Roots and Words

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New Forest

Written by Jeni Bell

Whilst relatively new in its status as a National Park, the New Forest is ancient in its standings. There are trees within its enclosures with deep-reaching roots that have measured the passage of time by Kings and Queens, rebellions, wars, and the passing of laws. Spread across Hampshire, Dorset, and Wiltshire, what was once William the Conqueror’s hunting ground has transformed into a destination for nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts alike. 

For me, it is the place in which I cut my wild teeth. Where, out amongst the hardy New Forest ponies, I first properly experienced freedom wandering across its heathlands, or along woodland paths in search of the deer that dwell there. And, like so many other artists, painters, and photographers, it has inspired me to connect to my own creativity. It is probably one of the reasons I first put pen to paper as a non-fiction writer, and although I don’t live as close now, I still seem to channel it every time I write. 

I didn’t grow up in the New Forest itself, but on the other side of the cattle grid in a small council estate a short drive away. Although, if I looked out of my bedroom window, beyond tiled roofs and past pylons, I could make out the trees lining its edges. They were one of the first things that sparked my love of nature, summoning me to explore them both in person and on the page. 

Nature writing has always been something I’ve surrounded myself with; it mirrors my interest in the outdoors, and those rich descriptions and details offer endless chances to travel beyond my bedroom (and myself!). Whether it’s a novel, a case-study on a particular species, or a memoir woven through with wild writing; I am never far from a well-thumbed nature-filled book. So, between those trees beckoning me from the horizon and the words of others, it was inevitable I would pick up a pen myself. And, probably even more inevitable, that my focus would fall heavily on the natural world. 

Initially, I wrote for myself but soon my nature journals and diaries transformed into a blog. This spurred me on to write magazine and online articles, and today I tend to find myself exploring my own personal landscape in longer pieces of prose. In 2022, I entered the Nature Writing Prize for Working Class Writers, and although my winning piece ‘Prayer to Sea’ was set far from the New Forest, its heathlands, ancient woodlands, and Solent shores, were what ignited my initial creative spark. 

This competition, founded by working-class writer Natasha Carthew, aims to help give a voice to those writers who face boundaries due to their socio-economic status. It offers an opportunity to connect with a world that can often feel out of reach for many. As someone who often couldn’t afford the entry fees of other competitions, or who has to fit her writing practice around work whilst negotiating the creeping feeling of guilt for not being more productive, Carthew’s prize was an outstretched hand. To me it felt like a reassuring voice that said: “You can do this. This is as much yours as anybody else’s.” It also helps to make the natural world feel more accessible; demonstrating that nature writing doesn’t have to solely be the domain of those travelling to far-flung destinations. It can just as easily be whatever you find on your doorstep, whatever speaks to you, whatever allows you to create a connection with your own life. 

I was lucky that the New Forest National Park lay just beyond my doorstep. And as someone who identifies as a working-class writer, it feels fitting that National Parks have played a huge role in our working-class history. 

Like Carthew’s prize, National Parks were formed with accessibility in mind. Their past is steeped in protest, with people fighting for the rights to access the landscape and countryside; arguing it’s benefits should be open to all, not just landowners. 

When the UK became increasingly industrialised, with towns and cities beginning to develop and spread, and more and more land subject to privatisation, people quickly recognised the need for green space. William Wordsworth claimed that the Lake District was ‘A sort of national property. In which every man has a right and interest who has an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy’ – a sentiment shared by those who appreciated, not just the Lakes, but other wild treasures throughout the UK. Time spent in these places gave those living and working amongst industry a welcome breath of fresh air, as well as a break from the pressures of work and industry. As more people began to witness such benefits, the more important it became to voice the peoples’ need for access, and to protect these green areas against loss. 

The first ‘freedom to roam’ bill, was introduced by James Bryce MP in 1884 and despite its rejection, it lodged the idea of nature as a human right in the public psyche. With conflicts between landowners and the public steadily growing more violent, with the 1932 Kinder Scout Trespass being a pivotal point of change in the fight for the rights of access, the government was under enormous public pressure to address the issue. And the pressure from the people didn’t subside. In 1936 The Standing Committee on National Parks, today known as the Campaign for National Parks, was formed to help fight for the cause. Through development of legislation, persistent lobbying, and post-war reconstruction, an Act of Parliament was passed in 1949 to establish National Parks. Their purpose: to conserve, protect, and enhance an area’s beauty, heritage, and wildlife; whilst helping people to enjoy and understand their special, unique qualities. 

The people’s voice had won, and over the course of the 50s the first National Parks were created. Today there are 15 across the UK. Even though the New Forest wasn’t awarded National Park status until 2005, it still stands as part of a people’s movement that fought for a bigger cause and still benefits so many people today. 

Whenever I head out along the heathland for inspiration I am passed by walkers, cyclists, and families heading out, picnic in hand. I often stop to ask birdwatchers with binoculars draped around their neck, if they’ve ‘seen anything good?’. Amongst the butter-coloured flowers of gorse and beneath the singing woodlarks people are being inspired; they are seeking their own wildness away from built-up areas and the pressures of day-to-day life. 

On their website, Campaign for National Parks explain that National Parks were created to ‘bring long-term protection to areas of beautiful countryside that were highly valued for physical and spiritual refreshment.’ Like a dip in cleansing spring waters, the New Forest has provided me over the years with plenty of refreshing experiences; ones that I’m able to draw on time and time again. And it’s this lasting refreshment that sparks my creativity. When I’m stuck at my desk, bogged down in the murkiness of daily worries and the words won’t come, I can recall the way it feels to lean into the pollarded limbs of a beech tree, the bright green moss wrapping around it sharp in my mind’s eye. Or I think on that one morning when the proud form of a fallow buck materialised from a soft morning mist. And that’s just me in the New Forest, others will draw on their own encounters from the Peak District, or Dartmoor, or the Yorkshire Dales. 

There is immense power in that, that these places stay with us long after we have left them. That we can draw on them when we have a bad day, or feel down, or just need to be whisked away to somewhere a bit wilder. That is undeniable access. It is essential. And fought hard for by those who believed, intensely, that everyone deserves to have these encounters. 

For me these moments help conjure the wild words I’m searching for. It’s that reason, alongside many others, I will forever be grateful for the access and understanding the National Park on my doorstep granted. But it is more than that, my gratitude extends to those that fought, and are still fighting today, to keep these spaces free and open for all to enjoy.  

It feels fitting that my words have come full circle. A working-class writer, entering a working-class competition, writing a piece for something that has strong roots in a working-class movement. Like those ancient oaks, my roots, and words, lie deep in the New Forest. I know that wherever I go or whatever I write, they will always reach down and out through my pen and onto the page. I hope that through my words I can help raise awareness of these natural gems, perhaps even encouraging others to head out and seek their beauty for themselves. It’s a small offering, my wild-wrapped words, but they are filled with deep thanks for these wild places and all that fight for them. 

First published in Viewpoint Magazine: Edition 82 in April 2023, to receive your own copy of Viewpoint become a Friend today.