New Forest gardens, with their massed rhododendrons and azaleas which grow so well on the Forest's clay soils, are at their most beautiful in spring. This walk takes you to one of the loveliest, Furzey Gardens, where you will also be able to explore a 400-year-old cottage and visit a gallery stocked with New Forest crafts. We start from Minstead, a Forest village which is mentioned in the Domesday Book as 'Mintestede' - the place where mint grows.
1. Before you start the walk have a look at the Trusty Servant inn sign. This depicts 'the trusty servant', a pig with padlocked snout so that he cannot disclose his master's secrets and stag's feet so that he can run errands quickly. It is copied from a picture in Winchester College whose motto 'manners makyth man' appears in the corner.
2. Leave the Trusty Servant inn on your right and follow the little road which leads uphill signposted 'To the Church'. Overlooking the green on your left is the village war memorial and close by is an old well with a wooden cover. The stocks also stand on the green. On your right you pass an interesting building. This was built in 1897 as Minstead Technical School on a site presented by H.F. Compton of Minstead Manor to commemorate the 60th year of Queen Victoria's reign. At the top of the hill stands Minstead church.
It is built of traditional Forest materials, wattle filled with rubble and daub. Stone could only be spared for the arches and corners of the main walls. Originally it was thatched and some of the thin rafters that supported the thatch have been found above the present barrel roof. The archway over the north porch was carved early in the 13th century and is flanked by two heads, one most delicately carved and the other a much rougher version. Perhaps they are the work of a master and his apprentice. Inside the church is a very rare triple-decker pulpit. The sermon was preached from the top level, the Scriptures were read from the second. The lowest level was reserved for the parish clerk who had only 'Amen' to say at appropriate moments. The important family of Castle Malwood House, a mile or so away, had their own private seating arrangements - a cosy sitting room with a fireplace and its own entrance from an outside staircase.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle lived in the parish at Bignell Wood and you will find his grave at the south end of the churchyard marked with a cross. He features Minstead in his stirring adventure story The White Company.
3. Follow the path leading from the road to the right of the churchyard, leaving the church on your left. Go through a gate and continue with a hedge on your right. The path leads slightly downhill towards Manor Wood. Go through the gate to walk through this attractive wood of coppiced hazel, oaks and beech. Leave the wood through a gate and turn right to a road. Across the road, a little to your left, just before a crossing over a stream, you will see a sign pointing up a lane to the right signposted for Furzey Gardens. This is our way, but before turning right up the lane you might like to pause for a moment on the footbridge. The stream cuts its way through green lawns shaded by fine oak trees.
4. Follow the lane uphill and keep straight on past a turning on the left to the next lane on the left signposted for Furzey Gardens. Turn left for the Gardens and after about 50 yards turn left through the entrance to the parking area. (If you wish to come by car drive past the Trusty Servant in Minstead towards the A31 and take the first turning on the left which will lead you straight to Furzey.)
By the gate into the Gardens you will find a good map. Whenever you visit there is always colour and interest with many unusual plants and trees. To ensure that the more exotic plants would flourish, extra soil was brought here by horse and cart. One very rare azalea is said to have come from the garden of the Emperor of Japan. The Calico bush or Kalmia Latifolia grows well here, its clusters of pink, star-shaped flowers have a particularly clean and fresh look, exactly like well-starched calico. In spring the grass is bright with cyclaminus daffodils and purple crocuses. The charm of Furzey is that there are no sharp divisions between garden and forest. It merges almost imperceptibly into the meadows and woods which surround it.
You can find out how New Forest workers once lived by exploring a 400-year-old cottage in the Garden. The kitchen with its enormous fireplace is unchanged. If you look up the chimney you will see the rail where the cottagers hung their bacon to be smoked. In the hearth is an assortment of 16th and 17th_ century kitchen utensils. To one side is a large circular bread oven and behind the oven part of the original wattle and daub cottage walls can be seen, built on a low brick foundation. New Forest cottagers built their homes out of whatever they could find and the roof beams and upstairs flooring are ships' timbers from the Tudor shipyards at Lymington. Upstairs there are only two very small bedrooms and yet a family of fourteen children once lived here! The children slept on straw on the floor with the younger ones in the middle. The last of the 'children' died in 1942.
By the cottage is a large gallery and tea room displaying a variety of local arts and crafts including pottery, woodwork, wrought iron and paintings.
We return to Minstead by a slightly shorter route. Retrace your steps, turning right as you leave the gardens, then right again by the first sign in front of the grassy triangle to follow the lane for about 100 yards. Look carefully for a small half-hidden stile and footpath sign on your left.
5. Turn left over the stile and walk straight ahead down a field keeping a hedge on your left. Cross the plank bridge over a stream and climb a small wooden fence to continue up the field ahead still keeping the hedge on your left. The path leads to a stile and footpath sign.
6. Cross the stile to a road and turn right. Walk down the road to the Trusty Servant inn which you will see ahead.
The starting point for the trail is Minstead village. Minstead lies just to the north of Lyndhurst around a network of minor roads between the A31 and the A35. From Lyndhurst take the Romsey Road, the A337, and turn left following the signs for Minstead after about 1.5 miles. There is parking in the village opposite the village green.