ONE OF the best elements of lockdown loosening for me has been the lifting of the stay local ruling.

Older readers might recall I’m a big fan of going cycling in the New Forest, something that I in no way did during those long winter months.

With restrictions eased and the weather warming up, I’ve been really enjoying the benefits of going off road again, and disappearing into the silence and serenity of this unique landscape. Someone else who has long been enjoying the delights of the New Forest is the author and nature writer Neil Ansell.

This month sees the publication of his fascinating new book, The Circling Sky, which is all about this ancient and important habitat.

Having spent his early years growing up in Hampshire, Ansell knew the New Forest well from childhood.

Over the course of a year, beginning in January 2019 and finishing just before the original lockdown, Ansell returned to the Forest each month to discover a different area.

The result is a compelling mixture of nature writing, memoir, travel and polemic, all infused with Ansell’s passion for the subject. That passion came through clearly when I spoke to Ansell last week.

He described how many of his books have been about discovering landscapes for the first time. With the New Forest, by contrast, there were different layers of meaning to explore: he revisited the place where he’d first gone camping as an eleven-year-old, remembering exactly where he’d pitched the tent, but re-experiencing the landscape as a parent now himself.

Although the New Forest can often feel a crowded place, Ansell discovered how quickly the crowds dispersed.

Step away from the car parks and familiar footpaths and it remains very easy to lose yourself. For the full experience, Ansell recommended following a stream and seeing where it takes you, spending a while just soaking up the landscape.

His approach is not dissimilar to the current vogue for forest bathing, but one Ansell has been doing instinctively for years.

The personal element of Ansell’s visits gives the book its depth.

“The New Forest is still indisputably the same place that I remember from long ago,” he writes. “It looks the same, it smells the same, and most of all it feels just as it does in my memories.”

But it is the environmental element that gives the narrative its bite, Ansell arguing that the crisis in the natural world should not be understated: “Nature writing may often be read for comfort and reassurance,” Ansell says, “but perhaps we need to allow a little room for anger too.”

We’re fortunate to have such an internationally important landscape so close. We should do more to protect it.

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