As soon as the location details are released for the 2018 New Forest Boxing Day Point-to-Point I will post them on this page and on Twitter at @Forest_Commoner.
……but until then, here are some picture from previous years.
As soon as the location details are released for the 2018 New Forest Boxing Day Point-to-Point I will post them on this page and on Twitter at @Forest_Commoner.
……but until then, here are some picture from previous years.
Winter is definitely on the way. As I go out checking my free roaming stock on the New Forest I’m wearing more layers than of late. I’m also in the habit of keeping my gloves on the radiator in the hall, from where I collect them for that extra touch of warming creature comfort before venturing out into the cold. The crisp mornings that follow an over-night frost are usually accompanied by bright weather, which provides ample compensation for the chilly temperatures. On such frosty mornings I like being out early to witness the dawn breaking over the horizon and to see the sun casting its illuminating rays over the glittering landscape. It’s a sight that never fails to impress me. The free roaming ponies have developed thick, shaggy coats, which are perfectly designed for a life lived outdoors. Their warm breath in the frosty air rises from their nostrils like smoke, making them look like little furry dragons ready to breath fire. Many of the ponies have already been taken off the Forest for the winter by their commoning owners, and will be kept on holdings or back up grazing in and around the New Forest until the spring returns. Like some commoners, I tend to keep my ponies out on the Open Forest all year round, which means that irrespective of the weather I still need to check on them. Even though the ponies are regarded as semi-feral their welfare is the responsibility of their commoning owners.
Gorse is good nourishment
Quite often, when the weather is particularly inclement or the temperatures are low and I’m out looking for my mares, it feels like I have the whole place to myself. I enjoy my solitary walks around the haunts they use, and I’m always pleased to find them and see that they are doing well. It’s quite natural that over the winter months they will begin to lose the fat reserves that they’ve built up over the summer. However, once ‘Dr. Green’ makes an appearance, in the form of next year’s spring grass, all will be well again. Even though the pasturage does not contain much nutrition at this time of year the ponies are able to browse the tops of the prickly gorse bushes, which being a member of the pea family is a good source of nourishment for them. There are also plenty of places for them to shelter if the winds become too bitingly cold. They have other tricks too for coping with the privations of winter, such as slowing their metabolism to preserve energy at low temperatures. This particular survival trick explains why the reactions of the ponies may seem sluggish at times. This is useful information for those motor vehicle drivers, using the Forest over the winter, who expect the ponies to get off the roads quickly when they see them coming. Indeed, this is all the more reason to drive with extra-care in the New Forest, particularly at night, when the temperatures fall even further.
Bonfire Night, Fireworks Night, or Guy Fawkes Night, call it what you may, is a tradition that commemorates a failed plot to blow up the House of Lords and assisinate King James I of England and VI of Scotland with gunpowder, during the State Opening of Parliament in 1605. In the weeks before and after the 5th November, which was the date Catholic revolutionaries had intended to carry out their murderous deed, the skies in and around the New Forest (and other parts of the UK) are filled with the sights and sounds of fireworks. Sky dragons, Satellite Killers, Screaming Banshees, and similar pyrotechnical combinations, can be easily purchased for displays that signify what potentially could have happened. Yet, a far more significant event in our history occurred on the 6th of November, which is hardly known by anyone and, consequently, not commemorated at all. On that date, in the year 1217, the Carta de Foresta, or Charter of the Forest, was issued. This document was to the common people of England what Magna Carta had been to the nobility. Its purpose was to address some of the inequalities and real hardships that were suffered by ordinary people because of the greed and misrule of the nobility, who were exploiting the royal forest system for their own benefit.
Rights to the commoners
William the Conqueror had introduced royal forests, and the harsh laws that were imposed to uphold them, into England in the eleventh century, and his heirs had further extended their reach. At the same time, the rights of people living within those areas had been a good deal reduced. At their peak royal forests covered much of the land, including one-third of southern England and the whole of the county of Essex, for example. This meant that the common people were unable to farm, collect fuel, or forage for food effectively. Significantly, the Charter of the Forest was produced to secure support for the reign of the boy-King Henry III who, at the age of nine, had inherited the crown from his father, the Bad King John. It was a document that was intended to restore the right of common access to natural resources and curtail the king’s right to arbitrarily determine land use. The Charter afforded ordinary people some real economic protection and restored other rights and privileges that had been withheld by the nobility and provided that ‘henceforth every freeman, in his wood on his land that he has in the forest, may with impunity make a mill, fish-preserve, pond, marl-pit, ditch, or arable in cultivated land outside coverts’. The Charter also replaced the death sentence or mutilation with fines or imprisonment, for disturbing or capturing the King’s deer. These were considerable concessions by the ruling elite to the common people and have been regarded as important developments in England’s constitution history. Over time, however, this momentous occasion has been ignored in place of, perhaps, showier and more commercially lucrative events. Nevertheless, when the din and smoke of the fireworks have cleared, on the 5th of November, and we have celebrated the thwarting of the gunpowder plot, spare a thought on the 6th of November for the establishment, in law, of liberties granted to our forefathers 800 years ago. With this in mind, may I be the first to wish you a Happy Carta de Foresta Day.
I went to visit a friend of mine recently for a long overdue catch up over a mug of coffee. This particular friend, a lady with a widespread knowledge of the New Forest, comes from a long established commoning family whose home was an integral part of their dairy farm. Although the dairy business no longer exists the house retains those features and dimensions that were built to compliment an agricultural lifestyle. These elements differ markedly from the homes of the ‘Country Living’ style residences one sees in glossy magazines because, in many cases, they are still utilised and maintained by working farming folk who value practical application over cosmetic interior design. There is plenty of evidence, both inside and out, in such dwellings to tell of a life maintained by agricultural or silvicultural activity. Apart from the presence of heavy machinery parked in the yard, in the form of tractors and other farming or forestry implements, there is usually the obligatory stock-trailer that most commoners own and very little sign of gentrification to the property.
Warm welcomes and creature comforts
On my arrival at my friend’s holding I noticed evidence of log splitting activity, which was indicated by a small pile of logs and faggots that had been loaded into a wheelbarrow ready for transportation into the house. A large axe lay inertly beside the chopping block, but its weight and exquisitely sharpened edge belied its potency for slicing the thick rounds of tree branch into smaller, more manageable quarters. Those of my readers who have ever tried chopping logs with an axe will understand why it is said that wood warms you twice – once when you are cutting it, and again when you are burning it – as it is physically demanding work. My friend, a retired lady of diminutive stature, grinned broadly when I enquired who had been so industrious in cutting up the logs, and she immediately took the credit. Her independence, which was instilled in her at a young age, gives her a great sense of achievement and, she says, ‘keeps her going’. Indeed, she’s the kind of person who is more likely to offer help than to ask for it. Her kitchen is what I like to think of as a proper commoner’s kitchen with a commodious wood-fired range for cooking on, drying wet overalls and warming outdoor boots, or providing comfort to newborn or sick animals. Its perpetual labours in generating heat, fed by perpetual labours in chopping wood, ensure that the kitchen offers a cheerful greeting to those who enter. This warm reception is matched by the wood stove in the sitting room, which purrs happily as it breathes out heat tinged with smoke. Apart from the warmest of welcomes, the congenial company and quaint surroundings I enjoy when visiting, I always look forward to the coffee she serves, which is the best caffè latte in the district. As I settle in beside the wood stove for a long overdue chat, I join the ranks of creatures including calves, foals and puppies that have drawn comfort from the warmth of this working Forest home.
Autumn is always a busy season for farmer, smallholder and commoner alike. It is also a time of ritual, tradition, and festival that reminds us of our connection to the natural or, indeed, supernatural world. Michaelmas, which signals the end of the harvest period, has passed. By now the cereals, hay and cart straw will have been harvested from the fields, and the majority of fruits and vegetables gathered in for winter storage or processed into jams, pickles and chutneys. Harvest Festival celebrations will have been observed in local churches, schools, community centres and village halls, where excess produce is redistributed or sold to eager purchasers who stock up for the lean winter months to come. Harvest Festival coincides with the Harvest moon, the full moon that occurs closest to the autumn equinox. Harvest Festival, which began as a pagan festival of thanksgiving and generosity, has now been adopted into the Christian faith and is usually celebrated on the Sunday nearest to this date. As well as marking the end of toil from bringing in the harvest Michaelmas is also the customary time for buying and selling farms; because the outgoing farmer will have finished his crop and the incoming farmer can begin to plant or sow ready for the next harvest season. (This is why the farmer’s calendar traditionally begins in September.)
Autumn activity, tradition and festival
For the commoners this a time busy with the annual drifts or pony round-ups where the semi-feral ponies are driven into stockades, known as pounds, to be checked, marked, wormed, or fitted with florescent collars. Many of the foals that have wandered the heathland and lawns with their dams since the springtime, will be removed to their commoning owner’s holding to be kept over winter. As a result, you may begin to notice fewer foals adorning the landscape over the coming months. Pannage season is also underway; this is the time of year to see pigs roaming freely to root about in the forest undergrowth beneath canopies of yellowing autumn leaves. Their voracious appetites serve a worthy purpose because they hoover up the acorns that, when eaten in quantity, can prove so toxic to ponies and deer. Pannage pork is a local delicacy and much sought after by gourmets and other food connoisseurs. The commoners, of course, have been eating it for generations. This flavoursome meat was produced in readiness for the traditional feast period of Christmastide, by fattening up the pigs on the largess provided by the forest’s beech, chestnut and oak trees. Of course, at the end of this month comes Halloween a former pagan festival that used the sacred light of bonfires and contact with the spirits of the dead to prophesise the future. Halloween is celebrated between the bounty of autumn and the lean months of winter, when farmers, smallholders and commoners of times past would have relied on messages and portents from their dearly departed friends and relations to tell them of their coming fortunes or, to avoid misfortune, to at least put in a good word for them with the gods. Now, of course, for many people Halloween has evolved into a child-friendly festival for dressing up and playing ‘trick-or-treat’, but even this re-interpretation is based upon the redistribution of food with pranks played on those lacking in generosity.
Every now and then I get the chance to sit down and read the newspaper as part of my job. Quite often though, the newspaper in question dates from the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries. These historical broadsheets make fascinating reading and reveal something of the issues, interests and anxieties of the people living locally in the Georgian or Victorian period. Even the advertisements offering cures for children’s teething problems, hair loss, or rheumatism, help to build a picture of what life would have been like back then. Where today we have advertisements for cars, vans and lorries; in the newspapers of yesteryear there are countless riding ponies, carriage horses, draught animals and respective carts, traps, gigs and wagons offered for sale. This immediately conjures up images of a pre-motorised transport system with roads filled with horse-drawn vehicles; and an economy based on rural activity, which would have been organised according to the seasons of the year. One of my favourite columns to read is the court list which, like the ‘From the Court’ section in many of today’s local newspapers, records the people who have been charged in the magistrate’s court. Some of the crimes are clearly familiar, such as being drunk and disorderly; driving while under the influence of alcohol – though obviously in former times this meant being drunk in charge of a horse-drawn vehicle (which could be as equally as dangerous a motorcar) – and public order offences, such as threatening behaviour. However, whereas today you may see long lists of shoplifters recorded, in times past there were instead many cases of poaching.
Lyndhurst Petty Sessions
In one case, heard at the Lyndhurst Petty Sessions in 1873, a local man was charged with ‘trespassing in the New Forest in pursuit of conies’ (rabbits). The Defendant’s wife appeared in court, explaining that her husband had gone into the country to look for work and could not attend. She asked that the case be adjourned until the next court date. But, Constable Dodd, who was in charge of the case, informed the court that different versions of the Defendant’s whereabouts had been given to him. When the Constable had visited the home of the Defendant to leave his summons, the Defendant’s brother reported that the man had just left. The mother, however, said that the Defendant had left the day before. These conflicting accounts ensured that a warrant was issued for the arrest of the Defendant, ‘who had treated the court with contempt’. In another case, reported in the same newspaper, a man charged with ‘trespassing in the New Forest in pursuit of conies’ had been seen by a witness ‘near Picket-Post Turnpike with a dog, beating and hunting’. The Defendant explained to the court that the dog did not belong to him (he said it was his father’s) and that he had not been poaching at all but was out looking for his donkey. The court did not believe him and he was, therefore, fined 2s 6d and the costs of 7s 6d – also proving that not only does crime not pay but neither do lies.
Multiple Advertisements, Horse and Hound (London, England), Saturday, September 30, 1899, Vol. XVII, Issue 810, p.616. From 19th Century UK Periodicals
LYNDHURST PETTY SESSIONS: Southampton Herald (Southampton, England), Saturday, November 15, 1873, Vol. 51, Issue 2861, p.3. From British Library Newspapers
Autumn is definitely here. Pannage season is upon us and the annual pony drifts are currently underway*. During the drifts the semi-feral ponies and foals are rounded up for inspection, released back onto the Forest or taken away to be sold, trained, or kept on their commoning owners’ holdings for the winter. Watching the ponies coming in and seeing them up close in the pound gives their owners, the Agisters, and any attending animal welfare inspectors, a chance to assess their health and condition. The ponies are looking well this year. There has been no shortage of grazing for them and their free-roaming existence means that they can find all the other resources they need to thrive within their territories. I know I am biased, but I cannot imagine why anyone would want any other breed of pony to use for riding or driving. Not only is the New Forest pony a hardy animal, but it is so inured to the landscape that all the hazards and obstacles that test other ponies and horses visiting the area are taken in its stride.
Peril of pigs
At the moment, with pannage season, comes the peril of pigs. It is a widespread belief among the equine community that ponies (and horses) are terrified of pigs – and will ‘flip out’ at the sight or smell of them. No one seems to know why this should be, but I have heard explanations that range from domestic pigs resembling wild boar or bears, to the smell of pigs being close to that of carnivores (lions), or just simply being downright unpleasant to the sensitive nostrils of the horse. There have been no scientific studies on this subject, that I know of, to provide any insight. However, horses being prey animals are, of course, naturally alert to danger and have highly developed senses to help them detect potential threats. For whatever reason the porcine/equine encounter seems to be a thing most dreaded by horse riders. Nevertheless, many of the free-roaming Forest ponies are accustomed to their piggy neighbours and do not seem to find their presence alarming at all. I think possibly it’s the exposure to these odd looking, funny sounding, strange smelling creatures that makes the difference between fear and familiarity. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to confirm this observation. Owners who stable their horses or ponies on or near pig-farms seem to have fewer problems riding out, as their mounts seem to be less fearful when meeting pigs. Even my own ponies, when staying on the holding, encounter my neighbour’s free-range pigs regularly and are more curious about them, than frightened. A lot depends on the attitudes of the pigs, of course, as with all well-handled animals, friendly pigs are more pleasant to encounter than unsociable swine; but rest-assured if you’re visiting the New Forest you’re not likely to meet the latter; as only peaceable commonable animals are permitted to roam the New Forest.
*IMPORTANT NOTE: The Verderers of the New Forest have announced that the ‘drifts’, or pony round-ups, are an essential part of the management of the semi-feral herd to maintain the health and welfare of the ponies.
For their own safety, members of the public are urged to avoid the area of the drift on the planned dates.
The dates of the #NewForest drifts are advertised to alert visitors and road-users to beware, NOT as an invitation to attend. #workingforest
One of the most significant periods in the New Forest calendar starts in mid-to-late September, when the trees begin to cast their fruit, in the form of acorns, beech-mast and chestnuts. Known as ‘pannage’ it is a time when pigs are turned out to roam freely and forage on the forest floor, to gorge themselves on the autumnal bonanza. Previously the dates for pannage were fixed to occur at the same time each year, but now they are decided by the Verderers of the New Forest and the Forestry Commission and, under certain conditions, can be extended past the usual 60-day period. (This year pannage starts on 11th September and ends on 12th November, inclusive.) Pannage is a custom that was established in the mists of time when forests were places that gave priority to animals, rather than trees. Indeed, Anglo-Saxon law decreed that:
Gif mon ponne aceorfe an treow, paet mage XXX swina undergestandan wyro undierne, geselle LX scill.
(If, however, anyone cuts down a tree that can shelter 30 swine, and it becomes known, he shall pay 60 shillings.)
Even after the New Forest was created in 1079, by William the Conqueror, the economic and political importance of pigs dominated. In the Domesday Book, for example, which was presented to William I at Old Sarum (Salisbury) in 1086, forests were measured by the number of pigs they could support rather than counted by the acreage of trees. Under Norman forest law the owners of swine paid pannage dues for ‘agisting’ or pasturing their pigs in the forests, while herbage dues covered the pasturing of horses and cattle, a practice that still continues on today’s New Forest. Pigs were the main kind of domestic stock in the Forest and the autumn, in particular, provided an opportunity to fatten them up on fallen acorns and beech-mast, finishing them off before they were slaughtered for the winter. Incidentally, the wild boar, which were hunted to extinction in the seventeenth century, were said to have mated with domestic New Forest sows, giving the off-spring a distinguished, boar-like appearance.
Domestic pig-keeping was an integral part of the homestead, and properties adjacent to the Forest relied on the benefits derived from the pannage season. An account, from 1838, describes how pigs were trained to the sound of a horn during feeding times, so that they would associate the sound with pleasant associations. When the swineherd blew on his horn the pigs would assemble, making them easier to manage on the Open Forest. It was remarked that, ‘If the swineherd is a man of talent in his way, the hogs are turned out in excellent condition, and very little more expense fits them for the market’. Pigs were an important part of the rural economy and, according to a nineteenth century travel writer, Hampshire was a county renown for three things – bacon, the New Forest pony, and honey. Pannage bacon remains very popular and because it is a seasonal delicacy renown for its rich, concentrated flavour, it is much in demand. Local butchers are usually the best source for those wanting to give it a try. The number of pigs running loose around the Forest will, inevitably, increase during pannage season. This means that people using the New Forest roads need to take extra care to avoid the piggy pedestrians – particularly now, as the nights are drawing in. Visitors to the Forest, also, should be aware of the increased presence of pigs and that no matter how appealing they look, under no circumstances should they be petted, fed by hand, or given food – even as a treat.
 F. L. Attenborough (ed.), The Laws of the Earliest Kings (Cambridge, 1922), Ine, c.44, p. 50.
 Eva Ritter, Dainis Dauksta (eds.), New Perspectives on People and Forests (London, 2011), 4.3.1, p. 52.
 Robert Mudie, Hampshire: its past and present condition, and future prospects, Vol. II (Winchester, 1838), p. 328.
 Richard John King, A handbook for travellers in Surrey, Hampshire, and the Isle of Wight, Third Edition, Revised (London, 1876), p. 192.