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New Forest Notes: did TV tell the truth about the national park?

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OVER Christmas the television provided a wealth of films on the New Forest.

Firstly, there was the repeat of a series first shown several years ago and this was followed by a new film A Year in the Wild Wood, apparently sponsored by the national park and the Forestry Commission.

Like most films of this nature the photography was spectacular and the interviews with all the usual commoner “stars” were informative and accurate, but the appalling threats to the Forest received hardly a mention.

Nothing, it seemed, must be allowed to interfere with a good chocolate box image of the Forest on which the attraction of yet more visitors depends – a forest where there are overwhelming recreational pressures, continuing killing of the grazing animals on the roads, very high house prices excluding local people, and conflicts between visitors and livestock is not at all what the film’s promotors want to advertise.

Just as annoying for those who understand the Forest was the treatment of our local history. This comprised the usual half-truths about the Forest law and its courts and the history of timber production. Some dubious theories about the origin of common rights in the Forest were presented as firm facts and there were fundamental misunderstandings as to the nature of those rights.

We were also told that William I destroyed 20 villages. While there is certainly growing evidence that much arable land fell out of use at about the time the Forest was made, the idea of wholesale destruction of settlements is certainly not (yet) supported by the archaeological evidence.

Perhaps the worst inaccuracy of all in this film was the reference to the Forest officers known as “regarders”. These, the film says, were employed by the navy in the 16th and 17th centuries to “come out into the Forest and inspect the (timber) crops”. In fact the regarders were not employed by the navy and they did not do as the interviewee suggested.

The office of regarder was an ancient one. There were 12 of them and it was their job to provide answers to a series of questions on Forest management known as “the chapter of the regard”. This was to be done every three years, but was sometimes more frequent. The chapter dealt with nearly every aspect of management from the threatening presence of alehouses to unexpeditated dogs (dogs which had not been mutilated to prevent them from hunting).

As time went on, by the middle of the 19th century the regarders had degenerated to a rather disreputable bunch of elected officers who did little but check on the timber measuring of felled trees – a task which few of them understood. Now, the navy did employ officers who were sent into the Forest annually to judge the quality of felled timber intended for the dockyards, but that is a very different story. They were called “navy purveyors”.

I suppose that those who subscribe to Henry Ford’s opinion of history would see little wrong with including such nonsense in a pretty tourist film. But it is sad that organizations which are supposedly managing the New Forest do not take the trouble to consult the most up-to-date writings of our own home grown experts such as Richard Reeves and the late David Stagg.

‘The Old Roman Bridge’

Close to the A35 road about two miles south-west of Lyndhurst there is a remarkable single arch brick bridge over Highland Water (later the Lymington River) which appears to serve no purpose whatever.

The 'Old Roman Bridge' over Highland Water, about two miles south-west of Lyndhurst
The 'Old Roman Bridge' over Highland Water, about two miles south-west of Lyndhurst

It is a bridge which at one time appeared on many Forest picture postcards, where it was described, quite wrongly, as “the Old Roman Bridge”. It was also a favourite subject for Victorian artists, but it now seems almost forgotten.

Although this bridge appears to be quite pointless, that was not always the case. In 1725 the Duke of Bolton, Lord Warden of the Forest, who occupied Burley Lodge, persuaded the Crown to construct an ornamental drive across the Forest from Swan Green to his front door, at a cost in today’s money probably exceeding £100,000.

The earthworks defining the edges of this drive (called the Cut Walk) may still be seen at various points along its length, but its line is difficult to walk these days because of fallen trees, the fenced A35 road and other obstructions.

The one really substantial structure still visible is the bridge over Highland Water, but there is a good deal of mystery surrounding the date of the bridge. It is built of three-inch bricks and this material is inconsistent with a building date of 1725 when the Cut Walk was formed.

I remember being told by the late Commander E.C. Wrey (an authority on the Forest’s archaeology) that the bridge had been re-built by Deputy Surveyor Gerald Lascelles when he was in office between 1880 and 1914, but here again there is an inconsistency. My informant believed that Lascelles had used bricks salvaged from the demolished Bolderwood Lodge or its abandoned garden walls. Bricks from this source were certainly used by Lascelles in rebuilding the Verderers’ Hall in 1904, but they are of an entirely different character to those of the Cut Walk bridge.

Whatever the truth of these stories, the bridge structure is now in danger of collapse and it has been closed to forestry and commoners’ vehicles, with only livestock and pedestrians now permitted to cross it. The arch is cracking along the joints in the brickwork, perhaps as a result of water undermining the abutments.

No doubt sufficient patching could be done at reasonable cost to continue with this low level of use, but I imagine that restoration to a strength suitable for vehicles would be immensely expensive.

The Crown (now the Forestry Commission) is likely to prove more resistant to lavish expenditure than it did 300 years ago under pressure from the Lord Warden. It would be very disagreeable to see the old bridge replaced with a modern, steel-framed structure.

Queen’s House yew trees

Crammed in between the north wall of the Queen’s House in Lyndhurst and the tarmac of the A35 (High Street) are several yew trees growing together close to the steps to the front door. I don’t suppose one person in a thousand ever notices them. They are not very large or prominent and they have clearly lived a precarious life saturated in vehicle fumes for the last hundred years and perhaps with very limited access to nutrients and water, but these trees have a long history.

They have seen Lyndhurst develop from an insanitary backwater to a very costly commuter village and the “capital” of the New Forest. The earliest photograph showing them, of which I have a copy, is dated 1876 and belonged to the Cumberbatch family. Deputy Surveyor Lawrence Henry Cumberbatch occupied the Queen’s House as his official residence and may even have been the photographer. Perhaps some present-day Lyndhurst resident has an earlier photograph.

Despite having survived for around two centuries in this inhospitable environment, one of the trees is now showing marked signs of failure with many of its leaves turning brown. Whether or not this is the end of its life seems uncertain, but terrors about health and safety will no doubt require its removal even before it is proved to be a victim of natural causes.

It will be a sad loss to Lyndhurst High Street.

Average speed cameras

Over recent weeks the number of commoners’ animals lying dead beside the B3078 road (Brook to Godshill) in the early mornings seems to have been distressingly large. Nobody likes to see these pathetic carcasses, but I can’t help feeling that one dead foal on the verge is likely to have far more effect in deterring speed than any number of sign boards exhorting drivers to travel more slowly.

The Forest has now lived through more than a century of killings of this nature and the slaughter shows no sign of ending. Only one measure has been shown to prevent killing and that is fencing, yet no further road fencing in the Forest is possible without legislation and there seems no prospect whatever of that. We must expect another hundred years of carnage.

In the meantime committees will continue to meet and all sorts of palliatives will be suggested and experimented with or rejected. Some may have a marginal effect, but the extent of such results is always extremely difficult to assess.

Nobody, it seems, is prepared to countenance radical measures like road closures and reduced blanket speed limits on unfenced roads, which would force drivers to choose to avoid the Forest altogether or divert onto the A31, A35 and A337, all of which have a nil killing rate (of commoners’ animals) because our wiser predecessors secured the necessary statutory powers to fence.

In the absence of such sensible measures, the verderers have been forced to explore other less encouraging avenues and one of these is average speed cameras.

I have no experience of these, but I understand that cameras measure the speed of vehicles between two fixed points within the 40mph unfenced roads. For example, the speed might be measured between Bramshaw Telegraph and Brook. I can see how these might catch the very worst offenders, but there are so many traffic and other hazards that reduce the average speed that a commuter travelling at 55mph when the road is clear would be unlikely to be caught averaging more than 40mph.

There are apparently many technical problems which must be resolved with such a scheme and not least the supply of power to the cameras, but everything has to be tried. The Official Verderer has had a meeting with the chief constable and has written to her asking for help in securing average speed cameras on the B3078.

The other palliative under consideration is the restoration of “gateway” signs at the entrances to the unfenced roads. We once had some extremely good signs of this nature measuring 10ft by 6ft. They were reflective and carried the simple message “New Forest animals on road” and they went up in 1964 and later years.

For some reason they all mysteriously disappeared about 20 years ago and I have been unable to locate any good coloured photographs of them, although some blurred black and white press photos survive. Now the idea of gateway signs is again on the agenda, but I fear that the park and Forestry Commission may see these more as an opportunity to advertise themselves with logos than as an animal welfare measure.

The originals were provided by the Hampshire County Council and, to its credit, were not cluttered with such self-satisfied embellishments. The management authorities already have their advertisements at the Forest entrances in the form of the Commission’s ladder boards and the park’s timber logo displays.

They should be satisfied with that.

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