk Broads were given a status equivalent to a national park in 1989, but other than that, all was quiet until 2002, when the Scottish Parliament declared the country’s first national park, Loch Lomond & The Trossachs. The following year, the second Scottish park, The Cairngorms, became the largest national park in the UK – and so remains to this day. The New Forest, the smallest of the 15 parks, was declared in 2005. Five years later, the UK’s newest national park, South Downs, was established just 12 miles away. Alongside the 15 national parks, a further 47 areas of outstanding natural beauty are recognised, with nine in Northern Ireland, including the Causeway Coast.

The ‘English’ Oak

The long-lived and majestic oak is often regarded as the most English of trees, the king of these islands’ forests. There are two species of oak found in the British Isles, Quercus petraea and Quercus robur. The differences between them are slight; both bear acorns and both have the signature crenelated leaf shape. Neither of these trees, however, are exclusive to England, or even the United Kindom. Petraea is found in a broad sweep taking in the British Isles, the southern fringes of Scandinavia, all of the central European plain, northern Spain and Italy, down into the Balkans, and as far east as Anatolia, the Russian Caucasian republics, and the forests of the Transcaucasus. Robur covers all this ground and more, spreading further east into Russia and the Ukraine, and even into the northern reaches of Kazakhstan. The oak in England, however, has long had symbolic significance, and is found in heraldry and poetry throughout the ages. Over five hundred years old and still growing, the Knightwood Oak is one of the New Forest’s more stately denizens. It was first included on an Ordnance Survey map in 1870, and has been attracting tourists since the Victorian era. www.euforgen.org

Pannage

From September to November every year, the New Forest ponies and cattle are joined by hundreds of pigs during a season known as pannage, or common of mast. It is the job of the swine to eat as many acorns as they can, along with beechnuts and chestnuts. It is a job they go about with admirable enthusiasm. While pigs can eat them safely, acorns contain high levels of tannins which are deadly to ponies and cattle. This practice was once widespread across the UK, though the New Forest is now one of the last remaining places where it is still carried out. The pigs, like the ponies, belong to the commoners and are marked with tags showing their owners’ brands. They sport rings through their noses to ensure they do not root too deeply, in order to minimise the damage they do to the forest floor.

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Further reading