After a quick waltz round Sainsbury’s “just add water” food aisle for Ainsley goodies and a swift restorative pint in Ringwood we marched off to the New Forest, following the Avon Valley Path past some boating lakes/gravel pits before turning right up over Bigsbury Hill and on past Waterslade, down through some gorgeous woods towards the friendly Red Shoot pub and extortionate campsite (£24 is a joke). On the plus side it did mean I could have a shower, which after the bad-tempered slog I’d had from Poole was rather overdue come the evening!
After a fabulous dairylea and ham roll (yes – I am expert in “glamping”!) we set off on a pretty unstructured meander through forests and heath towards Fritham. Of all the legs of Walk2012 the New Forest is the area I am least happy about prescribing a route. There is so much to see and it is all beautiful that it feels wrong to say take this path or that. I think people should take their time and enjoy the forest. Personally, I’d say if you want a campsite then camp at Oknell rather than Red Shoot – it is a much nicer site. Do visit the Royal Oak at Fritham – simple, local food and fantastic beer. Otherwise just enjoy the amazing sense of space and the wild ponies.
After lunch we strolled north-east through Bramshaw woods where despite map and compass I managed to get us properly lost. This is all part of the fun, and we had a good laugh as Terry clambered around a fallen tree looking for the perfect photo.
Eventually we emerged from the woods and wiggled our way to Plaitford Common where we spent a night camping out amongst the ponies.
Who knew that the horses could be a) so nosey, and b) so noisy? So much for their fear of man and fire – bloody things turned up with marshmallows on sticks and a set of bongo drums! At around 3am a couple of them started whinnying and galloping around the tent like a pair of bickering teenagers rolling home at the end of a heavy Friday night. I think I disappointed Terry with my reluctance to go out and tell them off – “they’re just kids mucking about, go back to sleep”
Typically, after a night of 1000 horses circling the tent, come dawn there were none in sight and the whole thing felt like a surreal dream – must have been the cous-cous!
After breakfast (Mulligatawny soup!) we set off and walked to Romsey. The route is pretty good but there’s a bit which bothered me last time where we ended up walking down the verge of the A36 for half a mile or so. This time we cut across a golf course and walked down their road which was much better (if a little bit naughty). I will try to get their consent for the actual event in 2012. We walked by a Premier Inn so stopped for a 2 for a tenner lunch before taking the Test Way into Romsey, where Terry got the train home.
I checked into Bertie’s Restaurant/B&B and waited for Felix who had managed to escape her PhD write-up or radio show or conference paper or whatever it is she should have been doing to catch up with me. The bedrooms are too expensive (£85) for the walk in my view, but Bertie’s is a fantastic restaurant and Felix and I had a happy chatty meal followed by a cathedral hush as we nommed our way through the cheese board. The people working there are really friendly and knowledgeable and we will definitely be back to eat again…
After a hearty breakfast Felix and I said our farewells and I headed off to Winchester using a shortened route to the one I took earlier this year. It worked very well and it might become the official route because it means you can easily get beyond Winchester, or spend half a day in Winchester if you prefer – which is a beautiful city.
I met a lovely couple in Winchester whose names I forgot to ask (to my shame) and we chatted for a good few minutes about the walk and the joys of a merino wool base layer. Doing this walk end-to-end has really brought home to me the importance of good company on the walk. I really enjoyed the solitude and beauty of the southwest coast path but once I had got “work” out of my system the walk was much more enjoyable when I could share the experience.
Before leaving Winchester I bought a guide to St Swithuns Way (I think this is essential, from the tourist information office for £4), a spork (Terry had taken mine with her – grr..) and some bread pudding (Greggs!!) and headed of to Alresford. St Swithuns Way is a bit fiddly in parts as you leave Winchester, but then gets more straightforward. It is fairly well waymarked although more guesswork is required east of Alton.
Unfortunately the weather took a turn for the worse and I was soaked by the time I reached Alresford, and not best pleased when the campsite owner told me I couldn’t pitch my tent because they weren’t licensed for tents (seriously). Then it turned out that the 3 B&Bs in Alresford were either full or the owners were on holiday. Harrumph! Luckily Carla and another of the bar staff at the Cricketers were able to find me a room through the powers of Yellow Pages, 118 118 and ultimately Google.
Alresford is the home of the Watercress steam railway line, which if you like this kind of thing (who doesn’t?) is well worth a visit. On the day I was there it was a Thomas the Tank Engine day where you could ride on Thomas or one of his friends on the train line which runs from Alresford to Alton with stops at Ropley and Four Marks (as does St Swithun’s Way). On other days they have the RAT – Real Ale Train (Alresford is also home to the Itchen Valley brewery).
I’ll post more of the walk tomorrow. Toot toot!