Our Travel blog
Friday 26 August
With the August bank holiday closing in fast we found sites booked up or asking obscene amounts for touring pitches. Friends of ours doing a similar trip to us experienced the sharp end of this and were nearly drummed out of The Caravan Club for treason at querying exorbitant charges. Happily they were eventually let off with a reprieve and are back on the road in Bessie. Rather than mortgage Mavis we faced a compromise, either I’d have to don fishnet tights and a mini skirt and walk the streets to earn some cash or we would go to a site without facilities and rely on our on-board shower and toilet for the next four nights. Sadly for me we opted for the latter and so ended up in Manley Wood, which by a coincidence was going to be my street walking pseudonym. NB Actually it turned out to be called Matley Wood but, you know, poetic licence and all that….
Whatever the drawbacks of being so self-sufficient, and frankly there weren’t very many at all, the positive was the most picturesque site we could have wished for. We parked up overlooking sun flecked woodland, our door opening directly onto the forest and an informal path where ponies clomped by, tugging at the grass, quite oblivious to us. Here we felt the cares of the last few days begin to evaporate as we sunk low in our chairs and drank in the peace. The rich scent of the forest enfolded us, earthy and fresh from the gorse and sweet heather, the sun warmed our bodies and the bird song lulled us. We drifted into that warm, fuzzy dozing state that comes from truly switching off, where you’re not quite awake and drift through consciousness, your mind wandering down peculiar paths, a safe dream-like state where you have limited control, free to explore thoughts and see where they lead you.
We were rudely woken from our cosy slumbers by canine barking. The pitch next to us was occupied by an enormous American style RV which was home to 3 bear-like dogs, each possessing a surly and fiercely territorial attitude. If they were cars they’d be Audi’s. In fairness though, they were mostly well behaved and didn’t bother us after that rude awakening. Their owners seemed to spend most of their waking hours barbecuing. It would be fired up for breakfast and reheated in time for dinner every day, the man standing over it twiddling and prodding whatever unfortunate beast he was blackening for consumption. In the evenings the smoky haze gave a dash of panache to the light as the sun set in long orange fingers through the trees. It was like being at a Queen concert without the music. Perfect!
Saturday 27 August
The first time I visited The New Forest was as a child in the company of a friend and his well-meaning family on a day out. I recall standing in the middle of sandy heathland looking at the nearest tree somewhere on the distant horizon. I was bitterly disappointed that we weren’t in the middle of a dark tangled forest, the sort of foreboding place that Tolkien would think twice about making hobbits walk through. I expected deep shadows, winding paths, murky glades, insects that bit and sucked and buzzed and stung, weird noises and warning from locals not to stray from the path.
Instead I got open spaces, heather, sandy paths, horse poo and drizzle. It was awful. The woods, such as they were, were dull, green and leafy. The locals fed the adults tea and biscuits and warned us not to get wet in the rain. We walked around for a bit, looked at horse poo in various states of decay, ate a picnic in the rain, walked around a bit more and squeezed back into their car for the long journey home, smelling faintly of damp and horse poo.
It took a long time after that for me to visit again. Eventually I took my boys to a site near Brockenhurst for a week’s camping because I thought it was time they came to appreciate the joys of horse poo for themselves. We arrived in sunshine and I cleverly pitched the tent in a slight hollow to give us a smooth floor upon which to sleep. Somewhere in the early hours a gale blew through Hampshire from the south, picking up most of the English Channel on the way and dumping it on us. At around 2am it occurred to me that another term for a slight hollow is deep puddle. One son wisely pitched the spare pop up tent and sought refuge therein. The other elected to sleep in the car while I took to the tent porch, which was on slightly higher ground and horse poo. The gale intensified and ripped the zip from the door; and thus my night passed wrapped in a moist sleeping bag with one foot out to hold the tent flap down.
In the morning we discovered the car battery was flat because the boot had been left unlatched, everything in the tent was dank and clammy in the morning heat, my clothes were soggy and fresh horse poo had been deposited outside the tent. To cheer ourselves up we watched a herd of New Forest ponies dismantle a nearby caravan awning, which eased my temper a little. Incidentally in case you are wondering about the difference between horses and ponies; horses are big wild-eyed lumps of bitey malevolent evil and ponies are slightly smaller wild-eyed lumps of bitey malevolent evil.
I’m happy to say though that this visit in Mavis was turning out to be rather splendid and made up for my previous experiences. There’s still a lot of heathland and horse poo but it’s also full of charm, stunning views and lots of interesting wildlife. Here’s a question for you; how many species of snake are native to the UK?
If you said 3, Adder, Grass and Slow Worm you’d be wrong, (the slow worm is actually a type of lizard). If you said 2, Adder and Grass you’d still be wrong. If you said 3, Adder, Grass and Smooth you’d be correct and either smug or rapidly closing down a Google window. It was certainly a surprise to me to find out that the Smooth Snake is a resident of the heathlands of Hampshire, mostly because I’ve never heard of it before. This little critter grows to about 60cms long, living mostly on a diet of reptiles and small animals which it subdues by constriction, like its bigger cousin the Boa Constrictor, although the Smooth Snake doesn’t kill by this means so doesn’t earn its Constrictor Badge from whatever the reptile equivalent of the Scouts or Guides is. Generally what it does most of is exist anonymously in the New Forest happily avoiding human contact and popping up as a pub quiz answer every so often.
We didn’t spot any snakes but we were fortunate to see a family of three deer as we wandered through the forest last night, two timid adults and a skittish fawn. One of the adults was a delicate mottled white, arising from a condition known as leucism. This is caused by a lack of skin pigment over all or part of the animal, occasionally resulting in an almost pure white animal. A white hart was the image chosen by Richard II as his emblem, thus leading to the preponderance of White Hart public houses, the fifth most popular pub name in the UK apparently. Hart, by the way, is just an old term for a mature stag. Goodness, I hope you are keeping up, I may decide to set a test later.
We visited nearby Lyndhurst by bike, taking the off road track so that I could skid, slip and slide all over the stony paths and generally act like a 12 year old who has swallowed all the sherbet and fizzy pop. Alison glided on sedately, bobbing along over the bumps and dips until she reached the brow of a steep hill, whereupon she plummeted forward, let out a blood curdling shriek and went ricocheting through sandy hollows and over heathery paths, largely out of control as she gained momentum and overtook me. She rebounded off a bush, wobbled from side to side like a see-saw, bade a breathless good morning to an astonished couple coming the other way and eventually ground to a sandy, sweary halt halfway up the other side of the hill. “Right” she declared as I caught up “let us never speak of this again” and after a brief pause added…”and by the way, we are taking the road way back”, which, after an afternoon looking around Lyndhurst and admiring its church, is exactly what we did.
But not before we’d popped into the New Forest Visitors Centre where we learnt that The New Forest was declared a royal forest around 1097 by that loveable French scamp William the Conqueror, whose son Rufus was accidently killed in a hunting accident in the forest. It’s been a playground for royalty and tourists ever since William’s day, becoming a National Park in 2005. I know I’ve skipped over about 908 years of history there. It’s not that I didn’t pay attention but I found the centre all rather lifeless and lacklustre. The bit about its roll in WW2 was mildly diverting, a recreation of a local’s parlour was about as exciting as you’d expect a stove and some plastic vegetables to be and the wildlife section was a collection of sad dioramas that had seen better days. There was the entire history of the New Forest’s common grounds, grazing rights and managing of the herds which just didn’t interest me. I have nothing against it but I just found I couldn’t raise any enthusiasm for learning any more than I already knew, which was roughly nothing.
Sunday 28 August
One of Alison’s brothers and his family were staying in the nearby Georgian market town of Lymington and invited us for a pub lunch. So we cycled in drizzle to the train station at Beaulieu Road where we went one stop to Brockenhurst, changed trains and went one more stop to Lymington. We met them in a rustic pub to eat oversized fish and chips and exchange news before taking a walk along the sea walls. This took us past the lido, full of children shivering their way over an inflatable obstacle course. Sometimes a mother would accompany the ones too young yet to be embarrassed by a hovering parent or too slow to escape their attentions. There were some fathers around too but they tended to be less concerned with nurturing their offspring and more interested in showing how undignified 16 stone of quivering blubber looks when its scrambling over rubber ladders scattering children into the pool.
Lymington is a well known sailing resort, the sort of place where the shops sell expensive nautical trinkets to people who’d never dream of placing their expensive loafers on the deck of anything smaller than a luxury cruise liner. Apart from sailing the other attraction of Lymington seems to be watching the traffic, an attraction it shares with Lyndhurst and probably most of the villages and towns in these parts. The New Forest is a wide open space at the foot of the heavily populated south east and so an easy destination for a day trip, hence traffic increases by over a third in summer. Even though the forest boasts 4 railway stations most people visit it by car. The resident population swells with around 13.5 million tourists over the year. Some come to use the 320 or so miles of public footpaths, bridleways and cycle routes. Most it seem, to me at least, come to drive around, park at random to take a picture of a pony doing a poo and then retire exhausted to a pub or tea shop for a nice sit down.
Monday 29 August
Today was a warm, sunny Bank Holiday so approximately 37 million cars decided to converge on Lyndhurst, where they spewed out sticky fractious children, perpetually bored teenagers and argumentative couples secretly wondering how old the children need to be before they can file for divorce. Well, that may be a tad cynical but we were watching the chaos from the comfort of a restaurant which served excellent breakfasts with warmth and charm. And they needed plenty of charm as I wrestled with the combined salt and pepper mill, liberally seasoning the floor, nearby diners and Alison’s lap in the process. Honestly, what fiendish nitwit let this condiment dispenser loose on an unsuspecting public? It is yet another armament in the unholy battle to over-engineer the perfectly simple by the application of complicated fuckwittery. Adding seasoning isn't improved by artist designed codswallop when you're not even sure which end of the infernal machine will dispense what, as neither work properly. All because some twonk with half a degree in making pointless things out of shiny chrome couldn’t be arsed to finish his design because he went home early to wax his beard in time for Countdown.
Gosh, in spite of the magnificent weather and fine dining I do seem to have been Mr. Grumpy today, or at least his cousin Mr. Cynical. Happily the ride back to Mavis was enlivened by Alison’s turn to have a rant, this time at the expense of gormless day trippers. I quote from her journal. ”… Or the idiots who pulled over on the side of the road today so their children could stroke the New Forest ponies; ponies that are not tame and who will no doubt bite or kick little Jemima and cause her parents to complain to the local council. I hope that the local council point out the hundreds of signs that tell people not to approach the ponies for that very reason. Oh and as an added insult they didn't even seem to care that their car was causing other road users to have to pass onto the other side of the road on the brow of a hill, potentially causing an accident. As long as your precious little darling can see the cute pony...”
Thoughts of their precious little darlings being casually booted into the next field by an irked pony cheered us no end and by the time we were back we were grinning like Cheshire cats and listening out for the screams. The afternoon we spent slouching around doing as little as possible until we stirred ourselves to take an early evening stroll around the area and catch a magnificent sunset, the translucent amber sky fading to burnt orange and ultimately to a golden crown as the sun sunk into the trees. A farewell to our days in The New Forest.
Tuesday 30 August
Leaving the site we took a circuitous route to avoid a snarl-up on the M27 and joined the A23 going north over the South Downs. In contrast to the sandy heaths and ancient woods of Hampshire the Downs undulate with patches of exposed chalk, vivid like open wounds on the cropped green hills, criss-crossed with winding sheep tracks worn into the slopes. As the Downs levelled out golden bales of hay were stacked neatly in the corner of fields marked with ruler straight lines from the recent harvest. Their uniformity pleased Alison immensely; she is a lady who likes order and precision. That may be why some mischievous little sprite occasionally off sets pictures by a fraction, un-pairs shoes or casually leaves a fork in the knife drawer. It keeps her on her toes.
And from the South Downs we took the sluggish M25 around London, up the A10 and into the small Hertfordshire village of Braughing, our home for a fortnight to house sit, look after Maddie the chocolate Labrador and plan our future.
Life on the road has exceeded our expectations. We’ve seen sights we never expected to see, met wonderful people, worked at some amazing festivals and had unforgettable experiences; we’ve played kazoo’s with a biker gang, watched the seasons change, seen abundant wildlife, seen the sun rise and set from the east, south, north and west of the country, felt the peace of total silence under the stars, walked over hills, up mountains and down dales, covered close to 7000 miles in Mavis and generally had a blast. We’ve lived in a space smaller than many bathrooms, cooked exclusively on two gas rings, slept with our noses a few inches from the ceiling, rarely had hot running water but we’ve opened our front door to over 50 different views, from Devon to The Isle of Skye and we have laughed every single day.
Our trip may have been conceived as an opportunity to see the country and meet people but it has also been a personal journey for both of us. While we are here in Braughing we will celebrate our first wedding anniversary, a year we have spent nearly half of travelling. We’ve discovered things about ourselves and about each other that will bind us forever. As we consider the possibilities before us our future is an open book, alive with possibilities and options, responsibilities and obligations. We need now to pause for thought, to make decisions that could resonate for the rest of our lives and then to start preparations for our next adventure. It also draws us towards a natural conclusion for this chapter of the blog. We’ve been touched by the positive feedback and that so many people have taken the time to follow our adventures. Thank you.
P.S. Yes, we are considering writing a book. You’ve only got yourselves to blame.
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