On a muggy, hot afternoon last weekend, we walked a few miles in the footsteps of long-ago smugglers, through swathes of flowering purple heather on New Forest moorland.
Wild honey bees droned and fed on nectar. By the woodland edge, we were divebombed by darter dragonflies. A soft scent of heather blossom hung in the drowsy air.
On the high plateau, where they burned the gorse last year, new grass and heather shoots attracted groups of ponies.......
...although this mare had a taste for bracken. Too much bracken can poison the ponies and give them Bracken Staggers, but most seem to enjoy a few leaves quite safely and then move on to grass.
A drift of pink heather on the valley slope.
Bell heather and wood sage was flowering beside the path.
Stands of silver birch and gorse gave shelter along the Smugglers` Track.
High on the top of a ridge that leads from the Crow road to Picket Post, is the old gravel track that smugglers used to bring contraband up from the coast. Boats would arrive in the night, down at Mudeford or Barton beach. Men with pack ponies brought the smuggled goods inland and would pass along these sandy tracks, making for the London Road where traders would buy the illegal drink and other goods, ready to move it on to the London markets.
Local people who remember WWII call this ridgeway "The Tank Track". Troops were stationed in this area of the New Forest for training, prior to D Day, and some remember the sight of tanks being driven along the ridge.
Across the valley, towards Castle Hill.
On the other side of the ridge, a path twisted down through the heather to the woods at Hightown , not far from Ringwood. The distant view into Dorset showed the Purbeck Hills on a misty horizon.
We walked down into the valley bottom and found the track leading back to our starting place.
Down there, in the shelter of hills , the ling was just coming into flower.
I used to ride along this sandy track.....
....and here, again, was the stretch where my old New Forest pony loved to canter along, through the soft sand.
At the head of the valley, we walked easily along pathways that can be deep in water during winter rains.
Only small ponds remained in the wide stretch of bog. So far, this has been a dry summer, following an even drier spring.
In a boggy place beside the path, carnivorous sundew plants opened their sticky leaves to passing insects.......
....while on the dry margins, yellow stars of Tormentil shone out of the grass.
We stayed by the marsh, watching crows mobbing a mewing buzzard in the sky above the valley. Walking back , up the gravel path to the top of the hill, we met the same group of ponies again, still feeding peacefully up in the sunshine, among the gorse and flowering heather.