Walkers were warned and waterproofs were packed. I was checking the weather forecast two or three times a day in the run up to walk and it never looked like being anything other than a wash out. So it was quite a pleasant surprise to rise on Saturday morning to blue skies speckled with white, rather than dark, clouds. Could it stay that way 106 miles away in Lymington? Read on to find out.
After my recent trip to Italy I was brought crashing down to Earth by the extortionate prices charged by some of the privatised rail companies of the UK. £45 for a return from Honor Oak Park to Lymington is about ten times the price you'd be expected to pay in Italy, in fact it's less than the fine I incurred for forgetting to validate my ticket there. I can't repeat enough times how renationalisation of the railways should happen and should happen soon. Too many cowboys getting rich on the back of commuter misery.
Two of the three trains I needed to take were late (that's what £45 buys you these days) but at least we got a seat, despite the hordes of Watford fans on their way to an away fixture at Southampton (which they'd go on to win, impressively, 2-0). The sight of them working their way through cans of lager and cider at 10am meant I'd certainly not feel guilty when my first pint hit my lips later that day.
Pam and I boarded the train at Clapham Junction, Rachael and Kathy had got on at Waterloo, and Shep joined us at Basingstoke. Adam and Teresa had driven so we met them, Neil, Belinda, and Eamon in Lymington quay.
Were they sat outside the lovely Ship Inn with cold drinks in their hands? No, they were not.
Were they enjoying a coffee and sandwich in the charming looking Boat House Café? Nope.
Were they lurking around the bogs? Of course they were.
Each to their own I guess. Lymington is a charming little port town that I'd somehow never had the pleasure of visiting before. It'd have been enjoyable to hang round a bit longer to explore but the road, of course, was calling.
We crossed the Lymington river for the first time, sadly no otters were in evidence, and took the first of many bridleways into the Lymington Reed Beds Nature Reserve. Along the banks of the river it was boggy underfoot and, due to my poor choice of footwear, my socks and then my feet got wet. Each time a foot pressed into the damp ground I felt a squelch of water between my toes. It wasn't a totally unpleasant situation and the lovely views more than compensated for any mild discomfort.
After a while we reached the sprawling, ill defined, village of Pilley. Our first pub stop had arrived earlier than normal but as the Fleur de Lys boasted of having been serving drinks since 1096 (there's a board up inside listing all the landlords since 1498) it would've been rude not to stop.
It's one of those country pubs that's pretty much been given over to the gastro crowd now. More a high end restaurant now (one main course weighed in at £27.50) than a local's boozer. Unlike our experiences earlier this year in Ightham Common, however, the staff were friendly. There was a small snug for those not wishing to splash out more than half the cost of a Southern Trains journey on a medallion of aged beef fillet with dauphinoise potatoes, celeriac, and mini Yorkshire puddings. Better still there was an agreeable little garden where I sipped my pint of Jail ale and we all caught up on each other's news and gossip.
Suitably refreshed we filed out of Pilley, across a cattle grid, and into, what felt like, the New Forest proper. Through the trees we glimpsed our first sight of the resident ponies. One was stood on an island in the water and looked almost magical. Another lingered by the exterior wall of a nearby residence and could almost have been taken for threatening.
Neil Bacchus was not deterred by these miniature horses (which were once believed to have descended from some that swam ashore from the abandoned or destroyed ships of the Spanish Armada, a myth now debunked but a nice story all the same). He went straight over for a stroke and, soon, so did the rest of us.
Ponies were appearing from all over the place. Cows too. The long haired cattle and tiny white ponies were particularly cute. It really is remarkable that just two hours from London you can be in such a wonderful, inspiring place. So free of the hassles and stresses of city life.
Passing through a few more fields we encountered far more muscular looking examples of the equus genus. Some of these could well be thoroughbreds but I really don't know enough about horses to tell you. Despite their daunting size they moved aside to allow easy passage for us walkers.
We came upon the Norman and medieval Church of St John the Baptist, a church that seemed to serve no actual village but had a graveyard that stretched on nearly as far as the eye could see. At this point the skies opened up so we took shelter in God's house, even Shep came in.
It was actually a rather beautiful and tranquil building (as so many churches are, it's such a pity about all that Christianity stuff). The writer and illustrator William Gilpin was rector here in the late eighteenth century and wrote scathingly of the 'indolent race' of foresters who marred the serenity of the New Forest by 'forest pilfer, deer stealing, poaching, or purloining timber'. He sounds like a guy keen to fit in with his new neighbours. Only joking, he sounds like an unbearable snob.
We admired the stained glass, chatted to a couple of warders, and headed off towards Roydon Wood Nature Reserve. Dilton Farm looked like a good setting should anyone fancy remaking The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as The New Forest Chainsaw Massacre. Rusting crashed motors, deadly looking abandoned farm equipment, broken diggers, and skips full of discarded crap littered the potholed muddy path. Shep and I pondered that Jason Lytle of Grandaddy could probably spin an entire album's worth of material from the microwave graveyard we stumbled across. Truly, Dilton Farm is where electrical and mechanical equipment comes to die.
Fortunately, despite its appearance, not walkers too. Roydon Wood Nature Reserve's sights were equally evocative and would, undoubtedly, have met with Gilpin's approval far more than a smashed up JCB. We crossed the Lymington river once last time and played pooh sticks in its shiny brown water. My stick got stuck, a metaphor for many things in my life but not these walks.
The next stop was our second church. St Nicholas's is the oldest in the New Forest and, as with St John the Baptist's, the rain fell down with gusto as we reached it. So we went inside again. There was a 'riders and striders' charity event going on in the area in which said riders and striders were due to visit local churches. Warders had been situated within to provide tea, biscuits, and sympathy to them but the event appeared to be poorly attended and a friendly warder, instead, offered us these tasty beverages and comestibles whilst giving us a potted history of the Norman place of worship. I made pretty short work of a saucerful of Bourbons and even the custard creams and garibaldis were eagerly pocketed.
A hundred casualties of World War I are buried in the church's immense graveyard. Mostly Kiwis and Maoris but an Australian and three Indians too. In fact the church has become something of a pilgrimage site to visiting New Zealanders, the All Blacks even stopped here once on their way to Bournemouth, and there were information panels on the walls and folders to browse as we warmed up with our cuppas.
The warder took us to see the pristine white grave of local legend 'Brusher' Mills. Brusher was an eccentric that once lived in the area and who caught snakes in the New Forest and then sold them to London Zoo to feed the birds of prey. A possibly apocryphal story tells of the time he emptied his bag of serpents on the floor of a local pub to part the crowds and allow himself rapid access to the bar. It's said his grave has never been cleaned but never gets dirty. It sounds unlikely but why let the truth get in the way of a good story.
The garden of the church is home to a huge ancient, more than one thousand year old, yew tree. It took seven of us linking hands to encircle it. The tree was awesome, the story of Brusher interesting, and the tea much needed but the hospitality shown to a group of wet and muddy walkers was the most impressive aspect of our church stop. It truly touched my heart. I expect our friendly warder would say she was simply carrying out God's work. I'd say it was a shining example of humanity at its finest. We'd probably have to disagree on that but I like to think that, despite our philosophical differences, we'd find more common ground with each other than either of us would with Jacob Rees-Mogg and his ugly brand of ISIS-lite fundamentalism, rape apologia, homophobia, and contempt for the poor.
Thoughts of Jacob Rees-Moggs cowardly, and craven, attempts at a power grab would leave an unpleasant taste in any sane person's mouth so it was opportune that it wasn't long before we passed over a level crossing, arrived in Brockenhurst, and took shelter in the beer garden of The Snake Catcher pub (once The Railway Inn, the very same pub in which Brusher had once found a novel method of getting served quickly).
I had a Forty-Niner from the Ringwood brewery, others took a Boondoggle from the same brewery, and all agreed it'd been an interesting, informative, and fun walk. Rachael had put a cat among the pigeons by suggesting we go for Thai food rather than our customary curry. Such temerity for a relative newbie yet actually a rather wonderful idea.
Britannia Thai came highly recommended. The Singha beer washed the utterly delicious sweetcorn cakes down and if my pad ga-prao was ony half-successful that was more down to my fussy eating habits than anything to do with the food, service, or preparation.
We took the 2045 train back to London, the tins of gins, bottles of beer, and games of Heads Up (a smartphone take on Botticelli in which you have to guess, say Bette Davis, by the description "she's got eyes") made the journey fly by. By the time I got home it was nearly midnight and I was tired, happy, and looking forward to doing it all again soon. Next month we're visiting the romantic ruins of Bayham Abbey on the East Sussex/Kent border and, as ever, I can hardly wait.