Jonathan Meades

Root & Branch Reform

New Forest: The Forging of a Landscape

By

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This labyrinthine curiosity begins with a ten-page glossary of ‘historic terms’, certain of which remain in everyday use in discourse on the New Forest. They may be ancient but they are not archaic. The same is true of the place itself. Many of the terms are specific to the New Forest, peculiar coinages that suggest its peculiarity, which is all too readily taken for granted. There is nothing natural about nature. The New Forest is a man-made entity. It demands constant attention and protection. Hadrian Cook has previously written about the water meadows of the Hampshire Avon and the Nadder at Harnham on the southern edge of Salisbury, likewise man-made legacies of agriculture’s industrialisation that fell into desuetude in the mid-20th century. He has played a significant part in their restoration and, as importantly, in their maintenance.

The New Forest’s current northwesternmost perambulation, or boundary, is only about seven miles from Harnham. It might as well be seven hundred. The forest is hermetic, though its boundaries are forever being shifted by one environmental agency or another. There is, however, not too much room for bureaucratic tampering because the forest’s extent is partially determined by Southampton Water and the estuarine industrial sites that stretch along its length, by the Solent, and by the valley of the Hampshire Avon and its flood plain. In contrast, the southwest of the forest is an area vulnerable to pressure from volume builders, with their smiley bribes to local authorities. It abuts the aesthetically null collective care home that creeps for twenty-five numbing miles from Lymington to Poole, the sort of subtopian sprawl that gives sprawl a bad name, its rapacious maw forever hungry for further land to consume. This is an obvious threat. So too is gravel extraction: in 2005, when the forest was granted the status of national park, its boundary was pusillanimously drawn up in a compromise with this industry.

Less obvious are the parish-pump spats, which can acquire an absurd importance in any community but which are exacerbated in the New Forest’s unique milieu, where arcane laws, rules of coppicing and practices of marl and turbary are not simply folkloric hangovers from the days of the fugitive Tyrrell and Buckler’s Hard but the actuality for commoners. Locals are subject to a gamut of regulations (as well as enjoying privileges) that people living in other parts of Hampshire are not. Latchmore Brook rises close by the highest point of the forest, above the village of Nomansland. It was dammed within a couple of miles of its source in the 1870s to provide power for Schultze’s necessarily remote gunpowder factory. The reservoir is now an inoffensive pond, an off-the-peg beauty spot – lilies, jolly fauna, cycle paths, broadleaf trees and a Forestry Commission admonition on fishing. Five miles west the brook, which used to be known in its final stages as Huckles Brook, debouches into the Hampshire Avon. For several years the Forestry Commission attempted to instigate plans to ‘restore’ the stream, as it had done many others streams – in other words, to create a brand-new old watercourse with meanders and oxbows while obliterating the culverts and mini-navigations created in the 19th century. Local pressure eventually triumphed against this profligate and hugely disruptive wheeze. Had such whimsical hydrological projects been taken even close to their absurd conclusion, the water meadows that Cook has worked to renew and the reservoir at the gunpowder factory would have been destroyed to assuage the bogus idols of authenticity and nature. How far into the depths of the presumed past should ahistoric zealots delve? Presumably the 19th century is too recent. This behaviour recalls the architectural heritage industry’s oafish enthusiasm for cleaning ruins, so rendering them fit to be represented on souvenir mugs and fudge tins.

A presumably unintentional effect of Cook’s detailed, quasi-scientific, ‘multi-disciplinary’, jargon-pocked study is to emphasise both the increasing over-governance of the forest and the grip of the swelling parasitic agencies that contend for a share of the administration. The closer he draws to the present day, the more competing acronyms cluster on his pages: a glossary to match that of historic terms would have been useful, though markedly less poetic.

The New Forest today is a triumph of bureaucratic authoritarianism. It is tidy, spruce, homely, largely bereft of wilderness. If there is such a thing as environmental determinism, this is where it is practised: this place does you good. Of course, much of the officiousness is directed at traffic and tourism. Some of it is exceptionally petty. The proscription of mushrooming is half-witted. Germany, Italy and France have not run out of Steinpilzen, porcini and cèpes. Picking them spreads their spores. Better that they are eaten than left to rot.

There have also been clearances. The forest’s gypsies suffered the ignominious fate, almost a century ago, of being herded into compounds, which Augustus John described as concentration camps. John, unmentioned by Cook, also railed against fences, hedgerows and enclosures as manifestations of land theft, to be corrected by squatting – hence places such as Nomansland. All along the beguiling, ragged forest edges – within or without the boundaries, according to which agency’s map and regulations you consult – there were proto-villages and scrappy hamlets that have been lost forever. They were precious and perhaps inevitably destined to be provisional. There was some affinity with plotlands and even Appalachian dirt farms. Agriculture is industry, hence unappealing to the taste for prettiness. Happily for those agencies militating hard for a camera-friendly New Forest and for a New Forest where the rights of adders and fungi are paramount, the land on which shacks stood among broken tractors, holed troughs and rusting adzes proved to be more valuable than the structures themselves. So the sites of ad hoc dwellings at place such as Ogdens, North Charford and Canada Common are today blighted with prissy, dismal dream homes.

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