I think I groaned loudly when my alarm went off at 6am. It was the beginning of a 3 day weekend as I had taken a day off work but I was still getting up early. The reason for this was an almost-two hour drive to the New Forest on Hampshire’s south coast.
Despite my habit of being insanely organized when it comes to packing this was the first trip I hadn’t been and stuff was still in piles to get moved into the car. I hadn’t even figured out which part of the New Forest we were heading for yet.
We pulled away from the house, after spending 30 minutes getting the car loaded, about 8:15 in order to avoid the worst of the rush hour traffic. I had finally decided on my destination and plotted into Google Maps. Thankfully we didn’t get caught in any traffic hold ups and we arrived at the parking lot at 10am..not bad going for British roads. It was still a little chilly and we briefly chatted with a van-dweller parked next to us before I loaded the packs on the dogs and we headed down into the valley. With 9 miles ahead of us I was making use of the two days to get us in a little better shape for the West Highland Way backpacking trip we had planned for May.
With the sun shining down on us and a decent breeze blowing we climbed up a gravel cycle path to the top of Hampton Ridge which provided some gorgeous 360* views of the surrounding moorlands. Sadly it was too early for the heather to be in its full purple bloom but the bright golden yellow of the gorse more than made up for it.
We also bypassed many New Forest ponies as we climbed skyward, most of them ignoring us as they munched on the short-cropped grass. With 3000 ponies living in the National Park I was surprised at how minimal the grass was, even in early spring.
We followed the track for a while longer along the ridge before the track split and we turned left. This is where the instructions got a little hazy as we were required to turn left again but this time on a “lesser path” with gorse on the left side. Apparently the one we took wasn’t the path we were supposed to be on as when we reached another gravel track there was no path continuing into the woods. Of course if we hadn’t taken this path I wouldn’t have been rewarded by the sight of the native deer (unfortunately I can’t be sure which kind they were).
However, I was 99.9% sure this was the gravel road we WERE supposed to cross and so I turned right and in search of the where the trail DID cross the track.
We took a quick rest break for a soda and some water for the dogs, and watched a couple of ladies pass by us on horses and they looked like they were having a lovely time. Soon I heard more voices coming up from behind us and I quickly hefted my pack and set on up the road before they caught up to us. I like the solitude of hiking…it’s why I get out there.
Within half a mile we found the track we needed although it was missing the “Information Stone” the directions had mentioned which seemed like it should have been a good landmark to watch out for.
We crossed a small creek and climbed up the hill, through the trees until we were pushed out into open moorland once again. A straight gravel track led across the expanse of Little Cockley Plain. A large stand of trees stood to our left and beyond that the road hummed with traffic. The proximity of the cars was a little disheartening but they were only a visual disturbance and the peace and quiet was only disturbed by the occasional buzzing bee, whinny of a pony or an early songbird.
With views stretching out over the heather and gorse we paused for lunch in a sheltered spot. We waited for a horse rider to go by before we pressed on, with more people behind us feeling like a cracking whip pushing us on. Soon though they were left behind as we passed more ponies and cut 90* around a lone birch tree and turned back westwards for the return leg of the hike.
As we turned onto the bridleway we heard a horse sounding very distressed and hollering constantly. Stepping off the track we went to investigate but found nothing. As I sat down to dump yet more dirt out of my shoe (I was really missing my gaiters) a young horse galloped down the hill and through the bog that bordered the stream, and disappeared into the trees…still neighing loudly. At least we knew it wasn’t a horse in trouble at that point.
With my curiosity getting the best of me we crossed the small bridge and went in search of the young horse, and found her with a small group of others. She was still hollering and as she looked young I assumed she had recently been booted from her family. We re-traced our steps and found a very cool looking tree with half of its body laying on the ground as though it were resting from the grueling struggle of growing upwards.
The horse we had followed earlier came trotting down the hill, and to my surprise made use of the little footbridge we had just recently used. I think these ponies, with their familiarity with people, vehicles, bridges, stream crossings etc would make pretty bombproof riding horses. She took off again in the direction we were going but soon came back and took a giant leap across the chasm where the creek was buried. That was the last we saw of her.
With that distraction out of the way we got back on the main track. The road was no longer visible and we had the whole plain to ourselves. It was beautiful, and the weather couldn’t have been more perfect as the warm sun beat gently down on us and I spotted so many places to wild camp in the area (despite it technically being illegal, but it is everywhere in England).
With a couple of miles behind us we came across an old bomb blast shelter and took a few minutes to read the information board. We had been traversing what used to be the Ashley Walk Bombing Range although nothing but the shelter was left as evidence of that era.
From the bomb blast shelter we were finally back beneath trees again which was a welcome respite from the sun. I love the warmth but it’s nice to cool off occasionally, especially for the dogs.
A brief downhill section beneath not-yet-leafing trees in the Amberwood Enclosure was lovely and we bypassed a tree vibrating with life. Upon investigation I discovered the humming was the result of hordes of bees disappearing and reappearing out of a hole in a tree. They looked busy and while I watched for a couple of minutes from a distance I didn’t want to push my luck too much and we headed off.
We crossed a turned onto another gravel track/bike path before coming to a crossroads where a grassy path crossed our gravel track. While the left turn we had taken earlier was indistinct now the instructions were inaccurate as they said to turn right and go down to the bridge, a gate and creek crossing. However, the bridge and creek (and the gate, and actually going downhill) were on our left. We went left.
The dogs played in the water for a brief time before we went through yet another gate (so many gates and stiles in England) and turned right along a ride between two enclosures. It was muddy in places and we had to pick our way carefully through. A dirt road crossed our path and we turned left before coming to another T-junction and turned us back out into the moorland.
Now the sun was getting pretty intense and we were starting to feel the miles we had done already. The track was bright white and was hard on the eyes so it was a good feeling to skirt the Hasley Enclosure in the shade of tall trees. It was a sandy track which made the walking even more tiring and left my socks full of dust and grit.
I’m not sure if I made a mistake at this point as the instructions were a little vague but we could see the green open meadow that was mentioned and followed the track downwards (I think we split off a little early, according to the map). Dozens of ponies were grazing or dozing and we dodged each of them like a game of pinball, moving from one empty gap to the next. There were definitely some cool coat colors in among the herd.
We reached the footbridge that crossed the large creek and again I let the dogs play in the water for a few minutes to cool off. They loved it, and the streams were the perfect depth with gravel underneath so they didn’t get muddy. A short upward climb took us back to the car where the dogs, and I, were all glad to be rid of our packs.
A short drive to The Fighting Cocks pub in Godshill provided a lovely amber refreshment in the form of a Hop House lager while the dogs dozed in the shade. The flowers were out in force on the patio and the short ponies were almost too friendly…but their interest certainly sparked the interest of the dogs and they all sniffed each other.
The hunt for a campground was a long one and I finally located one 15 minutes south. The Red Shoot Camping Park seemed to be the only place in the vicinity that was open, and while it had vacancies it was also very busy and very expensive. The one saving grace…it had a pub attached.
I got the tent up with a lot of cussing and frustration (this was only the second time I’d put this tent up as it was new to me in September) and then went for a meal and a beer with the dogs. A giant horse-dog welcomed us (a gorgeous harlequin Great Dane that rivaled some of the New Forest ponies) and of course all the dogs had to make their own introductions. A good meal was had before I took the dogs out for one final walk, enjoyed one more beer (that took me forever to drink) and headed back to camp. The tent was already covered in very heavy condensation (and the neighbors were still noisy) so I made the decision to sleep in the car.
For the walk I did you can find the description and directions here: Frogham/Abbots Well Walk