If you don't know it and have never been there, Bramshill Forest comes as something of a surprise. Vast and slightly mysterious, it brings to mind, in places, one of those 1960s Cold War thrillers that are shown on television from time to time. Once inside it, you could easily be forgiven for thinking that a car carrying sinister henchmen might appear at any moment. Then, perhaps rather predictably, Michael Caine emerges from the trees, wearing dark-rimmed glasses and a mac.
I doubt very much this sprawling wooded landscape would be familiar to the likes of Len Deighton or John le Carre but here and there Bramshill Forest does look as if it comes straight from the pages of a spy fiction. It has a strange, almost unsettling atmosphere.
Before starting the walk have a look at the curious sarsen stone hidden beneath a trap door inside Eversley church. Discovered in 1940, it may well be part of the foundations of a heathen place of worship.
The Victorian author Charles Kingsley, who wrote the children's classic 'The Water Babies', was rector here for many years and is buried alongside his wife Fanny near the main door. Kingsley also wrote novels - among them 'Hereward the Wake' - as well as various songs and ballads. A committed Christian Socialist, he was appointed a canon of Westminster and chaplain to Queen Victoria.
Above Kingsley's grave is a striking white marble cross with the words 'God is love' inscribed on it. Look for the Irish yews, planted by Kingsley, lining the path from the lychgate.
1. With Eversley church on your right, follow the Three Castles Path, linking Winchester, Odiham and Windsor, down to some gates. Turn left at this point and skirt the woodland. Keep left at the fork and make for a broad junction of tracks.
2. Go straight over and continue ahead at the next junction. Follow the wide track to another spacious intersection, veer half-right here and walk down to a fork. Keep left and cross over a track. At this stage the path becomes a track providing access to a number of buildings and industrial units.
3. At the point where the track bends left, turn right over a stile into a paddock. Head for a galvanised gate and cross to several stiles and a footbridge. Keep on the path ahead, looking for a gap and stile on the left. Follow the fenced path towards woodland, cross the River Hart via two footbridges and go right, walking along the duckboard sections to the next wood. Climb between banks of vegetation, which includes bracken in the summer months, and turn right at the drive.
4. Swing left after a few paces in front of Purdies Farm and follow the path along the edge of the wood. Pass some kennels and continue on the track to a right-hand bend by a lodge. Cross the stile at this point and keep to the right of a lake. Make for another stile and go ahead through the trees. The outline of Bramshill Police Staff College is visible now over to the right. Join a drive, keep left and head for the imposing college entrance.
5. Turn left here and follow the drive to the road. Turn right, cross over and take the lane on the left, heading for the Shoulder of Mutton pub. With your back to the building, turn left to the main road and cross over into Plough Lane. Follow it for some time - usually the traffic is quite light along here. Eventually you reach a turning for Heckfield on the left and an entrance to Bramshill College on the right.
6. Pass over the junction and look for a path on the right. Follow the waymarked Welsh Drive bridleway to a junction in front of a fence and turn right. Keep alongside the fence to the corner, where you turn left, then right. At this stage there are lakes either side of the path. Merge with another path, then turn left to follow a narrow, tree-shaded path. On reaching a broad track, turn right and pass alongside clumps of pine trees to reach another Welsh Drive sign. Turn sharp left about 60 yards before a fingerpost and follow the colour-coded waymarks through the pine trees and bracken, turning right at a wide track. When the track swings right, keep ahead, with pine trees on your right.
7. Go straight ahead at the next waymark and cross a track to follow a path which runs just inside the wood. Open fields are seen on the left along here. Follow the path down to the woodland corner, pass through a kissing gate and head straight on. When the path swings left, go ahead through another kissing gate. Continue ahead in the field and make for a narrow path in the corner. Follow it to a gate and footbridge and enter Eversley churchyard. Cut through it to the parking area at the start of the walk.
Bramshill House is a splendid Jacobean pile - one of the finest anywhere in the country. Built in 1612 by Lord Zouche, the house is associated with the legend of the mistletoe bough chest. A young bride, tired of the formal reception following her wedding ceremony, plays hide and seek, excitedly climbing into a chest she has found in some distant corner of the house. Tragically, the lid snaps shut and she is trapped, her screams for help unheeded. Years later the bride's skeleton is discovered, wrapped in her wedding dress.
The plight of the young girl forms the basis for a Victorian ballad, 'The Mistletoe Bough', written by T.H. Bayly in 1828 and set to music by the conductor Sir Henry Bishop. It is claimed the ballad is based on a true story and three historic houses in Hampshire are believed by some to be possible candidates as locations for the tragic events retold in Bayly's ballad - one of them being Bramshill. In the hall here is a splendid Italian chest, richly inlaid with figures in 16th century dress and said to the the genuine bough chest in which the girl perished. The chest is the subject of a covenant which dictates that it will always stay at Bramshill.
The trail starting point is Eversley Church. Eversley village is on the A327, just inside the county boundary. Approaching from the M3, leave at junction 4a and take the A327 north towards Reading. Turn off westwards at Eversley church and park in the vicinity of the entrance.