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Chapter 45: The Pony, Donkey and Car
Lymington to Basingstoke
In the New Forest, the past grows like the rings of a tree. Time has moved on but events have left their mark, if you know where to look. Sean was driving me through the southeastern part across the gorse-flecked heath where ponies have the run of the land.
I asked why they were there.
They’ve been in the Forest as long as people have, I was told. When William the Conqueror turned the land to a hunting ground, the commoners forced a compromise and the ponies remained, free to graze. It was an ancient contract between king and subject. As the rest of the country was slowly enclosed the same rights were lost, but the New Forest guarded theirs carefully.
“Nowadays I guess the ponies are just pets really,” Sean shrugged. His brother owned a couple. He said they were the sculptors of the Forest too. Their grazing kept it lean and healthy and was the reason it looked the way it did. The New Forest is full of ancient farming rights, jealously protected by the locals, Sean continued. You can take as much firewood as you can carry on your back, and in autumn farmers are allowed to put their pigs out for pannage. They snaffle about for fallen acorns and their farmers hope they avoid the roads.
For the last century or so there's been an unusually close relationship between the New Forest and cars. Things to do with cars and the history of cars seem to be everywhere but no one gave me a good reason for it. When I asked about the rows of Ferraris in Lyndhurst, I received a shrug. There are a lot of rich people around, that was all. I put it to Sean too, asking about the National Motor Museum in Beaulieu. He shrugged too. It just so happened the local duke liked cars. Sean himself used to work as a vintage car mechanic in Beaulieu and not even at the museum. Apparently none of these were linked.
The relationship isn’t always seamless either. Cars and the locals often clash. Sean had seen a few ponies get hit in his time. Usually, it was people late for work in the mornings though now there’s a 40-mile-an-hour speed limit all through the New Forest.
Sean didn’t mind driving everywhere at 40. The needle on the van’s speedo stuck to it like a magnet. I liked it too. You can take things in and enjoy what’s going on, we’re so used to getting between places as fast as we can. I realised driving cuts us off from the places we pass through. We lose our ability to absorb the surroundings, observe the wildlife, feel the damp air or smell the resin and the rain. I suppose it’s impossible to walk everywhere these days, so in my mind, 40 miles an hour is a good compromise.
We crossed Beaulieu Heath, an open expanse of blooming yellow gorse and nonchalant ponies. On the right, Sean pointed, was the First World War flying school - the first in the country - and on the left was an old Second World War airstrip. People used to learn to drive on it when Sean was growing up. The duke dug it up to stop it a few years ago. You could tell Sean was a little annoyed.
A few miles later we came to Beaulieu. Sean had lived there all his life and thought it was funny how there was nothing to do there as a kid and then when you grow up you can’t afford to move back. It was a beautiful village which is probably why it was so expensive.
It had a lot of history too and he pulled over to point to the crooked brick buildings with bending timber frames and diamond glass windows. The one by the river with the bright red door was the old mill. During the Second World War, they had to fortify it with concrete in case the Germans came up the river. “If you go inside you can see the walls are this thick,” he explained enthusiastically.
I thanked Sean and he raced off with a wave. I walked around Beaulieu for a while and watched three donkeys nibbling the verge. The traffic had to slow to a stop and wait for them to finish. The donkeys didn’t mind, and neither did the traffic.
A car held to a standstill opened its door and I thanked the donkeys for their help. The driver was called Justine and she was a sculptor. She had a smooth, slightly husky voice and an easy, affable air. She always picked up hitchhikers if she could, though she hadn’t seen one for a while.
Justine told me her work was mostly classical and that her favourite sculptor was Bernini. As a girl she’d gone to Rome and been blown away by his work. “He could make marble look like flesh,” she wondered aloud, “It really looks just like flesh, it’s amazing.”
I asked about her work and what, apart from Bernini, inspired her to be a sculptor.
“As a child I was quite deaf so I had to lipread,” she ruminated, “I think that taught me to really look at people’s faces.”
Over her career, she’d been working on a project sculpting artists she admired. She loved how it allowed her to get them in a room and study their face, to work out what it was all about. Justine would ask them which material they wanted to be sculpted from. Mark Leckey had said he wanted something between a flash mobile phone and a fast car.
“Fast cars are everywhere in this place,” I thought, though Justine said she’d done it in London - she was only in the New Forest visiting a friend.
“What material is somewhere between those two?”
“Purple sparkly flip-flop paint apparently!”
The purple head with its ponytail and gold chain was exhibited in London but it was stolen almost immediately. Justine laughed at the memory.
“That’s a compliment,” I remarked.
“I know, I was pretty chuffed!”
We’d left the New Forest by now and were on a nondescript motorway en route to Winchester. Justine was going to see her sister on her way back to London. She explained how she’d been doing much less sculpting recently.
“Covid was a really big thing. It kind of disrupted my flow,” she said, “You’ve got to be so passionate as an artist. You’ve got to want to get up in the morning and go to the studio…and over Covid I lost a bit of that passion.”
Painting was partly filling the void. Justine was enjoying the novelty of a new medium and what’s more, unlike sculpting which is mostly monochromatic, on canvas you can have all sorts of conversations with and between colours and that was exciting.
Justine dropped me off in a town called Alresford. It was a pretty town with pubs hung with flower pots and a wide high street full of lime trees. I ducked down a lane past a mill to the river. On the other side, I caught a ride to Basingstoke.
Desmond was the first driver to pass me. He had a spherical head and two bushy grey slugs that rested on his brow. He didn’t talk much.
“Do you live in Basingstoke,” I inquired.
“Lived there long?”
“‘bout 15 years.”
“Is it nice?”
“Basingstoke? Ha!” The slugs jumped an invisible hurdle, “No.” They landed back in their place.
“What took you there…?”
“Work.” He didn’t take his eyes off the road, “Work, work, work…It’s always about work isn’t it.”
“I suppose so."
Desmond worked for the local council doing an office job. He was a dog’s body apparently.
“Is it interesting?” I was determined to find a way into this conversation.
“Errrrr…” he scratched his chin, “Every day’s different.”
“Well, each day there’s something… slightly different…” He turned to look at me and the slugs retreated upwards.
I looked out the window, at the hills and the smart houses and driveways, converted barns and poplars. It’s nice round here I mused aloud.
“Lord Portsmouth lives nearby,” Desmond mused back.
“That’s nice…Any other celebrities…?”
In the end, we took refuge in conversing about where to be dropped off. Desmond didn’t think there was much chance of getting a lift out of Basingstoke as the roads weren’t conducive. I was determined to try anyway.
“Are you sure you want to get out here?” Desmond asked dryly as we pulled onto the verge somewhere on the edge of Basingstoke.
I was, but it turned out he was right. Dual carriageways and traffic everywhere and not a lay-by in sight.
I walked along the roadside towards town and tried to absorb my surroundings: the lack of wildlife, the howl of passing lorries, the drizzle and the smell of exhaust.
I realised I’d much rather be in a car…
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