In general, walkers prefer their walks to be 'linear' rather than 'circular'. This means that the walker doesn't end up back at the start when they finish the walk. In many ways, this is preferable; you don't have to retrace your steps, so you get to see more of the countryside and visit more remote areas for the same walking distance. It presents an obvious problem, however: how do you get back to the start?
The solution is usually public transport, which is often infrequent or unreliable, or a complicated system of dropping a car at the end of the walk in advance. The great thing about the Ashurst to Brockenhurst walk - or the reverse - is the excellent train service that links the two towns. Here is a walk tailor-made for the linear walker, and, if you don't fancy the full ten miles, there is a convenient railway station almost exactly halfway along the route! Trains run in either direction approximately every hour throughout the day.
The New Forest is a national park in Hampshire, in the south of England. Contrary to its name, only half of the New Forest consists of woodland ('forest' is an old word meaning, simply, 'hunting ground'). The other half is mainly heath, and it is the largest area of lowland heath in Europe. It is also renowned for its deer, and this walk is very representative of all these points of interest: it passes through about half woodland and half heath, and there is a good chance of seeing deer.
Neither of the villages is particularly remarkable. The walk begins in Ashurst, near Southampton, which is probably most significant for the busy A35 road which passes through its centre. A little more attractive is Brockenhurst, with a nice park and ford, and a little less of a polluted air. Neither is really worth a visit on its own, although what lies between them is certainly worthwhile.
Both villages are well endowed with accommodation, and there is a Forestry Commission campsite at each. It would certainly be possible to do the walk in either direction with camping equipment and set up at the end of the day without having to return on the train.
This is an easy amble along terrain that undulates without ever becoming steep. The footpaths are very obvious and are well maintained by the Forestry Commission. Boggy areas are spanned by short bridges, and by sticking to the main routes it should be possible to take a pushchair all the way along. However, there are numerous paths through the forest and it's worth taking a map and compass. The Ordnance Survey map OL22 (New Forest) covers the walk in 1:25,000 scale. It's very difficult to get lost anyway, as the railway is always close by, but it's wise to guard against walking much further than you need to. This Entry will presume you have this map to hand.
The start of the walk is at grid reference SU 335103, a small car park near the Happy Cheese pub in Ashurst. Travelling by car from the direction of Southampton, look for the pub on the left and pull in to the sliproad; the car park is at the end. If you've come in by train, it's just over the road bridge you can see from the platform. The Happy Cheese and its neighbour, the New Forest, are good places for a little light refreshment before setting out and both open early enough to serve hearty breakfasts.
Ashurst to Shatterford
From here, a gateway leads you into a small area of common ground frequently used by villagers as a dog toilet - watch your step. Pass the railway station on your right and after about half a mile a gate leads you into some genuinely life-affirming woodland. Like many woods, it is at its best in the autumn; here the sheer variety of different tree species means that the colours are intensified. The further you walk, the less likely you are to encounter other walkers, and the A35 is soon forgotten.
After half a mile, this path turns right onto a marked cycle route which heads roughly southwards through the woods. Keep your eyes peeled here; it is good deer habitat, although the route is well used and there are more remote sections of this walk that will give you a better chance of a sighting. If you want a really short walk of just a mile or two, you can turn off this path and return directly to Ashurst via Ashurst Wood.
The path eventually turns slightly to the south-east and sticks fairly close to the railway line for the best part of a mile. Oddly, the occasional train passing by seems unobtrusive and is more of a gentle intrusion rather than something that spoils the atmosphere. The woodland ends abruptly at a stile, and from here the middle third of the walk is across largely unspoiled heath.
Heath is an important habitat, particularly for nesting birds, so if you have a dog make sure you have it on a lead - especially important during the mid-May to July breeding season. Keep your ears open for the distinctive sweet-chick of a stonechat. The footpath drops gently downhill and the wood is left behind. The views are now of heath, with trees confined to the horizon. In the summer, the purple flowers of the heather stretching away in every direction are stunning. Birds of prey soar above all year, and if your eyes are quick you may spot a common lizard or adder disappearing at the sound of your footsteps.
If you have a pushchair with you, note that after prolonged wet weather one or two places on this section can get pretty sticky - it shouldn't stop you, but you may get soggy feet and muddy wheels!
The path turns west at Fulliford Passage, goes under a railway bridge and swings southwards once again. After a short rise - which serves as a good birdspotting viewpoint - the path continues close to the railway to arrive at Shatterford.
Shatterford makes an excellent lunch stop or a place to break the walk if you don't fancy the full ten miles. Almost exactly halfway, it has a car park and a railway station, Beaulieu Road. A small grove of trees offers shelter from rain or sun. There is also a hotel here, but this is probably beyond most walkers' wallets.
Shatterford to Brockenhurst
The path continues south, with wet heath on either side. As well as heath birds, the bogs are wet enough to support wetland species, and the area is a birder's well-kept secret. For most people, though, the real goodies are further on; as the edge of the next stretch of woodland approaches, you're starting to enter deer country.
Deer prefer woods that are fairly undisturbed, and like to hang around near the fringes; they can use the cover of the woods by day and emerge to graze after dusk. As you enter the woods at Woodfidley Passage, these boxes are well and truly ticked. The nearest significant habitations at Lyndhurst and Brockenhurst are both about four miles away, and the woodland fringe extends for many miles. There are few better sites to spot wild deer in the whole of the New Forest.
Glimpses are often fleeting but sometimes lingering, and you can add to the excitement by looking for some simple signs as you walk. Cloven-footed deer prints are easy to spot, as is vegetation that has been chomped to a few inches off the ground. Walk quietly and carefully, and you may well be rewarded, particularly in the autumn when vegetation is thinner.
The woods here are extensive, so pay close attention to your map. The easiest way to go is almost due south-west for a mile; after that if you bear slightly right at every junction where you have that choice until you are walking westwards, you can't go far wrong. If in doubt, check your map. You did remember that advice to bring a map and compass, didn't you?
The path eventually emerges blinking from the woods at Standing Hat, a popular spot for a picnic and a game of cricket in the summer. Turn left along a good track and pass a short section of heath to arrive at Brockenhurst village; a short stretch of road brings you back to the A337, and turning left here brings you into the village itself.
The railway station is on the other side of the village, so you're not quite there yet. However, just after the college there are two good pubs with a respectable range of ales - the Snakecatcher and the Rose and Crown. It's hard to feel that you haven't earned a drink or two as you wait for your train...