Take a stroll through a piece of old England

The New Forest national park offers ramblers majestic woodland, wild ponies and a very old shrimp. Mark Rowe gets his boots on
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The Independent Travel

The New Forest was finally designated a national park last summer, some 100 years after the idea was originally mooted. Britain's first new national park for 15 years, the forest originally appeared as a defined area in medieval times when William the Conqueror took the "Nova Foresta" as his royal hunting ground in 1079.

Winter is a wonderful time to visit. Start in the high street in Brockenhurst and, with your back to the post office turn left, cross the ford at the end of the road and turn right into Rhinefield Road. Turn right again at Meerut Road and take the clear track diagonally to the left across Black Knowl common. There is a stark beauty and a sense of time stood still to this expanse of moor, despite its proximity to Brockenhurst and the main road to Lyndhurst (a route which many motorists treat like a Grand Prix circuit). Commons are a particular feature of the forest and 450 people still exercise their rights of common, which mainly entitle them to graze animals, including around 3,000 New Forest ponies.

At the far side of the common, bear right along the gravel path, crossing Bolderford Bridge and the river Lymington. Go through a gate and turn left by the signpost marked "Lyndhurst 3.5 miles". The path sweeps through the forest, passing oaks, holly, silver birch, pine and oak. The oak woods in particular make up the classic New Forest landscape and you may see all kinds of birds, from coal tits to the woodlark and Dartford warbler. You're unlikely to see the forest's strangest inhabitant, the rare tadpole shrimp. Found only in a single pool in the forest, the shrimp is a living fossil, thought to be among the oldest living creatures on the planet. It resembles a small horseshoe crab and has been dated to the late Triassic period, 220 million years ago.

After three-quarters of a mile you come to an opening, where you bear right, signposted Lyndhurst. The path then bears left across Butts Lawn before re-entering the woods. If the weather is good, the sunlight at this time of year makes for shades of dark green that are extremely easy on the eye. Eventually, you pass a gate in front of a house and turn left.

Cross the cattle grid. Where the road bears right, continue ahead across the grass by the low, wooden Forestry Commission gate and go straight ahead into the woods. You soon come to a large grass clearing. The path ahead is not obvious. Head into the woods just right of centre, at around one o'clock. Keep to this track, ignoring any paths off to the left. You soon come to another clearing, home to the small community of Gritnam. Pass in front of Jessamine Cottage and, where the track bears right, go straight across the grass and into the woods, passing a huge, splintered grey oak on your left.

It's a good idea to photocopy your OS map before leaving home because the walk switches over to the other page here, just at a point where a number of routes converge. Trying to unfold and turn over the huge OS map in rain and wind can leave you looking like Mr Bean trying to fly a kite. If the criss-crossing of paths proves confusing, remember the destination is Rhinefield ornamental drive, barely a mile away.

The path becomes almost pencil thin and you skip across a small brook. Keep straight on, ignoring the fork to your left. You can often see deer here. After 100 yards or so you come to a crossing of paths, where you turn right. Fifty yards further on, turn left on to a broad track that is later hemmed in by ferns.

After crossing a footbridge, turn immediately left along the main track that follows the river. After just 10 yards, veer right underneath the tree to pick up the path through Brinken Wood. This takes you on a short diversion around a huge fallen oak that has all but demolished the main path. After 30 yards or so you pick up the main track. Ignore any paths that cross your way until, via a small clearing and a gate, you reach a stone path, just short of the ornamental drive, indicated by a red marker post. Turn left.

The huge cork-like redwoods here are among the tallest trees in the UK. The path winds through woodland before reaching Blackwater car park, where you turn left along the road. After half a mile, as the road bears left, turn right in front of Rhinefield House and follow the perimeter fence, passing the lodge with its fetching cupola. You pass through two gates before entering the Clumber Inclosure. Keep straight ahead and pass through a third gate to leave the wood and cross a footbridge. You are now on open common, and after so much dense woodland, the light and views can leave you, mole-like, blinking and adjusting your eyes. Follow the clear path up towards Holm Hill and take the left-hand track just above the clump of woodland. This drops down across bogs and moor to a footbridge and across Red Hill. From here, take any of the left-hand tracks down to Rhinefield Road and follow this for about a mile back to the centre of Brockenhurst.

If you have time and energy, it's worth the short trek beyond the railway station to St Nicholas's Church. By the Commonwealth war graves you will find the skillfully engraved tomb of Harry "Brusher" Mills, a professional snake catcher who died in 1905.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

Distance: seven miles

Time: 3.5 hours

OS Map: Explorer OL22 New Forest.

Mark Rowe stayed at the New Park Manor (01590 623467; www.newparkmanorhotel.co.uk), Brockenhurst, a former hunting lodge of King Charles II, which offers b&b from £120 per night based on two sharing. The hotel is five minutes' walk from Bolderford Bridge and staff will direct you through the adjacent farm to pick up the route. Also visit www.thenewforest.co.uk.

Brockenhurst is well served by trains from London and the Midlands. Call 08457 484950.

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