If you go down to The Woods today…

The first national park I knew well was Jellystone Park, home of Yogi Bear, one of my favourite television cartoons. He wasn’t the only bear in the woods; closer to home I spent my early years in the Hundred Acre Wood with Winnie-the-Pooh, the real teddy in AA Mine’s books, not the Disney animated version; I have never left that wood!  And there was the more sophisticated Rupert Bear who lived in pine woods much like the ones we visited on family outings.

Rupert Bear

More exciting was our first and only holiday in the New Forest when I was eleven. As I loved ponies it was heaven; cattle, ponies and donkeys roaming around open land. There were also the dark woods carpeted with green velvet moss and the seaside, pebble beaches facing the Isle of Wight.

Read more about my pony mad years in last year’s blog

https://wordpress.com/post/tidalscribe.wordpress.com/481

 

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The New Forest is very old, William the Conqueror designated the area his Nova Foresta in 1079; forest then meant any area of land reserved exclusively for hunting. I do not think he would be pleased to see so many commoners enjoying themselves there today, it is still mostly crown land. The newest thing about the forest is its designation as a National Park in 2005.

People live and work in the forest, there are towns, campsites and all sorts of activities, but it is still a vast area of natural habitat with ponies and other livestock having right of way. The Verderers look after The Commoners rights to graze their animals. In the late summer and autumn, round-ups, or ‘drifts’ are held throughout the forest to treat any health problems the ponies and cattle may have, and to keep a count of the stock roaming the Open Forest. Mares and foals are marked during this time – foals are branded and the tails of mares are cut in distinctive patterns.

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When we first moved to nearby Bournemouth I read in the local paper that bears were to be reintroduced to the New Forest, that seemed an exciting idea until I read the date at the top of the page, April the First. But rewilding has been seriously suggested for remoter areas.

Britain once looked very different with vast natural forests, glades and wild spaces; wolves, bears and lynx roamed the land. The first Britons lived alongside woolly mammoths. Humans chopped down the trees to make space for farms and hunted the large animals to extinction, we have no natural predators to keep down deer numbers.

We took our recent visitors and their children for a visit to the New Forest, cream teas at a lovely cafe that used to be a railway station, paddling in the river, a cow being chased off the cricket field, more cows wandering in the car park. Close to nature, but not really part of the ancient forest. How amusing it would be to see keen photographers surprised by a bear coming into view, or families having their picnics stolen.

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You may still meet another ancient being in the forest, The Green Man…

There’s a New Forest theme at my website this month, read two dark short tales and enjoy a day out in Beachwriter’s Blog.

https://www.ccsidewriter.co.uk/chapter-six-fiction-focus

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As well as short stories, I enjoyed using the New Forest as one of the settings in my novel Three Ages of Man; the bewildered stranger has to find his way from Waterloo Station down to Brokenhurst and hike to a secluded cottage, there are many places to hide in the woods.

Quarter Acre Blog

The first time Australia was mentioned was at breakfast on a school day. I was astonished when Mum said

‘How would you like to go to another country?’

Where had this idea come from? The furthest we had ever been was a hundred miles to visit my aunt in Cheltenham.

I replied instantly ‘If I can have a horse.’

I had always wanted a horse and what other reason could there be for going to another country? I would need no help caring for it due to my extensive reading of the Kit Hunter Show Jumper series and all the other pony books I could lay my hands on.

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‘Australia?’

I returned from my reverie to hear what Mum was saying. A new picture presented itself; warm weather, living by the seaside and swimming every day. I couldn’t actually swim, but had been up to my chest at Frensham Ponds and in the sea, while Mum and Dad sat in deck chairs huddled in coats and rugs.

But my most vivid image of what our Australian life would be like came from my favourite television programme, The Adventures of the Terrible Ten. Ten children living in rural Victoria, who all had ponies, discovered some old packing cases and built Ten Town. They never went to school or saw their parents.

Mum said I might get a horse, would probably get a dog and would definitely go swimming. But for now the whole adventure must be kept deathly secret; until we knew for sure we had been accepted for migration. This meant absolutely no one, not even my best friend or my younger brother and sister. I kept the secret.

 

It was spring now and by autumn we would be ready to go, not on the dangerous voyage of the early settlers, but Mum and Dad would be burning their boats. Cheap flights at ten pounds each for Mum and Dad and free for children; but it was a one way ticket. My parents expected never to see England or their relatives again.

In the meantime a momentous year lay ahead. It was our last year at junior school; the first year Top Of The Pops was broadcast and in the garden shed our pet white mice were multiplying rapidly. As top years we went on school holiday for the first time to the Isle of Wight. It was a very pleasant holiday, but two strange things happened. As a Church of England school we knew several of our classmates were Roman Catholics, it made no difference to them or us. But on the Sunday of the holiday, one poor catholic boy was to be marked out as different. All of us were to attend morning service at the local church, but Eric’s mother had decreed that Eric must go to the catholic church. As a relatively new boy he was already slightly different; now as his lone figure trudged off in the opposite direction, to the mysteries of candles and incense, he had become an outcast. Later that day, as we ran around in the grounds of the hotel, some primeval, sectarian instinct took over and we all chased Eric; convinced in that moment that we were going to lynch him. Luckily the teacher came out blowing her whistle and normality was restored.

Peter was another unfortunate boy. For some reason he was the only child of our class of forty who didn’t come on the holiday. As we ate dinner one evening, the headmaster came into the dining room looking very distraught. Peter had run away from home and managed to reach the island before being caught by the police. We all thought him very clever to have got that far and very sad that he still wasn’t allowed to join us.

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Back at school our summer term was nearing its end; we practised maypole dancing ready for our centenary celebrations and Mum and Dad visited the headmaster. Later that day he entered the classroom to chat to us; a common occurrence, but this time I realised with horror he was talking about me. I had kept my promise and not told a soul and now was mortified the headmaster was telling everyone I was going to Australia! Having spent four years mostly unnoticed, I was now the centre of attention as everyone turned to look at me.

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As autumn arrived life became surreal. The date was set for our departure. I had passed my eleven plus, but it would make little difference to my future, the Australian schools were comprehensive. Our little school gang had been split in half, four of us were going to grammar school; one mother didn’t come out of the house for a week with shame that her daughter had failed. For a few weeks I experienced a glimpse of what my life might have been at a girls’ grammar school, dressed in bottle green uniform with the excitement of Bunsen burners.

Soon our house was sold and we had reached the point of no return. As the taxi collected us for the airport my grandparents stood stoically waving and my school friend Wendy skipped up the road after us; she would be the only person from those days to stay a lifelong friend.

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The taxi had been late, very stressful for my parents. As we arrived at London Airport     (now Heathrow) our friends and relatives were waiting, wondering if we had changed our minds. We rushed through with hardly time to say goodbye. The airport was much smaller then; as we climbed the steps to the plane we could see our loved ones gathered on the balcony waving. Except for Dad, it was the first time we had been on an aeroplane. I was really excited until I noticed the big card in the seat pocket. How to put on your lifejacket! Until that moment I had not considered the possibility that planes could crash. I wondered if we would reach Australia.

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My novel Quarter Acre Block was inspired by our family’s experience. It is not autobiographical, but people who have read it ask which things were ‘true’. Find out more at my website.   https://www.ccsidewriter.co.uk/chapter-six-fiction-focus

 

Jumping and Falling

Some of the first words I uttered were to ask for a horse. I never did get one, though horses have featured in my life. While other children were reading the Famous Five I was reading pony books, the three Pullein-Thompson sisters wrote about children from a completely different world who all had their own ponies. I knew all the parts of a horse; I could catch, bridle and saddle a lively horse – in my dreams. My favourite gifts were book vouchers with which I bought new volumes of Kit Hunter Show Jumper; my most precious volume was The Observers Book of Horses.  My parents knew nothing about horses though they did love watching show jumping on television. In the school playground and in the street we played horses, a skipping rope round the shoulders of whoever was being the horse, while the ‘rider’ galloped behind gripping the rope reins.

Real ponies came into my life in junior school years, my friend and I spent our pocket money on half an hour once a fortnight lessons at the local stables. Bored ponies carrying children were led in single file down old lanes and through new estates by teenage girls. Exploring on our bikes one day we discovered a cheaper ‘riding stables’, an old pig farm and teenage girls with horses.  Our mothers were naively unaware of the dangers of riding; we never possessed the proper cloths or riding hats, we went armed only with sugar cubes, most of which we ate ourselves.

One school morning at breakfast, when I was nearly eleven, my mother had a surprise announcement; considering that I was always sent to bed early and lay awake eavesdropping on parental voices from downstairs, it is amazing that I had no inkling my parents were planning on emigrating. When Mum asked me if I would like to go to Australia there could only be one response – ‘If I can have a horse.’

We stayed in the New Forest for our last English holiday; still blissfully unaware of my lack of riding skills, my parents found stables and arranged for me to have an hour’s ride. My eleven year old self was sent off with a young chap, a complete stranger, I clung on for dear life as my pony followed his. I was doing quite well till the end of the ride; my pony’s speed increased and he took a sharp turn down to a stream. I fell off but remounted, the horse repeated his manoeuvre twice; thee falls, hatless, but unharmed.

In Perth, Western Australia my best friend and I used to cycle off to Forestfield, where Perth International Airport now stands. We spent most of the ride urging the hired horses to do more than walk, only for them to gallop out of control when we turned back to the stables. On one memorable occasion we took my younger sister out with us as a birthday treat. She had never ridden a horse before and hers bolted; helpless we watched as she disappeared down a dusty track, fortunately the horse came to a wire fence and halted.

Then my friend and her sister acquired a horse. Their mother, with little equine knowledge,  went off to an auction, bought them a stumpy palomino called Sabrina and found a paddock to rent. But it wasn’t quite the stuff of pony books, one pony to share. We all soon realised that looking after Sabrina wasn’t as easy as in the books, we couldn’t even catch her in the paddock, let alone get her saddled up.

For teenage girls and women it is not just the horse they admire. When we watch historical dramas or Olympic Three Day Events , men in riding breeches astride large horses are bound to set hearts aflutter.

When we went to the New Forest Show recently I still got a thrill. Pony club children living my childhood dream and beautiful show jumpers pounding the turf.

In my new novella one side of the love triangle is a fine grey stallion hunter called The Major. Read his story in Ralph, one of two novellas in Someone Somewhere.