By Katie Isham.
It’s the end of the summer holidays. What’s everyone been up to? Some people go cruising round the Caribbean. Some people go sightseeing through Italian villages. But the wisest people go for the most exotic locations around: exploring the wild woods of Southampton.
On the eastern banks of Southampton Water, hidden behind the blinding shimmer of the stretch of shingle, a woodland paradise looms alongside Weston Towers. Westwood is a vast and vital mass of greenery: the titular woods exist alongside flourishing meadows spreading over 120 acres. It’s easy to get lost along its paths, fields, cutways, boardwalks and beautifully muddy trails. So let’s be those wise people and get lost in the woods.
Start at any point into the trees. There are entrances all long including at the shore. Choose your own route and follow your own adventure. Getting lost is no bad thing. This isn’t deepest darkest Peru after all; you’ll tumble out of a path back into civilisation at some point and think of all the mild adventures you’ll have in the meantime.
Wherever your feet join the root system, you’ll be welcomed by a swathe of green. I’m not sure if anyone’s noticed but this summer has been a little wet. Not so good for the picnicking, but good for the growth of everything. Westwood is currently greener than Greta Thunberg on a recycling drive. Get out there and breathe in that wonderous photosynthesised oxygen.
The gate on Grange Road leads into the field of possibility. Ahead, a large hill beckons running feet for the challenge. To the left, a line of trees bolsters the border and invites explorers to follow its path as it curves out of sight.
Follow the grey, stony path. Not quite the same ring as the more famous thoroughfare, but it’ll lead you to equally magical lands. Long stretches of hedgerows and blackberry bushes bursting with fruit. Narrow paths to avoid the prickles and puddles. Steep hills of meadows teeming with bugs and butterflies. Masses of swaying grasses jostling for the late summer sunshine.
The fields and open spaces are crisscrossed with paths and desire lines to keep your feet busy for hours. Be sure to pause at one of the picnic areas to refresh and appreciate the beauty of the nature reserve.
Further south, the terrain turns taller; the woods arrive to lead down to the shore. Walk amongst these giants and marvel at the twisted, gnarled trees that have survived the constant coastal gales.
As you join the stream, there are several boardwalks and pontoon edges to get waterside. Walking is important but be sure to pause to listen and observe. Without a photo, it seems unlikely, but trust me, I met a tiny mouse clinging to the side of a tree stump recently. You might spot the very same beast or make another mouse / bird / bug friend of your own. There are even a few fungi to enjoy the company of at present.
But do keep walking and soon the paths will expel you with a flourish into the clear blue space of Weston Shore. There are few spaces in Southampton more soul nourishing than when you’ve walked through the cosy comfort of an ancient English woodland and the reward is the glorious sight of a shimmering sea underlined with shingle. Add a family of swans into the vista and there’s a postcard waiting to be printed.
Breathe. Pause. Look around at our city. The woods have your back. The water stretches endless possibilities ahead. The boats and people trundle by as the lifeblood of Southampton. Who needs far flung travels with traffic delays and passport issues when this is ready for exploration?
Be sure to make a stop at the perennial fixture of the ice cream van before heading back to getting lost in the woods. Bet they don’t have a 99 with sprinkles on the French Riviera.
Cost: Free wandering. Free oxygen.
Accessibility: The paths through Westwood are gravel and undulating as well as narrowing considerably in places. Westwood sprawls in the east of the city, between Weston and Netley, reaching the banks of Southampton Water. Netley is the nearest train station at around a mile and a half away.
Facilities: Facilities are sparse in the woodland but spots of civilisation are present on the peripheries. Woodies is available on Grange Road and there is most likely an ice cream van present if you make it to the shoreline.
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