New Forest: where’s the her-story?

Forest dwellers in times past were self-sufficient. They grew vegetables and kept animals.

Of all the books I’ve read about the New Forest, it occurs to me that very few relate the New Forest from the feminine perspective or, indeed, tell women’s stories of living or growing up in this unique environment. It also makes me wonder, just how much her-story have we missed by only relating and recording his-story? One outstanding exception to this is perhaps the autobiography of Gilbert Smith, who provides an insight into the lifestyle of a Forest Keeper’s family at the turn of the twentieth century. It’s a book that, for me, has had many laugh-out-loud moments, as he describes his childhood growing up on the New Forest. Although it was a hard life, he is grateful that it was one filled with the things money can’t buy – love, space and freedom – much of which was due to his mother. He describes her in tones of immense admiration and, by his account, was a woman of widespread ability, able to add many creature comforts into their otherwise thrifty lifestyle. (For instance, she would stuff pillows with thistledown and lavender for the children’s beds.) He describes her as a ‘true Forester’ with a marvellous sense of humour, that was quite wicked at times. Their existence was fairly isolated with the nearest neighbour being over a mile away, which meant that they had to be self-reliant. (Gilbert Smith never had a day outside the New Forest until after he’d left school.) The Forest at that time had no electricity, no gas, no telephone, and travel was on unmade dirt tracks either on foot, bicycle, horseback or in a horse-drawn waggon or cart. When her children were young, Smith’s mother pushed them about in a wheelbarrow, as a pram would never have survived the rough tracks.

Tough – little donkeys
It was a very physically demanding existence, without the benefit of the modern technology or labour-saving devices that we take for granted today. All their food was made from ingredients (there was no such thing as processed or convenience food available) and Smith’s mother is described as a ‘magician’ able to conjure up appetising food, with just primitive cooking facilities. Rabbits, caught by the children, sometimes supplemented the protein requirement of the family diet; this, it must be remembered, was before the introduction of myxomatosis to control the rabbit population. Smith’s father, who was a Forest Keeper, was allowed to take some for the pot, but rabbits were generally reserved for the “licensees” who paid to shoot in the Forest. He never seemed to realise just how prolific his children’s hunting was, as his wife never let on and bartered the excess bunnies at Ringwood market, where she also sold any eggs and butter that could be spared. The vegetables they ate came from their own garden plot, and Smith’s mother would make her own chutney and pickles from the surplus. When he was a child Gilbert Smith and his brothers and sisters, would help their mother collect “morning’s wood” for the fire. Mother would push the wheelbarrow and, when it was filled with fallen branches and dried sticks, the children would pull in front on ropes – ‘just like little donkeys’. It was a tough existence.

Survival lessons
As well as the absence of convenience food or labour-saving technology, at this time people were also without the benefit of a National Health Service, and the nearest doctor – who was very expensive – lived many miles away. Any ailments had to be treated with home-remedies made from the plants and herbs growing around their holding, or from vinegar, cider and honey on the comb. Luckily, Smith’s mother was a gifted naturalist, who was herself descended from a line of Forest Keepers, and passed her knowledge on to her children. Smith describes how she impressed upon them all the appropriate “do’s” and an awful lot of “don’ts”. None of these, however, are listed in Gilbert Smith’s book and we can only hope that perhaps they survive in the generations that followed him. Reading this memoir as well as being thoroughly entertaining was, nevertheless, thought provoking. It made me wonder, that if our children were to write about their own upbringing, what sort of memories would they share about us? And, if we ever had to be self-sufficient like the Smith family, just how would we survive?

Gilbert Smith describes himself, and his brothers and sisters, as being like ‘little donkeys’.

Posted in New Forest, New Forest Commoner | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on New Forest: where’s the her-story?

New Forest: animal accidents on Roger Penny Way

The free-roaming ponies use the New Forest road system at all times of the year, day and night.

Over the past couple of weeks (February 2017) there have been a series of collisions on the B3078 – Roger Penny Way – that have resulted in the deaths of several New Forest ponies. In one incident, although the driver escaped with minor injuries, the pony was killed when it went through the windscreen of their VW Polo. Graphic photos of the pony corpses resulting from these several collisions have been made into an awareness campaign circulating various social media sites, and a petition is being organised by animal lovers to reduce the speed limit on that road. Emotions are certainly running high. According to statistics, which are available from the Verderers of the New Forest, the vehicle most associated with animal deaths or injury by far, is the private motorcar; and the driver of that vehicle is most likely to be a local person. The biggest contributing factor cited in the cause of animal deaths on New Forest roads is excessive speed. Indeed, in the same week that the pony deaths, described above, occurred, Hampshire Police Specials, in one shift alone, issued speeding fines to six motorists all doing over 50mph along the B3078, Roger Penny Way.

Decline in animal injury and death
The New Forest is a special place, with special qualities, to which the free roaming, commonable animals are an asset. It is a place unlike anywhere else in the world, and perhaps its speeding laws should reflect that, by imposing fines far more severe than elsewhere. Drivers killing or injuring commonable animals should perhaps face a driving-ban or risk having their car impounded if speed is found to be a significant factor in the incident, and those drivers who commit ‘hit and run’ offences should be dealt with punitively. Maybe the animal corpses ought to be left out beside the roads for longer periods to serve as a warning to road users. Rather than fence more New Forest roads, as has been suggested, perhaps we ought to consider closing them – particularly at night! But, before we get too carried away, when viewed in the bigger picture, there is some hope that the situation may perhaps not be as bad as it seems at present. It could be that these particular incidents, as mentioned above, which occurred over a short period of about a fortnight, coinciding with perilous weather conditions, including dense fog, ice and freezing rain, are actually a series of unfortunate accidents. According to the Verderers’ statistics, the overall trend for collisions, which result in the death or injury of a commonable animal, are actually on the decrease. (These figures are based upon the ratio of animal accidents to the number of animals turned out on the Forest.) This trend needs further analysis but could be due to the actions of statutory organisations, including the Verderers, Police, Forestry Commission, New Forest National Park Authority, Hampshire County Council and New Forest District Council who promote initiatives to reduce the rate of animal death or injury further. Then, of course, added to these efforts are those undertaken by local groups, such as Commoners Defence Association, New Forest Trust, and the Parish Councils; and the overall picture is one of safety for the commonable animals being a concern, not only at the highest level of authority within the New Forest, but widespread across its many communities; indicating that recklessly speeding drivers are truly in the minority.

Animal Casualty sign, which is used to mark the sight of an animal injury or fatality.

Posted in New Forest, New Forest Animal Road Traffic Accidents | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on New Forest: animal accidents on Roger Penny Way

New Forest: close encounter of a furred kind!

The New Forest landscape supports many species of plants, fungi, insects, birds and mammals.

One of the best things about living in the countryside has got to be the interaction one can have with wildlife – in all its forms. As I write this piece (February 2017), I am sat in my kitchen where I can overlook the garden and see the snowdrops that have bloomed in the withy patch beside the stream. These delicate little first-heralds-of-spring will soon be followed by yellow daffodils and then later, in May, bluebells. Also from my kitchen window I can see the many birds – including goldfinches, chaffinches, some great spotted woodpeckers and even the occasional nuthatch – that visit the feeders, which have been erected in the garden for their sustenance. The grey squirrels also try to visit the feeders whenever they can, but the regular patrols by our ever-vigilant Labradors keep their garden raids to a minimum. I look out of the window quite often, for inspiration or a change of focus away from the computer screen, and during one such break in writing I was even lucky enough to catch the eye of a passing stoat, as it crossed the patio and stared in through the window at me! There are deer, badgers, rabbits and foxes in and around the pasture, where my field-kept ponies live, as I often see their tracks criss-crossing the meadows. There is no doubt that having wildlife in such close proximity is hugely beneficial to my sense of wellbeing.

Close encounters of a furred kind!
Friends of mine, a husband and wife, recently told me of a close encounter they had experienced with wildlife that had an unexpected twist. They have a beautiful, picture-postcard thatched cottage in a nearby village that has inspired them to become keen gardeners. After a particularly vigorous session of clearing undergrowth and invasive shrubbery they had managed to fill several bags with garden waste, which they decided to take to the dump. During the journey there, the husband, who was driving, experienced a strange tickling-clawing sensation that began at his tummy and proceeded hurriedly up to his chest and then creep around his neck. It was not a pleasant feeling and he quickly realised that a critter had somehow secreted itself in his shirt, either while he was gardening or while carrying the bags of green waste to the trailer. It was just as he felt the creature trying to run down his back that he decided enough was enough and he needed to take urgent action. He swerved the car onto the side of the road jumped out and removed his shirt in an apparently almost simultaneous motion. He did not mention how many witnesses saw this odd behaviour or what their reactions had been, but suffice to say that a shrew was seen to exit his clothing rather hastily and scamper off into the verge. A couple of days later some other friends, who live in another part of the Forest but have relatives close to the thatched cottage, were in the village and met the couple as they were in their garden. It transpired that they had visited their relatives earlier that week and, as they were driving through the village, realised that a shrew had somehow managed to get inside the car and was running around the drivers’ foot well. So, they stopped just outside the picture-postcard thatched cottage, opened the door where the furry critter hopped out and ran into the garden. Was it the same shrew? We will never know!

The Common Shrew (Sorex araneus) lives in hedgerows, scrubland, grassland and deciduous woodland.

For more information about the Common Shrew (Sorex araneus) visit:
The Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust website – Common Shrew
The Mammal Society website – Common Shrew

Posted in New Forest | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on New Forest: close encounter of a furred kind!

New Forest: the seventeenth century coal-rush!

As a ‘royal forest’ the New Forest was closely connected to the monarchy.

On the 30th January 1649 Charles I was executed by beheading. In this momentous event the monarchy was overthrown, signalling the start of England’s only ever foray into republicanism with the establishment of a Commonwealth government. As a result, the House of Lords too was effectively abolished and the Council of State, later to be known as the Protector’s Privy Council, assumed executive authority in the running of the country. This revolutionary outcome presented opportunities to those who wanted to take advantage of the changed political order, and one such occasion involved an application for permission to mine in the New Forest. On the 8th February 1653, it was recorded in the State Papers Domestic that Mr. Wallop, Colonel Fielder, Mr. Love, Colonel Thompson, and Colonel Morley – all members of the Commonwealth government – were to form a committee ‘to consider proposals of Peter Priaulx and others, of Southampton, concerning the finding of coal in Hants, and to report’.[1] Peter Priaulx and his associates, George Gregory and Joseph Denham, were merchants who had offered to ‘search out, dig and vend such coals and other minerals as shall or may happen to be found within the said [New] forest’.[2] These entrepreneurial gentlemen must have been aware of the strict legal codes that governed the royal forests but, presumably, without a monarchy to impose these laws the New Forest no longer had such protection or prohibition; or, at the very least, would be susceptible to the acquisitive schemes of supporters of the Commonwealth. The early part of the seventeenth century had brought a new emphasis on coal mining, which had been created by the enormous increase in the price of firewood and lumber. Land clearance and enclosure had reduced the availability of England’s timber resources, and subsequently encouraged a ‘coal-fever’ mentality and ‘coal-rush’ speculation throughout the country.

The New Forest coal-rush
However, it seems that the proposals of the Southampton merchants attracted interest from other speculators, and in June 1653 Parliament received a letter from Colonel Norton and Richard Major ‘concerning the discovery of a coal mine in the New Forest, and their directions thereon’.[3] (Richard Major was, according to the description of a contemporary, ‘a man witty and thrifty even to miserliness, and an unscrupulous oppressor of his tenantry’.[4]) His intentions towards the coal-mining project presumably were centred on receiving some sort of financial advantage, though he had previously been among several gentlemen who had petitioned Parliament in April 1653 ‘for a lease of the gold and silver mines in Ireland, as being a business of public concern’.[5] In December of that year the State Papers Domestic recorded that the proposals to find and use a coal mine in the New Forest, had been approved and that the merchants had been permitted ‘to dig at their own charges for 30 years in the limits prescribed, allowing the State 1/8 of the profit, and Col. Bennett was to report this to the House’.[6] No such report was made, and it seems that ‘the State certainly got no revenue from it, and the promoters no profit’.[7] For the moment, all talk of coal mining ceased. In 1660 Charles II – the Merry Monarch – was restored to the English throne and with his accession the New Forest, once again, became a royal forest and venue for regal recreation. From then until now, even though rumours of the presence of coal in the New Forest continued to be of interest to those who believed ‘that mineral treasures exist under the roots of the gigantic trees of the [New] forest’, the landscape has thankfully been protected from mining operations and thus preserved intact.[8]

The New Forest is a unique and ancient landscape.


[1] ‘Volume 33: February 1653’, in Calendar of State Papers Domestic: Interregnum, 1652-3, ed. Mary Anne Everett Green (London, 1878), pp. 137-193. British History Online [accessed 28 January 2017].

[2] Wilbur Cortez Abbott (ed.), The Writings and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell: The Protectorate, 1653-55, Vol. III (Oxford, 1989), p. 402.

[3] Jacob, W. H. ‘Coal in the New Forest!’, Southampton Herald, 20 Jan. 1900, p. 2. British Library Newspapers, Accessed 28 Jan. 2017.

[4] ‘Parishes: Hursley’, in A History of the County of Hampshire: Volume 3, ed. William Page (London, 1908), pp. 417-422. British History Online [accessed 28 January 2017].

[5] ‘Volume 35: April 1653’, in Calendar of State Papers Domestic: Interregnum, 1652-3, ed. Mary Anne Everett Green (London, 1878), pp. 249-302. British History Online [accessed 28 January 2017].

[6] ‘Volume 42: December 1653’, in Calendar of State Papers Domestic: Interregnum, 1653-4, ed. Mary Anne Everett Green (London, 1879), pp. 279-328. British History Online [accessed 28 January 2017].

[7] ‘The Hampshire Field Club’, Southampton Herald, 22 Apr. 1899, p. 7. British Library Newspapers, Accessed 29 Jan. 2017.

[8] ‘Town and Country Talk’, Lloyd’s Illustrated Newspaper, 9 Apr. 1865. British Library Newspapers, Accessed 29 Jan. 2017.

Posted in New Forest | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on New Forest: the seventeenth century coal-rush!

New Forest: Drivers who are verging on the ridiculous!

Roadside verges are an important, but under appreciated, aspect of the New Forest landscape.

Without a doubt the New Forest is a wonderful place to visit. Tourists coming to the area are often awestruck at the sight of ponies, cattle, sheep and pigs wandering freely within the perambulation. They marvel at the landscape that, in many places, extends as far as the eye can see and which, as a unique survivor of our medieval past, offers a tantalising glimpse of what much of our countryside must have looked like hundreds of years ago. Saying that though, for all its evocation of wilderness, it is also a landscape that has been managed for over a thousand years. Currently, organisations, such as the Forestry Commission, New Forest National Park Authority and the Verderers of the New Forest, are directly involved in maintaining, protecting and preserving, this special place. To do this, a large proportion of their efforts are focused towards managing the Forest’s users – dog-walkers, ramblers, cyclists, and horse-riders – to ensure that their visit has the maximum enjoyment with the minimum impact. The provision of car parks is an excellent example how this is accomplished. Until the 1970s, vehicles could travel and park anywhere across the New Forest that they could get to. This meant that up to 20,000 vehicles per day were estimated to drive off the highway on to the New Forest at peak times.[1] As a result the Forest landscape became churned-up and criss-crossed with vehicle tracks, and its cherished flora and fauna was becoming stressed and threatened as a result. After a long campaign by conservationists, initiatives, such as ditches and barriers, official car parks, and designated camping and caravanning sites, were finally introduced. These measures have since gone a long way to preserving the special character of the New Forest. However, some Forest users persist in reminding us of the ‘bad-old-days’ by parking on the roadside grassed areas – often within sight of authorised car parks! Excuse the pun, but this is really verging on the ridiculous.

Roadside verges are an under appreciated aspect of the landscape
The grass verges, particularly those beside the busy Forest roads, serve an important function, and some are even designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), which means that they are of national importance for nature conservation and are legally protected against damage.[2] Verges provide a buffer zone between the heathland vegetation, such as gorse, and the roads. This gives drivers, and other road users, a much better chance of seeing the commonable animals and wildlife emerging onto the roads. Drivers who park on the verges, therefore, impede visibility and create a hazard. Of course, those Forest users who insist on feeding the ponies and donkeys, especially from their vehicles, vastly increase the dangers. The free-roaming ponies and donkeys will often congregate around a parked vehicle in the hope of gaining an easy meal or titbit, making a bad situation even worse. Verges also provide a safety zone for the ponies. The ditches, which were installed to prevent vehicles from accessing the Open Forest, are generally set back from the road – not to give space for vehicles to park on the verges – but, for example, to allow the ponies to jump the ditches without landing directly onto the highway. Verges also provide grazing opportunities for the commonable animals and wildlife. People who park their vehicles on the verges create patches of erosion that encourage other drivers to follow suit, causing damage and reducing the feeding areas for the animals. Verges are therefore an important, but much unappreciated, aspect of the landscape that need our respect. Interestingly, according to National Park Authority figures, 46% of Forest users are aged 55 years and over.[3] This group, if they don’t remember the ‘bad old days’ when it was ‘park where you please’, are certainly old enough to know better!

The provision of car parks is one of the many ways that visitors to the New Forest are managed.


Free New Forest car parks map:$file/eng-NFCarparks2011.pdf

Don’t Treat Our Verges Like Dirt!

[1] Colin R. Tubbs, The New Forest: History, Ecology, Conservation (Lyndhurst, 2001), p. 99.
[2] New Forest National Park Authority, ‘Don’t Treat Our Verges Like Dirt!’: [accessed 21.01.2017].
[3] New Forest National Park Authority – Facts and Figures:…/tourism_and_recreation_-_facts_and_figures [access 21.01.2017].

Posted in New Forest | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on New Forest: Drivers who are verging on the ridiculous!

New Forest: outwitted by a greedy pony!

Commonable cattle eating meadow hay made during the summer.

I went to visit a commoning friend of mine recently while they were feeding hay to the cows in one of their fields, and thought I could be of some assistance by opening and closing the gate for them. Ordinarily this would not be a difficult task, but in this instance the situation was slightly complicated by the presence in the field of a pony that had wandered in from the Open Forest earlier in the week. Several days before, my friend had pulled up to the gates leading into the field and the pony (which incidentally they owned) seeing bales of good meadow hay sticking out of the back of the 4X4, had followed the vehicle into the field before the gates could be closed. The pony was now shut in with the cows, but appeared quite happy with its accidental imprisonment; after all fresh hay was being delivered to it every day. The pony was a mature mare, one of those canny animals which, having spent many years on the Open Forest, seem to know all the tricks of the trade. However, her presence was rather inconvenient to my friend, as she had brought with her a band of ponies that were generally hanging around outside the field, calling to the mare or leaning over the fence to ‘talk’ to her.

Best laid plans and all that!
With my assistance, we thought that the mare could be shepherded out of the field and released back into the ‘wild’ to join her band. The plan was to open the gate and let in my friend with their vehicle and, at the same time, let the pony out. The mare seemed to be cooperating with this plan because she was waiting at the gate, as if ready to be let out to join her friends. All went well at first. I duly opened the gate. In went the vehicle and out wandered the mare. I had opened the gate wide to give her plenty of space; after all she is semi-feral and wary of close proximity to people. However, what happen next happened so fast I was taken by surprise. As she went out, her little band, which was made up of four ponies rushed over to greet her. She got just beyond the gateway, looked left and right across the lawn and seeing that the grass was not as long as it was in the field did an about turn and galloped back into the field. It was a genuine case of the grass being greener on the other side! However, before I could do anything about the mare’s change of mind, her pony-friends followed her in. Instead of helping, I’d made things worse. My friend now had five ponies in their field with the cows. I had been outwitted by a greedy pony – or in this case five! I was so embarrassed. The ponies began galloping around the field, which all of a sudden looked very large indeed, and there was nothing that could be done while they were so excited. My friend and I left them to it and went in search of a cup of tea – the panacea for all troubles – and for me the addition of a large slice of humble-pie.

New Forest ponies are renown for their intelligence, easy-going temperaments, and love of food!


Posted in New Forest, New Forest cattle, New Forest pony | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on New Forest: outwitted by a greedy pony!

New Forest: different views of the same landscape

Mother Nature washes the New Forest with a palette of colours superior to any artist.

I have really been enjoying the sepia colours of the frost-covered Forest recently; and came across a passage in a book recently that stuck a chord with me because I felt that it summed up, quite poetically, the seasons on the New Forest. It was written by John Wise in 1863 and, like me, he must have passed through certain parts of the Forest on a regular basis to gain an understanding and appreciation its annual cycle, from spring through to winter. He described the view from Stoney Cross and said that; “here, on all sides stretch woods and moors. Here, in the latter end of August, the three heathers glory, mixed with the flashes of the dwarf furze. And a little later the maples are dyed, yellow and russet, by the autumn rains, and the beeches are scorched to a fiery red with the first frost, and the oaks renew, but the deeper and more gloriously, the golden lights of spring, till the great woods of Prior’s Acre and Daneshill burn with colour; every gleam of sunshine, and every passing shadow, touching them with fresher and stranger beauty”. Certainly, there is no doubt that Mother Nature is liberal with her use of the colour palette when applying it to the New Forest. I have seen such intense and vibrant colours across the landscape and its skies – at dawn and sunset; spring through to winter; and in rain, frost and sunshine – that if it were even possible to recreate their hues in a photograph or painting, you would not believe that they could appear so naturally.

Late spring and early summer frosts
Almost a decade before Wise made his observations about the scenic beauty of the New Forest, a report was presented to Queen Victoria’s Lords Commissioners of the Treasury that seemed to describe an entirely different vision of the landscape. It stated that ‘the climate of the New Forest is peculiarly damp and humid, and that it is subject to frosts, late in the spring and early in the summer’. It was felt that these ‘unimproved’ conditions were contrary to those required for the profitable growth of timber and, as a consequence, a programme of ‘improvement’ by a thorough system of drainage of the inclosures was recommended. This radical action it was stated, would make the climate of the New Forest ‘drier and more wholesome’. It was suggested that not only would excess water be removed from the soil but that drainage would also cleanse it ‘from any bad qualities naturally lodging in it.’ The Commissioners were informed that, in the opinion of the report’s author, the damp and uncongenial air of the forest would spread to the best-managed plantations and farm-crops on private properties in the surrounding neighbourhood. Drainage, therefore, was promoted as being in the public interest! Curiously, the presence of large quantities of trees already growing on undrained Forest soil were dismissed as ‘defective and inferior’; and the years of experience among the forestry staff (many of them commoners), in the management of the timber, was regarded as not having produced any ‘happy results’ and consequently their wealth of experience was ignored. Thankfully today we have a better knowledge of the Forest’s ecology and the wetland habitats of the Forest that are so vital to many species of animal, plant and insect. Many of the habitats that were devastated by the commercial activities of the past are, where possible, being sensitively and successfully restored.

The climate of the New Forest was described, in 1854, as being prone to late spring and early summer frosts.

John Richard de Capel Wise, The New Forest: Its History and Its Scenery (London, 1863), p. 110.

Accounts and Papers: Thirty Six Volumes (29), Woods, Forests, and &c., 31st January to 12th August 1854, Vol. LXVII, pp. 101-160.

For more information on wetland restoration in the New Forest:

Verderers of the New Forest: Wetland restoration information:

Forestry Commission – Sustainable Wetland Restoration:$FILE/sw-casestudies-wetlandrestoration.pdf

Posted in New Forest | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on New Forest: different views of the same landscape

New Forest: cows, co-operation and community

Keeping livestock demands 24/7 attention, even during the Christmas holiday season.

The Christmas-to-New-Year holiday period is a great time for catching up with friends and family and for spending quality time in their company. There is generally lots of feasting and merry-making to be done, which is often accompanied by generous amounts of snoozing in an armchair in front of the TV. For some people, however, the daily pattern of work is not interrupted, even by the festive season. Here I particularly think about my commoning friends, who, like other farmers, smallholders, shepherds and husbandmen, will be tending to their herds, flocks, packs, teams and colonies – according to the type of animal they keep – in much the same way as they do every day, but perhaps in the hope of some well-earned time off once the important chores are done. Some of the jobs around the farm, smallholding or estate cannot be mechanised and still rely upon the physical labour and observant eye of those tending to animals and crops, in much the same way as farmers of old would have done.

Mary Christmas
A few years ago I wrote an article about a calf, named Mary Christmas, whose story was somewhat exceptional. She was born, and orphaned, in dramatic circumstances on 25th December, hence her name. However, her entrance into the world demonstrated the level of cooperation that exists between the Forest folk, even on day that is supposed to be one of quiet ease. Due to the sacrifice of those who gave up precious time with their families to help care for her, she continues to thrive. Only recently I saw her in a field with several calves performing her duties as matriarch. She is a big sturdy animal with the sweetest temperament and is easily identified, being the only brown cow among an otherwise black herd of Aberdeen Angus cattle. In the spring when they all go out onto the Open Forest, she will assume the role of teacher to yet another generation of free-roaming cattle and show them all the best places to drink, eat, sleep and chew the cud. Her story, which has been read and appreciated by a worldwide audience, remains one of the most popular articles I’ve ever written. I often wonder if the reason for her popularity is that the story of Mary Christmas, as well as being a heart-warming tale of survival, also demonstrates the real community spirit that is part and parcel of the practice of commoning.

The mutual thread of community
For those who live an urban existence perhaps there is no mutual thread to hold their neighbourhoods together, which creates a fascination with, and even nostalgia for, the ‘old ways’ that still exist in the New Forest and many rural parts of the country and, indeed, the world. The support structures and camaraderie that exist between those who nurture the environment, wildlife and livestock are but some of the many compensations for a life lived in all weathers and at all hours. No matter how sophisticated we become as a species, no matter how technologically advanced we are, with all the social media communications, labour-saving gadgets and mechanical paraphernalia of the modern world, deep down inside there is always an essential yearning to belong to the natural world and a close-knit community. In historical terms, it wasn’t until fairly recently that we moved from the country into the towns and lost our connectivity with the life cycle, pattern of the seasons, food production and, perhaps, even with each other. For me, the wonder one feels when viewing the inestimable stars on a cloudless night; the quiet contemplation that is induced by the sound of a babbling brook in the forest; and, the skin-tingling, hair-raising excitement of hearing the sound of many galloping hooves, is part of an intrinsic need to experience a point of reference to the natural world that gives ones life meaning. Being part of the commoning community amplifies this sense and shines a light on a way of life that, once upon a time, would have been familiar to all.

The sound of galloping hooves is guaranteed to get the heart pumping.

Posted in New Forest | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on New Forest: cows, co-operation and community

New Forest Boxing Day Point-to-Point 2016

(Photo: 2013) New Forest ponies are versatile and can turn their ‘hoof’ to any task, including racing.

Boxing Day this year (2016) began with a glorious sunny aspect, which warmed the early morning with the promise of a good day. The drive to the meet was pleasant and punctuated at important road junctions with signage pointing the way to the finish line, where all the spectators were asked to assemble. I turned up in good time to join the small queue at the mobile catering unit for a coffee and an egg and bacon bap, which is the prerequisite meal when attending any New Forest Point-to-Point. Having purchased a programme that listed all the runners and riders, I took up my usual position close to the finish line and within easy hearing distance of the commentary box. From this vantage point I usually get a good view of the proceedings and can hear any important announcements. Everyone was in good spirits and there was a feeling of excited anticipation in the air.

New Forest Boxing Day Point-to-Point
The Boxing Day Point-to-Point on the New Forest is very special. The races are conducted according to the same amateur principles that established the sport in the mid-1700s, and remains the only authentic point-to-point in the country. The location of the finish line, where the spectators are invited to assemble, is revealed only two weeks prior to the date of the fixture. However, the start line is disclosed only 24-hours beforehand! Those riding in the race are informed on Christmas Day of the location of the starting point and, if they so chose, are able to walk the course to inspect the ground. There are several races held on the day, including veteran jockeys 55 years and over, children 10-16 years, ladies, and novice ponies. In order to be eligible to enter the race the runners and riders must meet certain strict criteria. The ponies, for instance, must be purebred or part-bred New Forest ponies and have taken part in at least six drifts (pony round-ups) during the autumn. The riders must also be members of the New Forest Pony Breeding & Cattle Society or the New Forest Pony Enthusiasts Club. All participants must adhere to strict Health & Safety protocols.

A feat of stamina and knowledge of the Forest
The ponies and jockeys need to be fit to take part because the races are a feat of endurance. Although this year the going was very good, with the approach to the finish line on beautifully, flat, green tuft, on previous occasions the course has been an entirely different proposition. I have seen freezing rain and strong winds blowing directly into the faces of the ponies and riders as they galloped uphill, over heather, towards the finish line. Previously, some of the ponies and jockeys have passed the finish line plastered in mud and some soaked through. On one occasion, a veteran jockey experienced an ‘unplanned dismount’ into a bog and eventually passed the finish line looking absolutely drenched and muddy, but to a wild applause from the crowd. Riders have to choose their own path to the finish and can cross the line from any direction. This year one jockey finished in a different direction from the rest of the riders in her class and received rapturous cheers as a result. The adult races are run over three-miles and the children’s races are one-and-a-half miles. The races are a test of the physical stamina and sure-footedness of the New Forest ponies, and the navigation skills and riding ability of the jockeys. They are great fun to watch and I am sure they must be exciting to ride too. The atmosphere is very good humoured, which is helped along by the banter from the race commentator. It is an informal event that attracts a large, family audience and, thanks to the generous support of local business sponsorship, is free to attend. There is a strong presence of volunteers on the day performing important functions, such as course designers, stewards (ridden and on-foot) and programme sellers, which ensures that the event runs smoothly and everyone has a good time. Well done to everyone  – organisers, runners and riders – for a fabulous day out!

(Photo: 2014) The New Forest Boxing Day Point-to-Point is still run to the rules from the mid-1700s.

Abridged results: New Forest Boxing Day Point-to-Point

Race 1a – no entries
Race 1b – Veterans 55 Yrs and over on New Forest ponies – won by Judith Cutler, riding her own Yewtree Stroller II.
Race 2 – Children 10-13 Yrs on New Forest ponies – won by John Lovell, riding Erika Dovey’s Ipersbridge Whisper.
Race 3 – Children 14-16 Yrs on New forest ponies – won by Lizzie Wilson, riding Linda Crow’s Willoway Fancy Free.
Race 4a – Ladies on ponies – won by Heidi Whetren riding Lily Wiltshire’s Easter.
Race 4b & 4c – Open ponies not exceeding 15.2hh & Heavyweight Race minimum height 15.2hh – won by Mark Adams, riding his own Woottonheath Herbie.
Race 5 evens – Novice New Forest pony – won by Cody Green, riding Sonja Waite’s Silverlea Spartacus.
Race 5 odds – Novice New Forest pony – won by Amy Howells riding Roly Bessant’s Samsons Scandal.
Race 6 & 7 – Open New Forest ponies & Young Commoners on pure bred New Forest ponies – won by Anita Smith, riding her own Janesmoor Jasper Conran.

NB: If anyone has photos of this years NFP-2-P that I could use, for a link/acknowledgement, please email


Posted in New Forest Point-to_Point | Tagged , , , , , , | Comments Off on New Forest Boxing Day Point-to-Point 2016

New Forest: celebrating a Victorian Christmas

Mummers plays were traditional folk dramas performed at Christmas.

The traditions of Christmas that many of us enjoy, such as sending Christmas cards, bringing fir trees into our homes and decorating them, and eating turkey, were not observed prior to the nineteenth century. Queen Victoria and her husband, Albert, popularised the celebration of Christmas as a time for families, when a drawing of the couple and their children, gathered around a Christmas tree, appeared in the 1848 edition of the Illustrated London News. But it was Charles Dickens, in his A Christmas Carol, published in 1843, who is generally credited with ‘inventing’ Christmas as we know it – with snow, mulled wine, party games and acts of charity. By the end of the nineteenth century Christmas celebrations, which would be recognisable today, were firmly established in and around the New Forest, as the following newspaper reports show. In the Hampshire Advertiser, 1881, it was reported that the Mayor of Lyndhurst, Major Macleay, J.P., and his wife, were generous to the ‘deserving poor’, giving them a joint of meat and a warm shawl each. Whilst another report stated that in the New Forest Union Workhouse, ‘garlands of evergreens and flowers and various devices help to make up a most effective decoration’. A lot of effort was made to render the interior cheerful because ‘a variety of Chinese lanterns’ hung from the ceiling. For their Christmas dinner, the workhouse inmates were treated to ‘a substantial dinner of roast beef and plum pudding’, after which the men were served tobacco and beer and the women were given tea. The children were treated to cake and given toys donated by benefactors from the parish.

A not-so-sober Christmas
However, not all acts of generosity and goodwill to men were encouraged. In 1885, the Postmaster-General stated that ‘the least desirable manner in which appreciation can be shown of the labours of the postmen during the Christmas and New Year season is to offer them drink while in the discharge of their duties’. Apparently this act of ‘mistaken kindness’ was calculated to bring the poor postie into ‘trouble and disgrace’. The Postmaster-General called on the public to refrain from putting temptation in their way and to allow the postmen to continue their duties soberly! There was plenty of revelry in 1888, when the residents of Lyndhurst were reported to have been kept awake until nearly midnight ‘by perambulating parties of minstrels, amateur and otherwise, who, as well as the village band, paid a round of visits to most of the leading houses in the neighbourhood, from whose doors, with the generosity so characteristic of the place, none were sent empty-handed away, and enabled at least one party to hand over a goodly donation to the Church Improvement Fund’. In 1892, the weather was reported to have been ‘really splendid for the Christmas holidays, and people have been able to get about with pleasure, the cold notwithstanding, the biting easterly wind having given place to bright, crisp weather’. The traditional Boxing Day hunt was abandoned due to a severe frost and, according to the newspaper report, ‘skating had to be resorted to instead of galloping over the Forest, which just now presents a true Christmaslike appearance’. Meanwhile in Lymington ‘waits, mummers, handbell-ringers, minstrel troupes, &c’ entertained large crowds. So, as you can see, the New Forest has always celebrated the festivities in true Victorian style! Whether you are a Forest resident or visitor, and whichever traditional activity you choose to follow or custom to practice over the holidays, have a very merry Christmas.


Philip V. Allingham, Contributing Editor, Dickens “the man who invented Christmas”, The Victorian Web; Faculty of Education, Lakehead University, Thunder Bay, Ontario.

History of Christmas, BBC website:

The Hampshire Advertiser (Southampton, England), Wednesday, December 28, 1881; pg. 3; Issue 3708. British Library Newspapers, Part II: 1800-1900.

The Hampshire Advertiser (Southampton, England), Wednesday, December 23, 1885; pg. 2; Issue 4124. British Library Newspapers, Part II: 1800-1900.

Horse and Hound: A Journal of Sport and Agriculture (London, England), Saturday, January 07, 1888; pg. 9; Issue 198. New Readerships.

The Hampshire Advertiser (Southampton, England), Wednesday, December 28, 1892; pg. 4; Issue 4857. British Library Newspapers, Part II: 1800-1900.




Posted in New Forest | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on New Forest: celebrating a Victorian Christmas