Southampton is not, perhaps, known for its beauty: though this is probably by folk unaware of its splendid green spaces, the Georgian glories missed by both the Luftwaffe and subsequent town planners and the historic charms of the old town. Less in doubt are the delights of the surrounding area with both coastline and countryside – which includes both the New Forest and the start of the South Downs way (to name but two nearby, and widely recognised, areas with tourist appeal). It might, therefore, be considered disappointing, not to say remiss, that after nearly five years living in the city I had been out into its surrounding areas of natural beauty a grand total of once: a cycle trip into the New Forest immortalised in this very blog.
This year – and now, once again, the possessor of a motor car – I resolved to do better. I trust it will not be too much of a spoiler to reveal that I succeeded in doing better – while still managing a frankly poor performance, especially given the many weeks of unbroken sunshine which we were graced with this summer. If I’m honest, as someone who dislikes heat, the good weather rather reduced my honouring of Gaia’s more proximate delights.
In an early burst of enthusiasm, I managed two trips into the New Forest in a single week in the late Spring. I had a glorious walk around Brockenhurst only slight marred by finding an early puddle much deeper than anticipated and drowning my right boot, sock and foot in muddy water. A nearby New Forest pony looked on askance as I rested on a bench and attempted to wring the worst of the water from my sock. Undeterred, later that week I walked from Beaulieu down to Buckler’s Hard – which proved to be an early naval base and not, as I had imagined, some sort of bondage emporium. This second walk had the benefit of my socks remaining dry throughout despite the more fugitive nature of the sunshine. It also gained from the presence of a fine cake shop in Beaulieu to greet the weary yomper after his bout of low-intensity exercise.
As we hit the summer proper, I did manage to take the car down to the beach at Lepe to take in the salt tang of the air and marvel at the proximity in space (if not in time) of the Isle of Wight to the mainland. I also made uncommon use of my membership of the National Trust to visit Mottisfont and the fragrant glories of its rose garden at its apogee. This trip I made by train, which requires a walk through a wheat field and along a lane to reach the house from the neatest station: I fear I may rather have stymied my chances of leading this country by leaving the wheat entirely unmolested.
Other than these two excursions, the rest of the summer mostly consisted of me hiding from the heat of the sun – and not just at midday. Had I been in charge, the British Empire would have been a much more modest – and northerly – affair and a great deal of suffering (and some joy) would have been avoided. I’m not convinced Amazon Video will leap at the opportunity to make a drama based on this particular counterfactual take on history: perhaps if I changed my surname to a slang term for a gentleman’s agreement? I do, after all, already have K as a middle initial so literary success must lie within my grasp…
A couple of weeks ago, Radio 3 went “Into the Forest” – which I seem to recall they did once before and not that long ago. This allowed the playing of some music with generally tenuous links to forest and woodland and some thematically relevant spoken word material. The Essay offered five short talks about various mythical or fictional forests. I was fine with these until the last, which covered the Hundred Acre Wood and which quoted the following lines from The House at Pooh Corner:
“Wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the forest, a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.”
As well as demonstrating, once again, the ability of the words of A A Milne to reduce me to tears [Ed: at this point preparation of the post had to pause while the writer had a quiet weep] it created an immediate desire to go into a forest and find a high place to enjoy with my bear. This would require the acquisition of a bear but it did occur to me that I live close to a forest and the weather forecast for the then current weekend was encouraging. I decided that on Sunday I would go out into nature to reclaim my lost youth and provide a late boost to my poor nature-visiting performance in 2018 – though probably minus bear in the first instance. Any bear would have to measure up to the Platonic ideal established by E H Shephard and I thought locating such a bear, in the face of the horrifying Disneyfication of Pooh since my youth, would be a major project.
Whilst I was tempted by the New Forest, I had been planning to scale St Catherine’s Hill in Winchester since the start of the year and decided it was time to tackle this important project. This would also introduce the start of the South Downs Way and – most critically in the decision-making process – would allow me to visit The Cabinet Rooms, post-ascent, for some reviving cake.
So, after an early lunch I boarded a train to Winchester and set off past the Cathedral and out along the clear waters of the Itchen past the extensive playing fields of Winchester College (I believe I have lived in smaller counties) to the Hospital of St Cross before swinging round and climbing the steep steps to the summit of St Catherine’s Hill. As a purist, I made the ascent without oxygen and eschewed the pitching of a base camp. The weather was glorious offering a last, bittersweet taste of summer and the views from the peak were stunning – only slightly spoiled by the M27 snaking its way through the glories of the Hampshire countryside. I came back down the other side and along another branch of the river, where it raced over weirs, before claiming my prize: an excellent slice of lemon drizzle cake.
Over the dark, dank, less walking-friendly months of winter I have determined to acquire a suitable ursine companion for my peregrinations and to make striding out into the ‘tames’ (I fear the true wilds were irrevocably changed by humans centuries ago) on a regular basis in 2019. I know one can find books which offer strolls centred on country pubs but are there equivalent works based around cafes offering excellent cake? If not, I may be announcing my intention to fill this gap… So, it would seem that the less than subtle sub-test of this post is to stake out my territory: a very long take on the KEEP OUT sign to protect my future intellectual (ha ha!) property!