The New Forest is so imbued with history it is a constant delight to behold! There is the obvious history of the forest itself, its links to royalty and the crown and the wonderfully medieval feel it has retained all these years thanks to its continued traditions and practices. But the wider area has many wonderful aspects of note. I am growing particularly aware of this as my time in the South District draws ever closer to its end (I looked up my calendar this morning and realised I have only a little over two months left!). When I first moved here there were so many things I meant to do but found myself too busy to accomplish. Top of the list when I started work at Queen’s House was to attend a meeting of the Verderers’ Court. The Verderers are those chosen to represent the rights of the Commoners (people with the right to graze animals on the New Forest) and they manage the business of the grazing animals and other things associated with the forest. Their Courtroom has been my favourite place in Queen’s House from my very first day at work.
I well remember being given my induction tour and while the rest of the tour was a sea of faces, names, rooms and staircases as I smiled at everyone and tried desperately to remember anyone’s name, I recall being led through the still solemnity of the Court, glorious in its dark wood and simply roaring with history. The huge thick wooden doors (complete with handsome large metal handles and massive ornate keys) herald your arrival to the large hall and we in Queen’s House are actually linked to it by a corridor, while the Verderers and members of the public who attend (all open meetings can be attended by the public) enter from the outside courtyard. There are antlers and stag heads adorning the walls which are a warm red colour, the ceiling is high and strong wooden beams cross it, the floor is tiled with flagstones and the wooden benches are angled towards the wooden raised seating at the far end where the Verderers themselves sit during court sessions. Below them is an almost hidden wooden table around which other officials may seat themselves, and between that and the public area is a fantastic wooden set of steps to a type of dais which one mounts to put forward a question or motion. There is even a press area in a window alcove near the Verderers. I love the sense of history and long tradition that seems to have seeped into the very bones of the courtroom. I had been meaning to attend a session meeting of the Verderers’ Court ever since starting the graduate scheme, but what with meetings, trips away for training and then being based away from Queen’s House for months I never managed it. The court holds an open session on the third Wednesday of most months and finally the April session saw me in attendance!
The business of the court is carried out with a real sense of tradition and ceremony. The court is officially opened for business, the Verderers sitting in attendance on their raised pew at the front of the room as members of the public present their questions and statements on the special raised wooden platform. I loved the experience of being a part of the whole thing – I felt rather like I had gone back in time as the light shone in through the stained glass windows and we sat on the old wooden benches. The public part of the session was fairly brief but after we have left the Verderers have their own much longer meeting. It was lovely seeing the court alive and full of people. I am used to sitting in it by myself in its usual calm silence – it is my favourite quiet place in Queen’s House to sit and study. I am currently reading George Peterken’s ‘Woodland Conservation and Management’ which is a great addition to my knowledge base following Oliver Rackham’s books. I love sitting in the Verderers Court to read: it is so beautifully still and silent, but so strong is the feeling of history that the very furniture seems to fizz with the memories of lively court sessions of days gone by.
I am about to head off for a lovely week back home on the farm (milkings and long country walks!) and am very much looking forward to seeing both the people and the animals again. In particular, I am looking forward to seeing my pet pig Mr Stilton Cheesewright (named after a friend of Bertie Wooster from the P.G. Wodehouse novels). In fact I am indebted for my place on the grad scheme to darling Stilton – the third round of the five round process for candidates applying for the FC graduate scheme is a brief interview round styled ‘The X-Factor Round’. Candidates are asked to bring an item that sums up their interest in working for the forestry commission, and also to prepare a short presentation on the item. Questions then follow. Making a strong impression at this stage is crucial as hundreds of candidates who performed well in the online testing stages before are invited to attend, but only 12 make it through to the fourth round. I thought long and hard about what to bring when I reached this round last winter before it suddenly struck me – I would bring along Stilton’s tusk! Stilton is a Kune-kune with large tusks, which he often snaps chunks off when rubbing himself on gates. As a Christmas present one year my parents had a broken off tusk end set in silver as a necklace for me and it is easily he very best present I have ever had! I knew as soon as I thought of it that it would be the perfect item to take along to the interview. I did not have a background in forestry, but I did have an agricultural background and I used Stilton’s tusk as the central point for my presentation on my deep love for, and connection to, the countryside and the rural community and how I felt this linked itself naturally to a career in forestry. I was told afterwards that they had never had a pig tusk taken in as the item before and I believe my unusual choice only helped my progression through to the next round. With all the competition for places on the graduate scheme I think it definitely helps to be memorable.
I would have loved to have moved Stilton down to the New Forest with me, not least when I found out about pannage. In the New Forest not only can Commoners (the people with the rights to graze their animals on the open forest – typically linked to specific properties or land) put their ponies on the forest but in the Autumn they can also put their pigs out to pannage. During the Autumn a lot of acorns fall in the woods and they can do harm to the ponies if consumed, so traditionally the pigs are put out to pannage to eat as many as they can. It is an annual event in the Autumn and typically lasts at least 60 days. Some pigs roam and only return home at the end of the pannage season, while I have heard of others who leave the homestead of a morning and return back to sleep at night. You can see them wandering about the forest and even strolling along the roads. Oh how Stilton would have loved it… Though in order to be allowed out to roam the pigs need to have special piercings put into their noses. This acts to stop them snouting up the ground and causing lots of harm to it. I am always reminded just a little of punk rockers when I see the pigs out with all their piercings!