New Forest, wild wood

On foot: Linwood in Hampshire.
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The Independent Online
The New Forest is a strangely foreign place. To one side of its fenced frontier lie the ring roads, supermarkets and commuter villages of modern Hampshire, yet just across the cattle-grids a huge and open landscape spreads to the horizon.

This is a land of woods and heath and bogs, ruled by feudal courts ofverderers, roamed by deer and wild horses. The High Corner Inn is a perfect base from which to start on any exploration of such romantic country. How many pubs in southern England, after all, are approached down half a mile of rutted track across a wilderness of heather?

Beyond the pub, the track continues through a canopy of oak trees. Horses, harnessed to gleaming carriages and dog-carts, browse peacefully through fallen leaves, far more in keeping with the place than the hatchbacks in the car park. Then the track emerges on to open lawn cropped by herds of assorted livestock.

This is Linwood's common land, and ancient rights are still jealously preserved within the Forest. Turbary (peat rights) might now be thought no more than a useful word for Scrabble, but cattle and New Forest ponies graze freely on the lawns and autumn here is still the "pannage" season, when pigs are turned out into the woods to forage for beech mast.

Approaching a small stream, the track forks right and soon enters dense, mixed woodland, running for the best part of a mile through extravagant displays of autumn colour. Then, just beyond a gate, a path leads to the left down to Splash Bridge and the open heath beyond. Dockens Water is a pretty rivulet of peaty water that is well worth following for half a mile upstream. There's little sign of any path, but the open woodland is a pleasant contrast to the formal and occasionally busy track from Linwood.

Returning to a sandy track at Holly Hatch Cottage, the route swings across the stream and up Ragged Boys Hill. Many of the place names hereabouts are wonderfully evocative. Down to the right there's Rakes Brakes Bottom. Dead Buck Hill rises to the left and nearby, just beyond North Hollow in Great Bottom, is the village of Mockbeggar.

Once across the open hill, the track returns to woodland and within half a mile a narrow path swings off to the left beneath the trees, passing close to the site of a medieval hunting lodge. Long before its woods were valued for their timber, the Forest was a royal game reserve in which the courtly pleasures of the chase took precedence over all other uses of the land. Some of the massive yews and oaks along the path probably date back to the days when royal hunting parties passed along this route.

Once you are back out on the open ground of Hallicksole Hill, the views extend for 20 miles across the Avon valley. Up to the right, on Hampton Ridge, is a pair of Bronze Age barrows. Four thousand years ago this barren heath was well-populated farmland. As in so many areas of apparently natural wilderness, it was over-cultivation that drained the soil of its fertility.

Skirting Halsey Hill enclosure, a rather lifeless fir plantation, the path comes to a track that leads left towards High Corner Inn across a bog.

To the majority of walkers bogland is distinctly lacking in appeal, but to the naturalist this is a precious, rare environment with fascinating ecosystems thriving in each ditch. Though the path is relatively firm, some athletic hopscotch may be called for in order to avoid entering the pub dripping with primeval ooze.

The High Corner Inn is a large, sophisticated pub with an adventure playground in the garden, and even its own squash court.

Despite conservatories and new extensions, the heart of the old inn, dating back 200 years, remains a warren of small rooms with open fires and low beams. The food is excellent, ranging from elaborate game dishes to cheap and simple snacks .

Ordnance Survey maps: Outdoor Leisure 1:25000, No 22; New Forest landscapes 1:50,000, No 195, Bournemouth.

Linwood lies on a narrow forest lane between Stoney Cross, on the A31 north west of Lyndhurst, and Ellingham, on the A338 north of Ringwood. The High Corner Inn is signposted up an unmade track one mile east of the village.

l From pub car park, continue up gravel track to open common.

l Turn right before stream and continue through gate on to woodland track. After one mile, turn left at gate to Splash Bridge.

l Before bridge, turn right and follow bank of stream for half a mile. At Holly Hatch Cottage, turn left across bridge and continue into woodland for half a mile.

l Turn left down grassy footpath. Bear left as path forks. Continue out of enclosure, on to heathland.

l Skirt south side of Halsey Enclosure to far side. Turn left on to track, bear left over footbridge and rejoin gravel drive to pub.