Today, the torch takes in a whole swathe of southern England, and the sites of many a childhood summer holiday (though not for me! I was an Eastbourne and Bognor gal.) From the sandy beaches of Bournemouth and Boscombe, through the yachty waters of Christchurch, the torch then passes across both those mud-sodden holiday havens, The New Forest and the Isle of Wight, plus the ferries across the Solent (left). It’s a little much for one day, let alone one blog!
The New Forest
I wasn’t born in this part of the world. I’m actually a Maid of Kent (more of that in a few days time) and I’d never been to the New Forest till I moved to Hampshire a few years back. I always intended to set my first novel in nineteenth-century Kent. Nevertheless, my first published work, Bound for the Forest, was set in a fantasy version of the New Forest, which I casually entitled the Greenwood, and the name stuck.
There are a thousand reasons why the New Forest wormed its way deeply under my skin. Yes, in the Summer the roads are clogged to their limits with tourists and caravans, but it’s amazing how quickly you can get away from the scrum and into the deep woods, or (more prevalently) the vast open expanses populated chiefly by insects, rare songbirds, the odd snake and lizard, and four legged beasties. Charmingly, the moment one escapes the crowds, you will usually arrive face-to-face with a family of donkeys, or a wary wild pony and her foal, or my own personal favorite – that great big sow who loves roaming near the Lyndhurst car park. Maybe these piglets I snapped were some of hers?
That the New Forest is now the place where animals, and indeed holidaymakers and the population of the surrounding cities, roam free, takes on a certain irony in the light of how the forest came about. Created in 1079 by William the Conqueror as a royal hunting ground, thirty-six villages and churches were apparently swept away, and brutal laws were imposed for the next few centuries to prevent commoners’ hunting or even foraging. The most famous of these laws decreed that commoners could only hunt in the forest if their dog was small enough to fit through the verdurer’s stirrup (and if too large, parts of the poor dog could be lopped off!) The law is commemorated at the Crown Stirrup pub, and a 17th stirrup still hangs in the Verdurer’s Hall in Lyndhurst.
Of course, the story of the ravaging of Anglo-Saxon Greenwood liberties at the hands of the Normans is steeped in canonical nationalistic myth (something us Brits have been cultivating like hothouse tomatoes this summer). As in all the best narratives, the New Forest gained some small revenge in 1100, when William II (Rufus) the Conqueror’s heir and then king, was killed by an arrow during a hunting trip. The Greenwood’s blood harvest did not stop there. Rufus’s brother and three other relatives were also killed in the New Forest, allegedly in suitably ritualistic fashions: Duke Robert was killed by an arrow through his throat, and his son was hanged from an oak by his hair. All grimly inspiring, as are the many dark tales of the supernatural associated with the forest…how could a writer not be drawn in?
Excerpt from Bound for the Forest. Warning: Mild fantasy gore!
Mud splashed in Scarlet’s face as the terrified men and beasts galloped on. He was left alone, the stillness broken only by the rhythmic creaking of the branches overhead. He still hadn’t looked up. He hardly needed to.
Scarlet knew what he would see. The traitors of the forest: the corpses of those who had wronged the Greenwood from their very hearts, dangling from the trees in eternal indignity and torment. And Hastings and his sons had seen visions of their own corpses dangling beside them? Scarlet’s body rattled with a dry, mirthless laugh. Arya and Brien might have succeeded to a point in getting rid of the intruders, but they should have known to trust in the wily tricks of the spirits to finish the job…
…or were the spirits speaking to him?
Scarlet’s nerves clenched tight as his mind raked back over everything that had just happened to him. He had nearly drowned and been taken by the Wild Men, and now the hangings—and he hadn’t needed Herne’s reminder about his own fate of sacrifice. Shakily Scarlet raised his acorn charm to his lips and kissed it. It was Melmoth Brien’s fault! Until he came, Scarlet had hardly put a foot wrong.
And was Melmoth Brien’s corpse hanging above him, beside the other traitors in the trees?
He had to know. His blood thundering in his ears, Scarlet rolled onto his back. A bulky body swung from a tree not a yard off. A rope pulled tight around its broken neck; its limbs jerked and twitched in a dance macabre. The swollen tongue lolled from its mouth, the bulging eyes smudged yellow and red, pupils still darting with the tremors of fading life. An arrow pierced its side. This was not Brien. It was William the Conqueror’s son, Rufus, the most famous of the victims of the spirits, dead for over seven hundred years.
He scanned the rest of the bloated, discolored faces. No. Brien was not there. His energy rekindled by confusion, horror, and a sense of utter relief, Scarlet hauled himself up and stumbled from the roadside.
Having traveled only a very small distance, he dropped amid the spreading roots of a chestnut tree and curled into a tiny ball. Sleep claimed him instantly. And from there, Scarlet wandered through a land that he knew all too well, that place with no sun, lit only by a hollow, green glow. The trees here were few, and when it started to rain, the water burned him. It melted little grooves along his skin, streaming down his face and clouding his vision. He decided to run for shelter, for the denser woodland at the heart of the forest. But the rain, he realized, was poisonous. It had seeped deep inside him, and he could no longer move. So the trees came to him.
He was not shocked by any of this—not here, in the realm of Niogaerst. He’d seen it all before in dreams like this, although it still made him nervous. The shower of white arrows was all that was new.
They poured down from invisible archers beyond the branches, snow-white quivers driving razor-sharp points into his chest, his arms, and his thighs. Scarlet cried out, watched his body tumble backward, and then he saw himself bleed. Thick crimson liquid trickled down his arms, legs, and chest, pooling on the thick, bubbling soil, although he felt no pain.
“Don’t let it start yet,” whispered Scarlet. “Please let me go back, if just one more time. I want to know the truth.”
My home city had its moment in the world spotlight this year with the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic, during which over 540 residents perished. On the 10th of April, the new Sea City Museum opened to tell the well-known story of the disaster and offer a taster of Sotonian life in 1912, as well as a racing overview of the city’s past. For a lesser known slice of Southampton history, however, our newly-presented Tudor House museum is unmissable, not least because it draws you into the very heart of a medieval city that is too easily forgotten.
Southampton was badly bombed in World War Two, but much of the old city wall survives, as do foundations and crypts dating back to the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and some real timber-framed gems, including the Tudor House. Built in the late fifteenth century, and adjacent to the remains of a Norman palace, the Tudor House celebrates one hundred years as a museum this July, and still sports some of the cabinets of curiosities that characterized museums of its period. A macabre-cute stuffed puppy has disturbed visiting children for generations and resides there still, now alongside an introductory ‘experience’ that makes you wonder if you’ve wandered into an audition for extras in Harry Potter or Rentaghost. Seriously, it does. You better go there and find out…
Kay Berrisford is the author of the two ‘Greenwood’ novels, Bound for the Forest, and Bound to the Beast, a tale of Herne the Hunter. Her first contemporary novella, Catching Kit, set in the Olympic city herself, London, is published on July 24th.