5 out of 5 stars
A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.
There are parts of the New Forest that have not changed in the past thousand years since the land was seized by the new monarch, William the Conqueror, nee Bastard and he made is one of his new hutting forests. It is not heavily wooded, rather it is a delightful mix of woodlands, heathlands and other habitats. Bar the few roads that cross it and small towns there has been very little development on the landscape, wildlife that is rare in other parts of the south can often be found here.
It is a place that Neil Ansell has known since childhood. He grew up in Portsmouth fairly close to the area and would spend days there watching all sorts of wildlife and immersing himself in the natural world. This is a trip back through his own memories of childhood and a self pilgrimage to find the place that had such a long-lasting impact on the direction of his life.
He begins in January on the heath at Shatterford; it is bitter and a strong wind isn’t helping either. The sun glinting off the ice does add a certain magic. Just pausing long enough to look at the fractal patterns on the pond is enough to bring the birds out from where they had been hiding as he had walked up, stonechats and then in the sky, a raven. He follows the trail onward and pauses again to sit on a fallen branch. He takes in what is around and then sees a bird perched on top of a dead birch, a shrike.
It is wiser to go out with my eyes wide open, to fully appreciate what is actually there, rather than ending up regretting what is absent.
He returns each month to the forest just to be there really. Some visits have a specific aim; to find a place that was once a memory, but mostly he is there just to walk aimlessly and see where it leads him. By visiting regularly, he gets a better sense of the way that the seasons fade into each other. There are moments though where you sense that another pivot has been reached, the return of a particular migrant, the first flower from a plant that wasn’t there the last time he passes and the first butterflies floating about.
The journey there takes him past where he grew up and each time the train stops at Cosham, he has a nervous feeling as the memories pour back. He didn’t have an unhappy childhood, but the events at the time set in motion the direction of his life and have determined where he ended up now. With this, he draws in a tangle of other threads about the natural world, travellers and strong thoughts on who now owns the land of our country.
The goal is not to walk through a landscape, but to walk into it. The point of a walk is not to reach the end but to reach the middle. To find the centre of things, and soak it all in.
As with his other books this is a joy to read. It is more reflective than his other books, he is recounting past memories of his childhood trips there and tries to find the places that made such a distinct impression on him in his formative years. It is more political than his other books, I think that he has reached a point where he sees birds and animals disappearing that he used to see a few decades ago and rightly feels that we are doing bugger all about it. I do like to that that he is not a specialist in any particular field, rather he is there to absorb the rhythms of the natural world on his wanders through the forest. His steady hearing loss means that the sounds of some birds and the whisper of the wind through the trees are lost to him forever, but this has sharpened his observational skills. It is another wonderful book from Ansell and I can highly recommend it.