Secrets of the New Forest

©James Lowen

A January day in Hampshire, in the wake of the Guild’s AGM in Brockenhurst, proved an eye-opener for Bill Birkett…..

It was a dampish morning and the itinerary didn’t sound all that exciting – ‘Visit to Commoners Smallholding and walk’.  As it turned out it was an experience that touched the beating heart of the New Forest and left us all spellbound. A journey through Hardy’s Wessex revealing a unique landscape and pastoral way of life that has little changed since the Bronze Age.

Winter walking in the New Forest

Our guides, the ‘Commoners’,  were Lyndsey Stride and Tom Hordle,  and from Fuzzacker Guided Walks and  & Tours,  Steve Adams and Richard Daponte. All knew their stuff,  although seeing the forest from a different perspective, and they presented a fascinating insight into the forest’s  many facets.

We walked to Lyndsey’s  farmhouse and through the forest which revealed that isn’t just a forest.  Yes, there are large glades of mainly deciduous trees, hollies and oaks, but it’s also a beautiful and intriguing landscape of wild heath, bottomless bogs and rolling uplands.  A world where grazing animals – ponies, and cattle –  roam free and a haven for myriad flora and other fauna.

The Verderers Court

In simple terms, commoners own property, a designated house or small piece of land, and have the right to graze ponies, cattle, pigs – or sheep, of which there are only a handful – in the forest.

The laws governing this right were originally defined by William the Conqueror when he established the area as a royal hunting preserve in 1079. But by then, because of the nature of the landscape, this type of grazing practice had already been going on for thousands of years. The whole area, its modern boundaries officially set, became a National Park in 2004.

The main message that came over, and this made the whole experience something special, was that commoning may only be a subsistence existence but it’s very much a way of life.   People work together and depend on each other.  The ponies are set loose to wander wild and when they are collected in ‘drifts’ at the end of the season it’s done on horseback and all the commoners come together.

Tom yelped out an example of his particular ‘holla’  explaining that it this was a warning to other horseman galloping through the forest on a ‘drift’. Lyndsey explained that commoners are one big family: ‘We fall out, we make up, we get on with the job’.

The Verderers Court

Any complaints or grouses about misuse of the rules or irresponsible or bad behaviour, for example, can be settled in the Verderers Court. Unique in the UK, it is fully transparent: the court has an open door and anyone can attend, press or public. Deputy Surveyor Bruce Rothnie, employed by the Forestry Commission, described the procedure and history of the court. Its present form evolved, in many different stages,  from William’s original creation of the deer forest.

Ten Burgers, sitting on ancient, elevated oak benches at the back of the court, hear the complainant commoner. The commoner in turn stands on a wooden stepladder resembling a giant wooden chair with huge armrests.  The Burgers mull over the case and, in a side chamber, discuss it with Bruce. He, second only in this respect to the Queen, makes a final judgement. There is no right of appeal.

Bruce showed us an ancient iron stirrup, the Stirrup of Rufus said to be that of William Rufus,  that was used to make judgement on the size of the commoners dogs. Any dog too big to pass through the iron hoop of the stirrup was deemed to be a threat to the deer and was condemned.

Bruce cited a recent case as an insight into the court’s workings. Throughout the forest The Forestry Commission had erected waymarker signs painted in a rather dull and unattractive green paint. The commoner objecting to this stood before the Burgers and simply said six words: “Please tell me it’s an undercoat”! The signs  were repainted.

Locked in death

Hanging around the courtroom are antlers, including two pairs from stags found dead some time around in 1903. Like some complicated Chinese puzzle they are interlocked and, oddly, face in the same direction.

The level of peace and purity in this National Park are quite astonishing.  quad bikes, agro chemicals and wild camping are all banned in the forest. Wildlife thrives. Every species of deer to be found in the UK is here. A huge array of birdlife ranges from the nationally extremely rare Dartford warbler to the goshawk. The water is so pure that fairy shrimps and migratory sea trout inhabit the rivers and there are four species of snake to be found.

The bar at the New Forest Inn

At the end of this outing, we all piled into the New Forest Inn. Archetypal, with a log fire and shared tables. Steak and ale pie which was the proper job and the 49’er bitter beer from Ringwood – the local brewery located on the edge of the Forest, was the perfect accompaniment. Nirvana.

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