COUNTRY LIFE

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The Independent Culture
THERE are some patches of countryside where I reckon you can always snatch gulps of landscape when you need refuelling, rather like marathon runners take in water. One is the New Forest, where you only have to step a couple of yards off the road to be in a swampy wilderness of insectivorous plants and primordial trees that seems to have no connection with the tidy fieldscapes of rural England. So, down in Hampshire filming the county's endlessly inventive waste disposal sch-emes, I soon felt that other vast waste - just eight miles away - prickling the back of my neck.

During a break, I coaxed the producer and her assistant, Soni, into an expedition. When we reached Brockshill, the boss promptly fell asleep in the car, so Soni and I went off by ourselves. She had been a globe- trotting conservationist, who had seen 2,000-year-old juniper forests in Pakistan, and I feared she might find the Forest as tame as a municipal park. But it is a place apart; nothing can prepare you for somewhere that was unenclosed and already hoary when King William grabbed it in 1086.

We soon hit the first "lawn" - a glade nibbled down to the texture of a fairway by the Forest ponies, except that it wasn't just grass. It was dotted with creeping willow, no more than an inch tall and in full flower, and hummocks of sphagnum moss. By the streams there were sweeps of violets and primroses under cover of holly and thorn clumps. It's in these thickets that new generations of oak and beech regenerate. Further on, a windblown oak was rooting along its branches. The woods are constantly merging, fal-ling, beginning again, abhorring straight lines and hard edges. So I wasn't surprised that when we scrambled through undergrowth on to yet another lawn, Soni pronounced herself lost. I didn't think I was, but it is always a delicious possibility here. There are umpteen treks that don't cross a road for miles, and you can lose your bearings, but still be certain of getting safely out. I asked Soni how she would feel about walking here by herself. She didn't relish the prospect. More surprisingly, she felt that I ought to be worried about it, too. In fact, woods are among the few places where I feel really safe, but I know I am in a minority. New research has revealed the emergence of a modern myth that woods are places where rapists and muggers lurk. It isn't true, but, in the depths of our paranoia over crime, the uncharted darknesses of a habitat we've lost touch with can stir up ancient terrors. There are suggestions that the recently launched urban forests should help re-educate us, by dispensing with undergrowth and having lights along the sides. They are sensible if depressing suggestions, but I hope that they never reach the New Forest, a place which it isn't a clich to call boundless, even on a 20-minute stroll 8

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