Photographer David Bailey on how the New Forest once was 50 years ago

Sweet dreams Photo: David Bailey

Sweet dreams Photo: David Bailey - Credit: Archant

Wildlife photographer David Bailey shares memories from his childhood and his early inspirations in the New Forest

David's grandfather Len - a true New Forest character

David's grandfather Len - a true New Forest character - Credit: Archant

Childhood shapes us all for the rest of our lives. Mine spent playing on the heaths and in the ancient woods of the New Forest certainly nurtured my love for nature; giving me the understanding of the natural world to capture images working as a wildlife photographer.

My mother's family came from generations of foresters. Her parents originally lived at Home Farm, Blissford, before her father died, when mother was only five years old. Later gran married Len Witt and moved to Windy Ridge at Frogham. Hence Len was always grandad to me.

Len was a local character. All his life he ran the famous New Forest ponies out on the heaths. He owned a handful of cows and had fields of strawberries that all the family helped pick during the summer. He would take weekly pony trap rides to Southampton, which was a good 20 miles away, to sell his goods. He would even make Christmas holly wreaths, which he sold in the capital by travelling up by train from Brockenhurst. It must have been an awesome experience for someone who used to travel by horse to sell on the streets of London - a journey he only stopped making after he was robbed one year.

Dolly the cow reflected Len's character. Gentle, yet occasionally stubborn, she spent nights in an old wooden shed in the yard and was led by Len with a length of binder twine tied round her horns out onto the forest most mornings to graze.

David with Eric Ashby's camera lens Photo: David Bailey

David with Eric Ashby's camera lens Photo: David Bailey - Credit: Archant

One memory of Len that will always stick with me is that you could hear him coming from miles away. His hobnail boots seemed enormous to me with what seemed to be six-inch nails driven into the bottom of the leather soles. They would go clooop, clooop clooop - the sound of metal raining down on tarmacadam. On meeting a neighbour he would stop to talk - or shout as he was almost deaf. Life was never quiet with him about.

Towards the end of Len's life I remember him chatting about old times, sitting in the parlour of his mud-walled cottage in front of the open fire with a cast iron kettle hanging over for hot water. My father and I were two of the few remaining people who could understand what he was saying in such a rich New Forest language.

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In an age less concerned with health and safety, I spent school holidays with my woodcutter cousin, who with his Forestry Commission chainsaw managed to fell trees on top of me - twice - while I played!

The annual round-up of ponies was also a big occasion. Too old and frail to ride by then, Len would sit in the passenger seat of the old Land Rover, his bones rattling as he was driven at speed by my cousin across the rough landscape, while I was thrown about in the back.

Kestrel: On the wing Photo: David Bailey

Kestrel: On the wing Photo: David Bailey - Credit: Archant

In 1958 the book Wanderers in the New Forest by Juliette de Bairacli Levy was published. It featured, besides other old forest characters, Len, my grandmother, and their way of life - written in the local dialect. I often read it as it takes me back to simple, happy times.

In later years Eric Ashby was an inspiration to me. He lived near the Red Shoot pub. His camera techniques to film and photograph wildlife were the forerunner to any wildlife footage you see today. By building an artificial badger sett in his garden he captured images and built up an understanding of this creature which had never been seen before. Foxes were another great love of his. Reading his two books - The Secret Life of The New Forest (1989) and My Life with Foxes (2000) - gives you a great understanding of one man's genuine care for the natural world. I have been very fortunate to have been invited to Eric's old cottage. It is now extended and modernised, but the artificial badger sett has been reconstructed and is in use once again by the furry residents. More recently I handled (very carefully) one of Eric's old camera lenses. While standing there with film-making history in my hands I could not help wishing I had been beside the man while he filmed.

Lifetime experiences of forest people, ghosts of times past, must never be forgotten. That spurs me on - however times move relentlessly forward and days, years, decades and centuries pass. I have mixed feelings about visiting Windy Ridge or Frogham as the old forestry cottage has been left empty for years and is in danger of falling down. The ramshackle wooden sheds including Dolly's home and the yard are all long gone.

What if Len returned to the forest now over 50 years after his passing? Although the inner forest and heaths are protected since becoming a National Park and would still be recognisable to him, he would be shocked and frightened by the sheer number of people and traffic. Sadness I believe would overwhelm him - his old forest home falling down and his way of life gone forever.

The New Forest is no longer as it was in Len or Eric's days, but dig a little deeper under the surface and the history and wildlife is still there to enjoy. It has to be preserved for future generations.