Monday, 8 January 2018

Deep in the New Forest

I lived in Southampton with my parents from 1963 to 1978, and had a car of my own from 1975. In those first three years of personal car ownership I explored the nearby New Forest almost to death. But of course I also had many opportunities to walk around it in the preceding years, at first with my parents, but from the late 1960s on my own, for the train could take you there.

So it was that in the spring of 1970 I ventured into the Forest by train to put together some supporting work for the main component of my A-Level Art examination - the chosen subject being 'Tree Forms'. I went to Beaulieu Road station in the heart of the Forest, and just wandered around in the vicinity. I was at that time inspired in particular by research into the work of artist Paul Nash (1889-1946), so I wanted to sketch a range of trees in various stages of destruction. Especially trees struck by lightning - blasted oaks in particular. Nash had done studies of those for his own World War I landscape paintings, which featured weird scenes of trees shredded by shellfire, such as this.

But he had also painted gentler scenes with trees in them.

I found what I wanted, and I produced a set of sketches and finished drawings. This is the only part of the pre-exam work that I still have a photo of. I apologise for the poor quality: it was taken with a Kodak Instamatic 50 camera in Mum and Dad's back garden in Southampton.

After leaving school, I remained keen to find interesting tree forms, but to photograph, not paint. And my wanderings around the New Forest would generally produce some good shots, such as this 'moaning tree' seen in 1977.

Once I moved to London in 1978 my visits to the Forest were drastically curtailed. And so were the opportunities to seek out shots of trees there. But I managed to do it on the odd occasion in later years, if I were caravanning not too far away. Such as these pictures of the Knightwood Oak and other trees nearby, taken in 2012.

You can see that the Paul Nash influence was definitely still alive and well!

Last October I was actually pitched in the New Forest, just outside Brockenhurst, and one afternoon decided to take a walk through Frame Wood, to the north-west of Hatchet Pond, parking Fiona at Furzey Lodge. Here is a location map.

Many of the inclosures (meaning sections of forest fenced around to inhibit the movements of deer and ponies) are in fact plantations of commercial-grade conifers, and worked as such by the Forestry Commission. But Frame Wood is much older, untended, full of old tracks and fallen trees. You might hear the trains in the far distance, but otherwise it's a very quiet place. Not somewhere I'd care to go in the dusk, but OK in broad daylight. 

So, well-shod in the Alt-Bergs, and with a stick, I set forth from Furzey Lodge (a collection of forest cottages), heading north-west, with the footbridge over the railway (top left in the map) as my furthest walking objective. I planned to pause at the footbridge, head south, and then return eastwards via Hawkhill Inclosure. But it didn't quite go to plan. 

I started out on a very decent track. I felt the Forest was a great place to be. The peace of it made me feel very content with life.

But the track soon degenerated unto a rutted quagmire, churned up by the heavy tractors used by the Forestry Commission. I had to get off it. I found myself striking north, rather than north-west. I wasn't too concerned about taking a detour, so long as I eventually found the track that ran more-or-less parallel with the railway line. Indeed, it didn't matter too much where I ended up. I just wanted a good walk. If I felt lost, I could get a GPS fix and navigate back to my starting point with that. 

Frame Wood was amazingly peaceful. It was a really old part of the forest, to be sure. Although there was some undergrowth, I was mostly walking on a carpet of leaves underneath a canopy of trees, with just the occasional clearing. But I was constantly having to step over fallen boughs, or alter course to avoid a massive fallen tree, and this undermined my sense of direction. I got some decent tree photos, though.

As you can see, I was more interested in the shape of the broken boughs, and how a monochrome picture might be made from such material, than what the wood really looked like in its natural coloration. Many of the fallen branches or tree-trunks had a serpentine look, as if they were rough carvings of lizards, crocodiles, or the heads of dragons. They looked like different animals as you walked around them...

In dim light, all this might be spooky, and put you in mind of alien creatures, but the light was good, and I wasn't nervous in the slightest. That said, I startled some deer, which made me jump. And I became aware that some ponies were moving closer. 

I'm wary of New Forest ponies. Normally - in the well-visited parts of the Forest, anyway - they seem cool and unconcerned about humans, although I well remember when a mean-looking brute began to walk menacingly towards me in a car park in the northern part of the Forest some years ago. I had to retreat rapidly to my car (this was pre-Fiona, so it must have been about ten years ago) and only just got back inside in time. I imagine the pony in question had in mind butting me hard, to show its displeasure. But ponies have a nasty bite too, if so minded, and they can kick. Since then, I've given them all a wide berth. Now a small herd was moving in my direction. Time to clear out. They surely wouldn't come after me, if I walked on confidently. 

I hit a proper track again, and followed it. I'd suddenly had quite enough of mysterious deep forest, no matter what its photographic potential. I wanted to find a way out of the wood, and then head back to where I'd left Fiona. But all the time I heard stealthy sounds behind me. Damn. They weren't going to leave me be. I had a stick, but that wouldn't really be of the slightest use if they ganged up on me.

After ten minutes of mounting concern, I saw a gate. I looked behind. The leading pony was only yards away now. It was with inexpressible relief that I opened the gate and shut it behind me. Phew. The pony looked thwarted. 

I was back in the commercial part of the Forest. A little way on, and the track broadened out. Then I came to a junction of tracks, signposted for mountain biking. I got a fix, and headed towards Hawkshill Inclosure and Moon Hill. All around were trees planted with harvesting in mind. It wasn't ugly, but it was certainly an industrial scene. It was a place to grow trees in straight lines, and eventually cut them down and haul them away. But at least I couldn't get lost, and I wouldn't encounter any ponies hell-bent on exacting a hideous revenge. They surely knew all about the illegal trade in horse-meat. Some of them had been victims in the past. One human trampled to death would be some kind of retribution. 

My mood had lifted again. I was reminded of a merry shot taken of Edwina, my 1970s friend, on a Forest track just like this one. Here she was, in 1977.

I attempted to reproduce the shot, in so far as you can when holding a phone at arm's length.

There were stacks of cut logs here and there, with warnings to keep off them. 

What did the blue letters and numbers mean? They were repeated again and again on different stacks.

Suddenly the light began to take on that dusk-is-approaching look. I increased my pace. I knew exactly where I was, but wanted to reach Fiona before it began to get dark. Looking sideways, the woods were beginning to look dim and shadowy. Within half an hour - or less - they might look like this: decidedly gloomy and unfriendly.

Close to Fiona, I make one last deliberate detour, to see if an interesting shot of a stream were possible. There was just enough light left to get some odd reflections.  

Yellow lights were already lit inside the cottages at Furzey Lodge. Suddenly it felt a very lonely business, getting my boots off in the eerie half-light. I wouldn't like to live in a forest. I would find the trees oppressive, and the night-time noises of nocturnal creatures most unsettling.

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