Revisiting the New Forest

The New Forest
The New Forest

So can you ever go home again? To reply to Thomas Wolfe’s rhetorical question, specialist writer Sandra Shevey nodded a qualified yes.

I visited the New Forest in 1988 on an unforgettable familiarisation trip when we rode and walked and explored. We watched badgers forage at night and admired the numerous horses and ponies (owned by locals) which are permitted to run free in this protected national landscape.

Tony Climpson (now Tony Climpson OBE) was our host and seeing him again made me remember this lost weekend.

That said, the New Forest, like everywhere else in England, has changed dramatically over the past few decades. It seemed to me the numbers of horses have been culled and conversely the numbers of grids have downsized their grazing land.

The old Crown Hotel in Lyndhurst where I stayed (just across from the church where Alice Liddell Hargreaves is buried) no longer belongs to the Greens and with their passing has gone a nostalgic sense of Fifties continuity.

There used to be teddy bears in all the rooms- public and private, which Mrs Green would auction, as well as other treats and surprises. Chef, however, who’s been there for the past 30 years, endures and still produces his own freshly-made marmalade each morning. It is surpassingly tasty.

My intention was to profile two south coast market towns: Southampton (which only became a city in 1964) and Lymington.

Southampton`s market dates back to medieval times and has become vestigal if existent in the area around Kingsland Road. I arrived at noon on Friday and could see no stalls whatsoever.

What I did find in the town centre in front of the old Bargate was the SMTC market (Southern Market Traders Co-operative). This is a private market of 50 stalls run by Paul Lewis that functions as a general market on Friday and an arts, food and general market on Saturday.

The origins of the Southampton market date back to medieval times when the town was one of the big four (others included Bristol, York, and Newcastle) and where the Burgesses were granted the right to act in tandem with the Mayor and Aldermen as clerks of the market. They could dictate what or wasn’t bought and sold and at what price and who was allowed to trade within town walls.

In ancient times, the fish market, butter market, bakeries and butchers had their stalls in the streets of the old town and a wander around this ancient precinct reveals the survival of some of the area`s historical buildings.

Medieval, Georgian and Victorian buildings have survived both war damage and redevelopment, although a couple of new apartment buildings have edged into the fabric and somehow cheapen it.

The Star, Southampton`s oldest and finest coaching inn, remains as does the 13th Century Dolphin Hotel which numbers Lord Nelson, Thackery and Jane Austen among its visitors. Yours truly stayed here in the Nineties with her spaniel ‘Whitlock’ who had his own bed.

The original site of the market was around St. Michael`s Square where fish market and wool market existed side by side until churchgoers objected to the stink of fish. The fish market went. The church remained, and St Michael’s is the oldest building still in use in the city of Southampton. Built in 1070 within the ancient medieval walls, it has a Grade I listing and is thus protected.

The city retains much of its medieval wall (rebuilt) including the vast and imposing Bargate – once a prominent gateway into this part of the city. Its castle-like architecture denominates a series of archways with a central walkway, ornate leaded windows, a prominent stone state of George III (in Roman dress); and a 17th Century watch bell. Market officers and an art gallery currently occupy premises.

The ‘real’ markets these days in Southampton are the shopping malls such as Ocean Village (now a White Elephant) and West Quay which expunged alot of the old docks and warehouses in or around c2000.

Where and when old street markets survive, they are generally in private hands. Traders are peripatetic and make the rounds. SMTC has 16 markets in Winchester, Christchurch, Bitterne, Alton and elsewhere.

So what do traders think? Most are of the opinion the old markets are dying. They own that tradition is a bygone. They complain there are few pitches, less patrons, and junky goods. And you know what? They`re right. Of all the stalls there were only a few that really tempted.

The Bonsai stall appealed because of variety. If you ceased to prune, you could grow a California redwood in your conservatory that would grow as tall as a forest redwood. Chinese camellia, wisteria, golden larch, redwood, English yew, Japanese maples and cherry are all grown locally at a nursery down the road.

Two funky west country guys run the bakery stall which still bakes its own produce and bakes it the way your gran used to. “It’s all in the flour mix,” they tell me. “Taste this scone and taste one at Tesco. Tell me the difference.” No comparison!

Along with scones they make lardy cake (lard, sugar and raisins baked on bread), eccles cake (pastry, sugar and currants), and rock cake (sugar, orange peel, raisins and flour mix). I plumped for a Cornish pastie- greaseless shell filled with mince, potato and carrots. Yum!

Most stalls sell manufactured goods and which are dreary but hat still beat the shops on price. A cosmetics stall sells Revlon lipstick for £1.50 (if they have your colour), Max Factor eye liner for £3, and L’Oreal lipstick for £2.50. A full set of makeup brushes retailing for £11 at Boots sells here for £1.

The charter market may have disappeared from Southampton but it`s alive and well in Lymington. But then nothing very much has changed in Lymington in hundreds of years.

Oh yes, the marina now accommodates yachts and cabin cruisers cheek by jowl with fishing boats, which still deliver a daily catch (sold locally to fish and chip shops). Early one morning I helped a chappie to cast off. Locals sit by the quayside netting for crabs. Too small, they are generally thrown back.

The quay area is historically represented in cobbled streets, place names and Georgian cottages whilst the High Street hosts the market which is girded on both sides by period houses and shops of centuries past.

Years ago I visited the market. It was an autumn day just into evening. I can remember the blustery winds from the quay and the lanterns which illuminated the stalls as the sun began to set.

Lymington got its charter in 1251 and a second one in 1315 to hold a market on Saturday. It is still held on Saturday. An important function of the market was to bring produce for sale from the immediate hinterland, such as cheese, cloth, cattles and horses.

Butchers shops formed part of the ‘Shambles’ in the High Street, where they had posts for actually slaughtering the animals on site. Other shops included bakers (6), also two pastry cooks, fruiterer, grocers (6), drapers (3), bookseller and wine merchant. Not unexpectedly there were ship builders (2) and a sailmaker. There were also maltster, cooper, seedsman, gunsmith as well as salt and coal merchants.

What strikes you most about Lymington is the population demographic. A good majority of the population is above age 40 and decidely middle class. Dress shops cater for the ‘womanly’ figure which means clothes size 12/14 are full fitting.

There are few chain stores and those which exist are local with branches in only two or three other market towns.

Whilst a lot of the produce at the stalls is imported, alot is local too. There’s Burslesdon rhubarb, Lymington strawberries, and Romsey tomatoes. Flowers too are local: Sweet Williams, stocks and peonies.

The ingenuousness though that I remember about Lymington has disappeared. Everyone is street smart and knows what things are worth. Traders come down from London hoping to tempt locals and tourists. But then, there`s no money about nowadays. Everyone is broke.

A trader in antique silver has a massive array of unsold pieces. There’s a divine Victorian strawberry server, with creamer and sugar pot in flawless condition. A prospective buyer looks it over, smiles but fails to purchase.

The trader has some exquisite pearls (two and three strands). They are authentic but not cultured. Thus they are a very good bargain. There is an amazing range of colour (black, mauve, and rose as well as ivory). But again, people are just looking.

Most of the goods around are factory-made, but cheaper than you`ll find at the shops. One stall is selling hyacinth bowls, shopping baskets, wicker hampers, sea grass storage baskets for a fraction of the retail department store prices.

You can get Fifties fashions which are not vintage. On display at one stall is an assortment of shirt-dresses of the kind my mother would have bought.

At quayside amidst the 18th century houses and cottages there`s a good shop for nauticalia including clocks, barometers, ship`s bells, navigation instruments and boating accessories.

I spy a yacht I’d bid for but, alas, it’s not for sale and even if it were it’s only a dream.

My big purchase is a New Forest coffee-flavoured ice-cream cone which I enjoy at quayside watching the boats come and go. There is an English feel about it all even if it`s lost a bit in translation.

Fact file

Hospitality courtesy of www.tourismse.com

Sandra Shevey runs walking tours around ancient markets in London and England, see http://sandrashevey.tripod.com/market.walks

Contact her at: sandra_shevey@yahoo.com