This walk from Ashurst, although only six miles round, takes you through pine woods and across open heaths to one of the oldest woods in the Forest, Matley Wood. On the way you can form your own conclusions about a Forest mystery that has occupied historians for centuries. We return through Ironshill Inclosure, a name with links to Roman times.
1. From the car park entrance turn left towards the railway line, then shortly after turn left again to go through the gate which leads you to the wide lawns beside the railway. Follow the path ahead with the edge of Churchplace Inclosure on your left and the railway on your right. Go through a gate.
2. Ignore the track leading right to a bridge over the line and the obvious gravel track ahead and turn immediately left along a green ride. (This may seem unlikely as the ride is not clear at first but it soon becomes a clear wide way.) The ride brings you to a gravel track. Bear left along the track for a few yards then follow it straight ahead to a crosstrack.
3. Follow the gravel track curving right as it climbs gently uphill to run to the right of a knoll crowned with oaks and beeches. This is Churchplace, one of several marked on New Forest maps.
These Churchplaces, like the death of William Rufus in the Forest, are still not fully explained. No love was lost between the Saxon chroniclers and William the Conqueror. When he declared this part of southern England his own exclusive hunting Forest they recorded, with appropriate venom, his destruction of the Saxon villages within its precincts. Even worse, because it was sacrilege, was his alleged destruction of churches. Accounts in the chronicles vary but between 20 and 40 churches are supposed to have been destroyed. Are the Churchplaces dotted about the Forest the sites of some of these Saxon churches? Certainly this knoll would have made an ideal site as it was a high vantage point at the junction of several tracks. The chroniclers are confused about the numbers and as William Cobbett observed as he rode through the Forest in 1823, it is hard to imagine that the poor soil of the Forest could ever have supported sufficient people to require so many churches. The mystery remains. I explored Churchplace and discovered some curious ridges and rounded embankments. Could they have been the foundations of a wooden Saxon church?
Continue along the gravel track into Deerlap Inclosure. William Gilpin, vicar of Boldre in the 18th century, explains how this inclosure got its name.
'Here a stag was once shot' he writes 'which in the agony of death, collected his force, gave a bound, which astonished those who saw it. It was immediately commemorated by two posts, which were fixed at the two extremities of the leap...the space between them is somewhat more than eighteen yards.'
4. When you come to the next crosstrack turn right and follow the gravel track downhill towards the railway line. At the foot of the hill the gravel track begins to curve right. Leave the gravel and turn left through a gate leading to open heathland. Turn right to cross a bridge over the railway.
At the other side of the line the path leads over a stream - a very young Beaulieu river. A few yards after the stream, our path divides. Keep to the right-hand track. Our way now winds through open heath towards the trees of Matley Wood directly ahead. Walk through the outlying fringe of silver birches into the soft green glades of the wood shaded by ancient oak and beech trees.
All sorts of wildlife love Matley. It is the home of deer, badgers, foxes and squirrels of course, and the smallest and rarest of the woodpecker family the lesser spotted woodpecker. Every glade is rich with woodland flowers and ferns.
Follow the main path through Matley Wood until about 70 yards ahead you see a barrier.
5. Do not continue to the barrier but take a path on the right leading downhill through the trees to the northern edge of the wood. But at first the track is very faint. Look for a large whitened fallen tree carved with initials. Turn right past the tree and walk straight ahead downhill and the path soon becomes clear. When you come out of the trees you will see a well-defined path leading ahead through some gorse, then out over the open heath. The path crosses the moor to a bridge over Beaulieu River. Over the bridge another heath opens before you. Follow the path over the heath towards Mallard Wood. From the bridge our path bears very slightly left. About halfway over the heath go over a crosstrack. When the path divides, follow the left-hand path in the direction of the nearest trees. Keep straight on over another crosstrack to enter Mallard Wood. This is another ancient wood with some particularly fine unpollarded beech trees. Cross a little heath to walk through the most northerly part of Mallard Wood. Go straight over all crosstracks and soon you will see the main A35 ahead. The path bears left to take you to a gate and stile beside the road.
On the other side of the A35, a little to your left, you will see Lodgehill Cottage.
6. Cross the road and go through the gate to the left of the cottage into Lodgehill Inclosure. A few yards further on keep ahead along a gravel track. When you come to a crosstrack go straight across following the track immediately ahead with Ironshill Inclosure on your left.
The name has an interesting story to tell, a story which takes us back 1,000 years before the Normans, perhaps even to pre-Roman times. East Hampshire was always rich in iron ore and in early days the ore was brought to the New Forest where there was a plentiful source of charcoal to be smelted. The name Ironshill occurs in other parts of the Forest also. High ground was essential to enable the wind to fan the tall cylindrical furnaces in which the iron ore was packed between layers of charcoal. From the coins and pottery which have been found in cinder heaps, these foundries were working in Roman times. Later, much more elaborate smelting works were built in the valleys using water power to drive huge hammers like the one at Sowley Pond, near Beaulieu, whose thudding became a characteristic sound of the New Forest.
Continue along the track until you see a wide grassy track on the left leading to gates and the private land around Ironshill Lodge.
7. Turn right at this point to follow a track heading due east towards Ashurst. Follow the track as it bears round to the left, past two joining tracks on the right and the left.
8. Take the next right along a gravel track, just before a stream with a footbridge. This brings you to a gate.
9. Go through the gate and turn right to follow a minor road, Woodlands Road. The road bears right uphill to meet the A35 just before the railway bridge. Ashurst station is opposite. Turn right to return to the campsite or left over the bridge to return to your car.
The trail starts at Ashurst car park, close to the entrance of Ashurst Hospital. Turn off the A35 in front of the row of shops in Ashurst. Drive past the shops on your left and the Happy Cheese pub and continue over the drive to the hospital to the car park on your left. There is a frequent bus service to Ashurst (shops) or take the train to Ashurst Station. From the station turn right over the railway bridge then right again to pass the shops to the car park.