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     The New Forest became Britain’s twelfth National Park on the 1st March 2005 but this ancient infertile heathland of 219 square miles can be a very strange place to go walking. Despite its poor quality acidic soils there is evidence of a great deal of prehistory where this hallowed land is marked by over 250 burial mounds. The haunting spirit of something ancient still lingers. I have heard tell there are evil forces in the Forest, strange goings on and uncomfortable, sometimes downright unpleasant atmospheres. These seem to be especially true within the inclosures, huge acres of thick woodland, that seem to engulf you the moment you enter. For my part, every time I have visited the feeling is not so much one of discomfort but disorientation, it is a strange phenomenon that seems to be unique to the Forest.


     The Forest has seen many occupations through the centuries. It was once colonised by Jutes, earliest of the Anglo Saxons from northern Europe. They called the Forest Ytene (pr ‘ettin’) but it was the most famous conqueror of all who created this heathland as his own playground. Today the word ‘forest’ usually refers to areas of trees or wooded vegetation but it actually means land as designated royal hunting ground, such as the New Forest. After 1066 William the Conqueror introduced a brutal form of feudal control with swathes of land set aside by the crown for privileged hunting. William established the New Forest in 1079 with commoners no longer allowed to hunt for their livelihood, those who did met with savage reprisals from the Verderers acting as enforcers. This practice continued until the Middle Ages when much of Britain was still kept as royal forests. At their peak during the reign of Henry II up to a third of England was reserved for the king’s own use.


     The most enduring of the Forest's mysteries is the death of William Rufus. At Canterton Glen, just off the A31, is an 18th century stone that marks where William the Conqueror’s successor, William II, was slain by an arrow. What happened has been debated ever since that fateful day on 2nd August 1100, hunting accident or assassination? The arrow was fired by Sir Walter Tyrell (or Tirel), an impetuous shot at a passing stag that glanced off a tree and into the king. Understandably, Walter didn’t hang around to explain himself and fled to France instead. Local stories tell of him washing his bloody hands in nearby Ocknell Pond. The king’s body was left where he fell until a local charcoal burner named Purkis carried it to Winchester on his cart. William’s younger brother Henry was amongst the hunting party that day and proclaimed himself king with inordinate haste, his older brother Robert was rightful heir but he was away on a crusade. There is doubt over whether this was the actual spot where was killed, others favour a spot near Brockenhurst to the south. The stone was established after Charles II visited the site and was shown the tree off which the arrow glanced, it marks where that tree once stood. Whatever you believe, it all adds to the mystique of the Forest and only goes to emphasise the blurred lines between history and myth.


     Anyone wishing to walk the New Forest in the 21st century would be best not approaching it like any other walk, paths on a map are not what they seem in this neck of the woods as I discovered one hot day in June. From Picket Post I enjoyed a magnificent wander down the Smuggler’s Road to Vales Moor with views stretching to the south, a splendid vista of green marshes and heathland dotted with the enigmatic outline of ponies. My intention was to walk south from Vales Moor to a disused railway, the intriguingly named Castleman Corkscrew. Intriguing maybe but I never got there. An obvious path led enthusiastically in the right direction to a tree clad mound which I circled and then followed enthusiastically back to the car park at Vales Moor. 'What was the point of that?' is something I often find myself asking during a day’s walk in the New Forest.


     Within the Forest can be found any number of paths that lead off in all directions, hardly any are marked and invariably you find yourself where you ought not to be, or had never intended. The best plan is to have no plan, don’t expect to get anywhere and you'll seldom be disappointed. I arrived with a map and no expectations, it worked for a while but the Forest's capacity to frustrate is always there. I made for Burley instead, a beguiling place beloved by tourists. Its popularity has been helped in no small part by its association with witches, specifically Sybil Leek, Britain’s most famous witch during the 1950’s. I followed a lane north to the unerringly quiet Oakley Inclosure. Three young girls trying to find Bolderwood House asked to look at my map. They weren't far away but trying to explain the best route was not easy, I pointed them off but who knows if they found their way or were ever seen again! At the end of the track was a memorial site chosen by the men of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division for services prior to their departure for the Normandy Landings.


     On Bratley Plain I found myself in the company of some New Forest ponies. These beautiful, even tempered creatures are the more recognisable of our native breeds and indigenous to the Forest, their ancestors date back 5,000 years. The ones we see today are owned by Forest commoners and looked after by an age old system of agistment which administers the welfare of all animals in the Forest. The Agister trims the pony’s tails to show which part of the Forest its owner is from. Every autumn the ponies are gathered together in a 'drift' to be checked for their wellbeing and sometimes moved if they are not considered healthy enough for the winter.

     I needed to be south of the hectic A31 again but as I walked down a concrete underpass to reach the other side, I couldn't help feeling I was being watched. My wander along Ridley Plain could have been more enjoyable had I applied an earplug in my right ear to remove the noise of the traffic but I contended myself with the wondrous views that fell away gently to the distant heaths, woodland and countless ponies. My final approach was away from the road on a narrow path that cut through clumps of heather. Despite the trials and tribulations, a walk in the New Forest has a habit of staying with you and after time the frustrations fade to leave you with only enduring recollections of a unique landscape. It is an inescapable truism that the New Forest is a wonderful place to visit, not so great to walk, and yet every time I do walk there I always find myself afterwards looking forward to the next one. That is what the New Forest does, it bewitches you into coming back time and time again.


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