MONDAY’S walk is perhaps best characterised by ‘fun and failure’, which, if it wasn’t a phrase before, might well become my walking motto.
Failure number one was on the part of South West Trains, whose service over the bank holiday weekend was looking to be less than Sterling.
In particular, trains into Waterloo East appeared to have metamorphosed into buses early on Monday morning, and anyway wouldn’t start until quite late. This meant there was no chance of catching a really early train back down to Southampton.
But then it occurred to me that if my local trains were to be replacement buses, why not just catch a bus anyway? Which was why I came to be catching the night bus at five to four in the morning. This worked a treat, depositing me in central London just in time to watch the sun come up, accompanied by a raucous chorus of crows.
Waterloo station was suitably deserted at this mad hour and I soon found myself racing south to arrive in Southampton a couple of minutes after seven.
At this point things were looking pretty good – I had all day to walk my twenty miles to New Milton and I should arrive at Keyhaven in time to catch the ferry across to Hurst Castle, thus obviating the need to walk the length of Hurst Spit twice. The sky was a bit greyish but had the promise of blue skies later. All I had to do to start my walk was catch the free bus down to Town Quay and hop across on another ferry to Hythe.
So I waited for a bus. And waited. And waited. And then walked…
It was only a mile to Town Quay but it was an extra mile that I’d not figured into my plan. Still, I figured I could easily absorb that. Also, it took me past Southampton’s magnificent civic centre, which is built in an imposing 1930s neoclassical style and wouldn’t have been out of place in Berlin at the time of its construction.
Actually, it was more of an interesting mile than the initial appearance of shopping malls and offices suggested. For instance, it took me past more of the ancient town wall, which is surprisingly intact.
The stone used to build these walls did not come from the Southampton area, as it lacked any that was suitable. Instead, all the limestone needed was carried over from the Isle of Wight. To facilitate this, the duty fees for ships arriving in port were reduced if they ferried across some of the stone.
Just past that section of wall lay the remains of two drum towers that flanked Southampton Castle, although the site of the actual castle was occupied by a modern office block. Then, slightly further still, I passed this:
My next task was to buy a ticket for the Hythe Ferry, the website of which assured me that it would be running over the May Bank Holiday. And it was. Although not until ten o’clock.
I may have said some rude words.
So I grabbed a coffee or several and sat and read a book for two and a half hours, in the full knowledge that I had now lost the entire advantage of catching the four o’clock night bus and that I’d have been at Town Quay at exactly the same time even if I’d waited for my first local train.
Also, the likelihood of reaching the ferry at Keyhaven before it stopped running was now low. This would mean either adding three miles to my walk or missing out Hurst Castle altogether. Although, as it ultimately transpired, neither would be the case…
RMS Queen Mary 2
While I was waiting, I could hardly help but notice this awesomely massive shape, sitting majestically in her dock in Ocean Terminal:
Launched in 2003, the QM2 (as she is generally known) is named for the previous RMS Queen Mary, which sailed between 1934 and 1967 and was named in turn for the consort of George V. The QM2 is massive, displacing 76,000 tonnes of water. She is 345m in length and carries up to 3,056 passengers and 1,253 officers and crew.
The prefix ‘RMS’ indicates a Royal Mail Ship, indicating she also carries post under contract from the Royal Mail. Most of the great liners did this, including the White Star Line’s doomed RMS Titanic (her home port was also Southampton).
Hythe & Dibden
Eventually, the Hythe Ferry showed up and carried me on the twelve minute journey across Southampton Water to the town of Hythe; there has been a ferry crossing here dating back as far as 1575.
The modern ferry docks at the end of the 640m long Hythe Pier, opened in 1881, which has a narrow gauge electric railway running its length. This is claimed to be the oldest pier railway in the world, although one wonders how many others there actually are (I know there’s one in Southend).
In 2003 the pier was unexpectedly cut in half by Andrew Cameron Bartlett, who was drunk in charge of a dredger and spent the next eight months in prison for it. The pier was quickly repaired and reopened in 2004.
I felt ambivalent about taking the Hythe Pier train but ultimately reasoned that the pier was not dry land and, accordingly, the train was really a special type of ferry by which to complete the crossing of Southampton Water.
Hythe is a pleasant enough small town and its streets near the pier are quite picturesque. This was the home of Sir Christopher Cockerel – inventor of the hovercraft – from 1960 until his death in 1999.
Another famous – though brief – inhabitant of Hythe was T. E. Lawrence – the famous ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ – who lived in Hythe from 1931 to 1932, when he was seconded by the RAF to the British Power Boats factory. The village’s link with small powered vessels endured into WW2, when it served as a port for the ‘Royal Navy’s little ships’ such as the Motor Torpedo Boats.
My original plan was to continue onwards from Hythe along the Solent Way footpath. A quick look at the map showed that this headed directly south and then north-west, describing two sides of a triangle around the edge of Hythe and neighbouring Dibden Purlieu. However, since the path didn’t actually go anywhere near the coast, blocked as it was by Fawley Oil Refinery (which I had no great desire to see close up), I decided instead to cut straight through the middle of the village.
There followed a couple of miles of fairly typical suburban main road during which Hythe gave way to Dibden Purlieu, which is one of the wealthier villages of Hampshire (it was the 247th richest ward out of 8,414 in 2000) and has an unusually high rate per capita of yacht ownership.
Purlieu (‘pur-loo’) is a Norman-French word meaning ‘the outskirts of a forest’ and indicating a place free from forestry laws in an age where ‘forest’ signified a Royal deer-hunting area in which a whole host of very particular laws and rights applied (some of which still do). The Dibden part of the name derives from Deepdene, as the village is noted in the Domesday Book, dene being an Anglo-Saxon word for valley.
Nowadays the village is chiefly a commuter satellite of Southampton.
The New Forest
Crossing the Boundary
On the far side of Dibden Purlieu I crossed the boundary of the New Forest, which includes the largest remaining tracts of unenclosed pasture, heath and forest – in the sense of ‘a lot of trees’ – in the heavily-populated south east of England.
Neither New nor Forest
Quite a lot of the New Forest is not forest in the ‘trees’ sense but was so designated in the legal sense of a place where only the King could hunt deer when the New Forest was created as a royal forest by William I in 1079. It is very typically English that a forest labelled as ‘new’ in 1079 should still be labelled that today, 932 years later.
The Conqueror called it the New Forest – Nova Foresta – because it was new, having been stitched together from the land of more than 20 small settlements/farms and great swathes of what had hitherto been called the Great Ytene Wood (where ‘Ytene’ is an archaic form meaning ‘Jutish’, as in pertaining to the Jutes, who settled post-Roman Britain alongside the Angles and Saxons).
Court of Verderers
A court of verderers was appointed to administer the forest laws and still sits to this day, holding its court in Lyndhurst. The verderers upheld the King’s laws – essentially anyone other than the King who hunted deer could be executed for poaching – and administered the rights of common held by those who lived in the forest.
These included the right to turn horses and cattle out into the forest to graze (the right of common pasture), to gather wood or cut peat for fuel (estovers and turbary), to dig clay (marl), and to turn out pigs between September and November to eat fallen acorns and beechnuts (pannage or mast) which would otherwise poison the ponies and cattle.
While the executions for poaching have long since ended, the other rights remain in force and are legally attached to ownership of certain houses within the forest.
New Forest Ponies
I hadn’t been in the New Forest more than five minutes when I was immediately confronted with evidence of the right of common pasture, in the form of a New Forest pony, one of thousands that roam the forest, each marked as belonging to a forest commoner but essentially roaming wild.
There are written references to New Forest ponies going as far back as 1016 and the ponies are strong, hardy and not nearly as barkingly mental as the ponies on Dartmoor in Devon.
I would see a lot of ponies munching grass by the roadside as the day wore on. They paid me no heed whatsoever, and why should they?
I merrily wandered alongside the B3054, enjoying the sunshine, which was breaking through the cloud, and breathing in a heady aroma of coconut that seemed to be omnipresent. It was lovely.
As I approached the imaginatively named Hill Top, located at the top of a low hill, I passed through a rather less coconutty part of the heath.
I would have quite liked to have spotted an adder but it was still quite a cool day and about a week too early for them to be mating so they kept themselves hidden. My attention was hijacked in any case by the welcoming sight of the Royal Oak, a pub sitting in isolated splendour at the road junction that marks Hill Top.
I popped inside to enjoy a cold drink just moments before the whole of Hampshire appeared to decide that lunch at the Royal Oak was just the thing. It was, I remembered, the May bank holiday.
The road onwards from Hill Top was quite different in character, as open heathland was replaced by woodland on either side of the road, as it passed through the top edge of Moonhills Copse. A sign at the junction also announced that henceforth I was on the Beaulieu Estate, which covers 9000 acres. A mile later I arrived in Beaulieu village.
Beaulieu (pronounced ‘byoo-lee’) is a rather lovely little village which once housed a powerful and important abbey. In 1538, when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, its gatehouse was bought by the Montagu family who turned it into their magnificent stately home, Palace House.
Extended several times, Palace House is now a magnificent Victorian gothic structure and large parts of it are open to the public.
Lord Montagu of Beaulieu
The house remains the home of Baron Montagu of Beaulieu, an eighty-four year old peer who founded the National Motor Museum (in the grounds of the house), was imprisoned for homosexuality in 1954 (when it was still illegal; Lord Montagu is bisexual) and who still sits in the House of Lords as one of the 92 hereditary peers elected to remain in parliament following its 1999 reform. Lord Montagu is a Conservative peer.
National Motor Museum
I’ve visited Beaulieu before, in 1985 when I was all of fifteen, and was deeply impressed by the house, the grounds, the National Motor Museum and the fact that they have a monorail (the first one in England). How cool is that?
Lord Montagu founded the motor museum in 1952 as a tribute to his father, who had been the first person to drive a motor car into the yard at Parliament, and who introduced the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) to motoring in the 1890s.
It includes among its 300+ exhibits Malcolm Campbell‘s 1925 350HP Sunbeam, Henry Segrave‘s 1927 Sunbeam 1000 hp and 1929 Golden Arrow and Donald Campbell‘s Bluebird CN7 all of which broke the then-current land speed record.
Of course, there are also the ruins of the abbey.
Reluctantly I turned my back on Beaulieu’s attractions and headed through the village, amused to see that the arms of the Montagu family – argent, three fusils in fess gules, a bordure sable – are everywhere on the Beaulieu Estate, using heraldry as modern corporate branding.
Having obtained an ice cream from a little shop, I headed south from Beaulieu towards Bucklers Hard, a picturesque village built by the Montagus – they originally called it Montagu Town – at the highest point on the Beaulieu River that was navigable at all tides (the final four miles of the river, which rises near Lyndhurst, are tidal).
The path headed out across open fields before plunging into Keeping Copse.
After a while it gave me two choices, to either follow the path as marked on my map (the ‘direct route’ to Bucklers Hard), or to take a scenic, riverside route. I chose the latter.
Eventually, after much meandering, the path spat me out in Bucklers Hard, which was built by the second Duke of Montagu (1690-1749) as a free port for trade with the West Indies.
This tiny hamlet went on to provide timbers for many Royal Navy vessels and was where Sir Francis Chichester began and finished his single-handed voyage around the world in Gipsy Moth IV in 1966, becoming the first person to sail single-handedly around the world, following the clipper route.
Bucklers Hard is largely given over to a maritime museum and accordingly there is a tea room, where I availed myself of the opportunity to fuel my walk with tea and Victoria sponge cake.
I then navigated my way through the car park, had an unexpected chat with a talkative (and possibly bored) man at the gate about where I had walked from and where I was heading next and then I set off along the massive, thunderingly traffic-heavy highway towards St Leonards Grange.
St Leonards Grange
The tiny hamlet of St Leonards Grange was one of four granges (the outlying farms of an abbey) belonging to Beaulieu Abbey and its tithe barn was one of the largest in England. Its remains are visible from the road.
A deafening cacophony of crows accompanied my walk through St Leonard’s Grange, although what had disturbed them I have no idea. Perhaps they just didn’t like me? Anyway, I left them to it and headed west, now walking parallel to the coast. I passed a number of small farms and several more ponies and suddenly a vista opened up on my left, allowing me to see across the forest and the Solent all the way to to the Isle of Wight.
After a while, I turned left down another road, which the old-fashioned fingerpost indicated was taking me to Sowley.
I passed by Sowley Pond, which was created by the monks of Beaulieu in the fourteenth century (they dammed a stream) and was approached ther by an elderly couple walking the other way, who asked to look at my map to see where they were going next. Only when we were all suitably confident about where our feet were taking us did we part company, they heading towards St Leonards Grange and me along a footpath that departed the roads and set off across field and copse alike.
The path emerged from the trees to carry me through the tiny village of South Baddesley and on through what was probably the most tunnel-like leafy tunnel path I’ve walked down yet.
No Sign of Lymington
At this point I started to be a bit confused, because if I’d measured the distances correctly, I should have reached Lymington a good hour earlier than this. As it was, I was ambling along through fields and copses and past ponds with no sign of Lymington in sight.
The truth was, of course, that I had managed an epic fail when working out my distances. I must have got distracted and then forgotten where I was measuring from or something because I had marked down a six mile distance as two miles. I definitely wouldn’t be getting to New Milton before sunset, and even if I made it I’d probably just collapse, since my twenty miles had just become twenty-four. Plus, I wasn’t sure how late the bank holiday trains ran, on account of not intending to still be walking at sunset.
No, I reluctantly realised, I was going to have to end my walk at Lymington. It was annoying but necessary, besides, it was already five o’clock and I was already too late to catch the Maypole dancing in Milford on Sea.
As the footpath approached Snooks Farm on the outskirts of Walhampton, near Lymington I happened across a sign identifying it as the site of Lymington Airfield, built as RAF Lymington in 1943 and from which the USAAF flew P-47 Thunderbolts for the remainder of WW2. It is now a private airfield, with the footpath crossing the runway (and vice versa). Signs warn you to look both ways before crossing the field.
After the airfield the path led along a narrow road and into yet another bunch of trees, almost completely hidden amongst which was an unexpected obelisk.
I followed the path past the obelisk to a road running alongside the Lymington River. There I swore quietly to myself, retraced my steps to the obelisk, picked up my map and tried again. Back at the river I headed over the bridge, which carried this terrifying warning:
Having crossed the river, I admitted defeat and headed straight for the station where, in complete contravention of British passenger rules, I had a chat with a bloke who’d been sailing and another who’d been out riding his bike. Sailing Man informed me there were gale warnings so I didn’t feel too bad about not continuing along the coast after all.
This time: 15½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 335 miles