Monday, October 1, 2012

The Legacy of the New Forest

I’m standing on platform 2 at Brockenhurst train station in the New Forest, Hampshire. A mild scent of humid earth floats in the air from the grove of oak, chestnut, sycamore, beech and hazel that has edged up to the railway lines. The chorus of birdsong is dominated by the squawking and chattering of a population of magpies. I check in my bag for my ticket. The last time I stood on this platform I was laden with a rucksack and tent, thrilled to be going on holiday with my friend Jane. That was thirty years ago and the station doesn’t appear to have changed at all since then. Indeed, there’s a quaintness about it that I associate with early last century. Jane is with me today and she too notices the apparent timelessness of this place. I look at her and see only the features of my eighteen-year-old companion on the face of a woman whose adult life I knew nothing about until our reunion this morning. She has travelled down from the north of England to join me on a pilgrimage today, on a journey that pays homage to the sunshine-filled holidays of our youth.
My thoughts about our miraculous reunion are interrupted by yet another security announcement on the station tannoy. Momentarily, the birdsong ceases and I glance around at the half dozen or so travellers “loitering” on the platform, wondering how I might define suspicious activity and whether it would be suspicious enough for me to inform the police, as the tannoy urges. England has changed. Official obsession with terrorism is transforming this society into a police state where citizens are regularly encouraged to inform on each other. Trust is being replaced by a wariness that creeps just below the surface of the English tendency toward reservation.
At eighteen years old my reserves of trust were infinite. Three decades of life experience have depleted those reserves and I feel that loss now, standing in the place where I giggled excitedly with Jane in anticipation of what was up ahead, of our freedom. We travelled down from the industrial north each summer, escaping into a world where Nature was just a few footsteps away and where a rustic lifestyle still prevailed. Both of us were both passionate about the Wessex of Thomas Hardy; in it we were seeking a world more authentic than our 9 to 5 routine in a Manchester city centre government office. But we were also young and hoping for adventure. The New Forest gave us both.
The train to groans to a standstill and hisses before the doors open to the accompaniment of repeated warning beeps. We board an almost empty carriage. Our station is Lymington Pier, the end of the line, and just two stops away. Now, as then, we cry with delight at the first sight of New Forest ponies chewing unhurriedly on the heath land grass and deer that vanish with a single bound into the nearby hazel copse. Our conversation is pure nostalgia; nearly all our sentences begin with “Do you remember the time that …” and are invariably followed by prolonged laughter. Three decades-old photos we have brought with us prompt the memories, but some remain elusive. I have a photo I took of Jane standing by her bike, reading a map, but no recollection of that day. Today we are back together again, returning with our memories to the locations where they unfolded. 
The station at Lymington Pier has to be unique in England. Take a step down from the carriage and you are on the wooden pier-platform; take a few more steps and you can lean over the railings and gaze down into the sea. At the end of the pier, the Isle of White ferry waits with its bow door gaping, ready to accept passengers bound for Yarmouth. Jane and I head inland, in search of South Baddesley Road, which will take us to Norleywood, to the youth hostel where we pitched our tent, the base camp for our daily excursions. It’s early on Friday afternoon and this country road is quiet, so quiet that we can hear the bees hum softly on the honeysuckle and foxglove in the hedgerows. Horses whinny in the distance and a breeze flutters, giving us momentary respite from the heat.
The road takes us past Winter’s Wood, Church Copse, and Otter’s Hill Copse. I still recall the January afternoon I sought out the ordinance survey map from the previous summer just to touch these names, willing myself to be far away from Hulme, Salford and Bury. After about twenty minutes walking, we come upon a large red brick house with 18th century features, crowned by majestic turret-like chimneys. We both remember it. Perhaps Hardy passed by here, by this very “Gatekeeper’s Lodge” and it inspired him to create one of his many troubled characters. “You were troubled too, Karen” Jane remarks, “even back then.”
At the crossroads we turn left into an even less-travelled road. A Montessori School stands at the junction and Jane comments on the idyllic location. It is one of the very few buildings in a landscape of unbroken greenery and it too is ancient, an ancient primary school, the setting of what were possibly the happiest, unclouded years of many generations’ lives. The road becomes even narrower once it winds around to the right. On both sides there are pathways disappearing into forest glades that beckon to be explored. 
At “the splash” we pause on the bridge to take photos, posing in postures that match the ones in the snapshots I have in my bag. Then our memories fail us. Do we turn left or right after “the splash”? Jane raises her hands in surrender and so I suggest left. This takes us into the hamlet of Norleywood but no closer to our destination, the youth hostel. The homes we pass are a display of wealth; one or two of their owners eye us curiously as we stroll by. The single bus stop in the hamlet, under siege by encroaching privet and beech, gives us a clue to the location of the hostel. Beyond it stands the familiar large red brick house, but the height of the fence and the density of the hedge make it difficult to see into the extensive garden; the tall wooden gate does not offer a better view. We follow the hedge around into the adjoining unpaved lane. Toward the back there is another gate from where we can see the property. It’s definitely Norleywood Youth Hostel, or rather, was. The lawn remains just as when Jane and I camped there. I focus on the grass in the spot we always chose to pitch our tent, seeking some clue to the girl I was then. But memories are the only connection I have; they’ve brought me here and now I feel I’m a ghost.
“I think that’s a private house” a young woman smiles at us, while adjusting her position in the saddle. Her mount adjusts the position of the bit in its mouth. She doesn’t know anything about a youth hostel ever being in Norleywood,
“That must have been many years ago. I‘ve grown up here and for as long as I can remember that house has been privately owned.”
However, she does know where the East End Arms is and points us in the direction of a nearby bridle path that crosses the fields to the pub. We climb over the stile and follow the path through tall seeded grass studded with burrs. In the silence my thoughts dwell on our preparations in the tent for nights in the pub. Sponge rollers, spot concealer, eyeliner, lipstick, cork-soled wedgies and frantic efforts to smooth the creases from our denim skirts and gypsy-style tops preceded our unwieldy advance along this very bridle path and over the stile at the other end. 
         At eighteen, Jane and I caused a sensation among the East End Arms youth. For them we were exotic visitors from the North while they, for us, were the very rustics who populated the works of Thomas Hardy. In Pog, Peter, Ned and their friends we allowed ourselves to believe that we were reunited with the denizens of the woodland we had encountered in the Wessex novels. The friendship lasted three summers and memories sparkle with midnight strolls to a chorus of cricket chirping along the bridle path back to our tent, and parties in barns at the end of labyrinthine country lanes.
The pub hasn’t changed at all. The exterior is identical and even the arrangement of furniture in the bar where we sipped numerous Babychams matches my recollections. On the wall Jane finds an explanation: a large press cutting recounts how Dire Straits guitarist John Illsley purchased the property in the 1990s and vowed to keep the bar intact, just as it was. And he did. But there is no sign of Pog, Ned or the others.
         “We probably wouldn’t recognise them anyway, even if they did walk in the door now. They’re virtually old men,” says Jane.
I’d like to ask at the bar but the barmaid looks like she may not even have been born at the time we were flirting with the locals and, besides, I never learned “Pog’s” real name.
         After our final trip to Norleywood a few letters were exchanged but contact faded as all our lives took different courses; Jane went to nursing school and I entered university, while agricultural college claimed some of our East End admirers. As for Pog, he was too attached to the forest to leave it. I turn to Jane,       
“Where is Pog now? What kind of life did that farmhand from another era end up having?”
Neither of us responds to my question and now we’ll never know.
As each holiday ended our hearts began to sink; and the train journey back to Manchester Picadilly was often a silent one. Each time I returned, my life in that grim city seemed even grimmer, and I’m convinced that the happiness, the sense of feeling supremely alive, we experienced in Norleywood led to our determination to initiate change. And both of us did. That is the lasting legacy of those summers in the New Forest.


  1. Hi Karen, Your presence must have been manna from heaven to the local lads, we used to drive through to Lymington via the East End Arms whilst at 6th form, circa 1982, mainly to admire the barmaid; her favorite song was Amour Amour by The Mobiles... it had a jukebox then. We now live in East End and were at the Arms early last Sunday night. I mentioned your blog to the table and it sparked some memories, to at least one and the pub was pretty empty. A real shame that the Norleywood Youth Hostel closed as it would have been a great asset now. Some great memories rebooted, thanks to your blog.
    Best Wishes Phil

  2. Dear Phil, Thank you so much for taking the time to comment on my post about the New Forest. The East End Arms was the scene of many happy, quite magical, memories for me and my friend Jane. The local lads were great fun and we missed them every time we had to return north. Our lives changed for the better because of those experiences. If you had come into the pub a year or two earlier we would have met each other. I wish you all the best, Karen