by Katie Isham.
It’s time to go get lost in the trees again. Is there anything more wholesome than pulling on some wellies and going wandering in the woods until you a) get lost b) lose a welly in a muddy puddle c) get lost, lose a welly, get found and go home for a nice cup of tea? Especially when the woods in question are practically on your doorstep.
Stoke Park Wood is an expanse of local forest just north of Southampton, enclosed between Bishopstoke and Fair Oak. This is a suburban safari where the suburbs and the woods are within a stone’s throw of each other. There’s a feeling of wonder, as if you’ve stumbled upon a secret mirage when you stare down the stretch of Stoke Park Road, flanked by bungalows and BMWs, to be greeted by incongruous giant trees standing guard over their realm.
Don’t fear these beasts: enter the woodland and face your first choice. From this entrance, there are several walking routes to embark on. Take the big (ish) loop straight ahead and to the right or opt for the bluebell walk to the left. These beauties might not be in bloom yet, but they’re busy brewing beneath the soggy ground.
The uphill route is always a good option; get the hard graft done early on and it’ll all be downhill fun on the return leg. (Unless you take the “getting lost” aim more literally.) Pump those legs and stomp up the hill. But watch out for those adventurous types on two wheels making use of the mountain-biking terrain.
The paths are generally wide and compact to allow a largely drama-free expedition. Many walkers stroll these avenues, often with four-legged friends in tow. It’s always a good game to have a bet on what flavour dog comes bounding out from the undergrowth when a red-faced human wrangler is hollering, “Dexter!” into the bushes. Place your bets: big or small?
If the canines have awoken your desire for exploration, there are some routes where you can off-road it yourself. Duck into the welcoming spaces between the trunks, bouncing onto the soft forest floor underfoot. There’s something terribly calming about drifting off the beaten track and finding some quiet. Cocooned in the branches, even with the leaves as sparse as they presently are, you’ll feel miles away from the bus routes and the housing estates on the other side of life.
Walk. Listen. Watch. Stumble over tree roots. Trot down the incline to the stream. Wobble over the log bridge. Catch your breath as you push up the hill. Hop over the muddy ditch. Greet the curious robins watching your progress. Kick through the leaves. You’ll miss them when they’re gone. And they will be gone soon.
Signs of spring are pushing through everywhere. Small crocus leaves. Catkins adorning the bare branches. Hope is here.
Embrace these cold winter days. Of course, we all love the explosion of green come the spring, but make time to marvel at the sleeping beauty of masts of bark rising ever skywards around you. And don’t lose sight of the fact that within a few feet, you’ll swap towering trees for telegraph poles, and you’ll soon be home for that well-earned cuppa. So, while you can, clear your mind and wander where the quiet will soon give way to the glorious noise of rebirth.
Cost: Free woods and free spirits.
Accessibility: Wide, flat gravel paths around the forest. There are some areas to go further off road if you’re feeling adventurous, but the main paths are accessible if a little bumpy. Reach the wood via Bishopstoke to the west or Fair Oak to the east. The official car park (despite being very small) resides on the Bishopstoke side, at the end of Stoke Park Road, in the heart of the suburbs. Almost directly on the Bluestar Number 2 bus route.
Facilities: A small car park but plenty of parking available on the residential roads. Many splendid, technicolour maps at major points through the routes. Another of the walking routes has a children’s play route, but that’s too much fun (and noise) for one visit.
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