Nearby, on a dry slope overlooking said Rakes Brakes Bottom, is where being soporific got the better of us both and we had settled down for a snooze on the ground. The gentle wafts of sleep would have lasted much longer if the imperious horsewoman had not turned up and made her presence felt. The moral of that story is that if you have had too much beer at lunchtime and you need to sleep off its effects, choose a bit of grass distant from a bridleway.
After our sudden awakening we decided to stroll on. We set off across Rakes Brakes Bottom and, as if to prove that we were actually walking on water – albeit water with a covering of vegetation – John pierced the vegetation mat with his stick and promptly nearly lost it as it plunged down over its hilt. We moved on, stepping very cautiously. We skirted Ragged Boys Hill, another enigmatic New Forest name whose origins we hoped were still understood by someone somewhere. Maybe it has some link to the so-called ragged schools, charitable organisations dedicated to the free education of destitute children in 19th century Britain, though there were no obvious remains of a building out here. Then it was a shortcut through Broomy Inclosure, and up a final, energy-sapping, grassy slope to High Corner Inn at Linwood and the end of one of the most varied 13 km it must be possible to tramp anywhere in southern England.
For the very existence of the New Forest we have William the Conqueror to thank. Not that he gets thanks for much else. But, without the protection he decreed in the 11th century, a few small wooded areas might be all that remained today.
A scene I kept thinking about on one of my walks through the New Forest was the one in the 1979 film, Monty Python’s Life of Brian, in which Reg harangues a group of masked activists and asks them what the Romans had ever given ‘us, expecting no suggestions. Instead, he gets increasingly irritated as a list of benefits from roads and sanitation to education and public order – get shouted out by the activists at the meeting and completely undermine his argument. William the Conqueror’s Norman legacy is seemingly very much more mixed than that of the Romans, and controversial too. Some historians view him as one of the creators of England’s greatness; others as inflicting one of the worst defeats in English history and of obliterating Anglo-Saxon culture. He most certainly brought about huge changes in the Church, aristocracy, culture and language of Britain. But he did protect the New Forest, in his time just a part of the extensive woodland that still covered much of lowland Britain.
Sometime around 1079 he made it a royal forest, though conserving its wildlife was not top of his personal agenda. He wanted it for hunting, mainly deer, but maybe some Wild Boar too. The deer are still here; the boar long gone. But protecting the Forest for the King had its downside. A horrendous amount of what we might euphemistically refer to nowadays as ‘collateral damage’ resulted from his decree. More than 20 small hamlets and isolated farms were demolished. What happened to their inhabitants isn’t recorded.
King William got his comeuppance though. Two of his sons died in the Forest: Prince Richard sometime between 1069 and 1075 as a result of a hunting accident (some years before his father’s death in 1087) and King William Rufus, William II -named, apparently after his ruddy-faced appearance – was killed by an arrow, more likely murder than accident, in 1100. One of Rufus’ claims to notoriety was that he introduced mutilation for anyone flouting the Forest Laws. Local folklore asserted that his death was punishment for the crimes committed by his father when he created it as his ‘new forest’.