The half forzen stream rising through the moss
At 7.30 this morning, I had to drop my boyfriend off at Heathrow so he could go to Goa. I couldnâ€™t get the time off work, so I had the double sulk of no boyfriend for three weeks and no trip to Goa either. Iâ€™d also only had about three hours sleep. Sulk sulk mope.
There is only one known cure for a sulkymope as bad as that one, and so I went exploring. Plan A was to explore Buckinghamshire and Berkshire, two counties that I normally zap through on my way somewhere else. I had heard they were both really quite nice, even if entirely inhabited by people who commute to London for work.
Unfortunately, I had no guide book with me so I had to rely on stumbling across interesting things by mistake.
A very old tree
First, I drove up the A4 on the grounds that it is parallel with the M4 and so I wouldnâ€™t be too lost if there was nothing interesting. I drove through the corner of Slough, a town that seems to be nothing but an epic housing estate with a shopping centre in the middle, and hence is not awarded â€śtown I will go back to willinglyâ€ť status. Next on the route was Cookham.
Cookham was home to Stanley Spencer, an acclaimed twentieth century artist that I have never really got into. I went to it because I had sort of heard of it, and Maidenhead seemed to consist of a series of housing estates with a shopping centre, albeit with the Thames drifting serenely through the edge.
Cookham is pretty, but not spectacular.
There is a pleasant park by a pleasant part of the Thames. The pleasant church is surrounded by a lot of very pleasant houses and the only stand out feature is a rock that apparently used to be a gathering point and is now stuck in front of a park bench in memory of a pilot. I was not unsulked yet. I drove on.
A good way marker
And totally failed to find anything of interest. I drove about and saw Wokingham, which seemed nice enough, and Sandhurst, which looks like a dive, and arrived almost by fluke on the M3.
The M3 goes from London to the South West, ending at Southampton, and Southampton is at the bottom of the New Forest.
I had been there as a child and skirted the edges as an adult, but never really explored. This seemed like a far better bet for an expedition. So I got myself a bottle of Irn Bru at the motorway service station and headed off.
Ice patterns in a puddle
I came off the M27 and headed North towards Godshill, stopping at somewhere called Bramble Hill. I probably owe my non-British readers a bit of an explanation at this point.
The New Forest is not new. It has been crown property since about the Norman Conquest (1066 ish), used as a hunting ground until some royal or another decided that the British public could use some fresh air. Nor is it forest, in any internationally accepted sense of the word.
It is a large area of scrubland punctuated by woodland, inhabited by the New Forest Ponies. The Ponies are referred to as â€świldlifeâ€ť on the signs, but I think they belong to people, and they are more than happy to come and see you if it looks like you might have a sugar lump for them. The land is now managed by the Forestry Commission, and you have the right to roam as long as you donâ€™t litter or damage things, or irritate the Ponies, who are more than capable of kicking you if you annoy them anyway.
Bramble Hill was lovely. A patch of wood at the side of the road, it is soft boggy ground only passable in my inappropriate boots because most of it was frozen by a hard frost. Here you can see a stream being born; the soft boggy moss is saturated and a little stream comes up, gets reabsorbed, and bubbles back up. I watched it glinting and glugging under the ice until a pony came up to see if I had any sugar lumps, and let me pat it even when it became clear that I did not.
The New Forest was lovely. The road took me up along a ridge at the Northern Edge of the Forest, with wonderful views over the scrubby woods and gorse bushes.
I drove onto Fordingbridge, which had been advertised as having a museum and information centre, and a fine medieval bridge. I quite like fine medieval bridges, so off I went. Fordingbridge is very pretty, and almost entirely shut on Sundays, which should have made for a nice walk. But it is strangely dislikeable. For a start, if my main selling point was a medieval bridge I would not hide it, by putting signs up everywhere that say â€śno trespassingâ€ť and â€śno parkingâ€ť and â€śno access to river.â€ť I am sure the tourists are annoying in the summer, but all it would have taken is a sign saying â€ścool bridge this wayâ€ť instead. The tourist information sign said that the bridge was upstream from the Ford but marked neither on the map. There was no path along the river (which is the Hampshire Avon rather than the Avon in Bristol), just a lot of signs that said â€śno fishing.â€ť I decided to give up and leave.
By the time I drove home it was 3pm and I was knackered. I went for a nap and woke up again at 7pm. All in all, though, I felt very much better and unsulked. The New Forest is a lovely place, and I shall go again, skipping Fordingbridge and its strangely hostile signs.