The Bishop's Purlieu

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We ate too much barbecue on a July afternoon so set off for a walk across the New Forest in Hampshire, England. Every visit to the Forest is an exploration.

Although the landscape looks simple — trees, heath and marshland in broad swathes depending on just how poor the soil is — the intricacies of sky and weather, growth and decay mean that it is always different, always new. Travelling less than a mile can place you in a completely different landscape.

The Forest is carefully managed, but feels wild. There are few fences and it is one of the few places in Southern England where you can just wander. The famous ponies, along with cattle, donkeys and sometimes pigs roam free, though every one is owned. There are lots of deer which are not owned, as well as other mammals, reptiles and birds. In England, Forests were not always heavily wooded, though there are often large areas of standing timber. Forests were primarily there to provide hunting from horseback and were managed and preserved accordingly. Deer were the primary quarry, but boar were also hunted.

We walked through the Bishop of Winchester’s Purlieu. A purlieu was an area where the King’s “Forest Laws” did not apply. These were often areas on the edge of a Royal Forest, though in this case, the Forest Law did not apply (by Royal permission) because the land was owned by the powerful Bishop of Winchester. The Forest Laws imposed the King’s rights over lands set aside for hunting and prevented the nobles who owned the land, and the commoners who had traditional, though limited rights to use it, from enclosing, farming or grazing the land. Forest law was generally hated and resisted, seen as an imposition by the Crown, what was originally a foreign occupier.

Now, the Bishop’s Purlieu is a place of big skies, biodiversity and quiet, broken only by the distant sound of trains, rushing between London, Bournemouth and Weymouth and having to sound their horns at various level crossings across the Forest. We stopped to look at various ponds and streams in the marshland. The water is brown with iron and clear, except where the ponies have recently visited and stirred them up. There is a large herd off in the middle distance. They have some foals with them, and one or two ponies watch us to make sure we do not come nearer. We hear whinnies between that herd and one which must be over the hill line and then we see a stallion approaching up the valley, with whinnies coming from several directions as he makes his presence felt.

Nearer to us, we delight in tiny pink flowers and bog cotton, emerging from the wet soil of the marshes, and the dry grass and sedge on the rising slopes.