There’s a place in England unlike any other in the Western world. It’s one where horses roam free, standing like statues in the centre of a village, and slowing traffic as they wander across a road. While the obstacle course they create may be annoying to locals, it’s utterly relaxing as a visitor to stand so close to these calm creatures.
There’s even a magical name for this corner just a couple of hours southwest of London: the New Forest. The national park is spread over 200 square miles, with beautiful drives, cycling and walking paths, wild pigs and other animals. Just 90-minutes by train from Waterloo, and a short taxi or bike ride from Brockenhurst station transports you to this escape from everyday life. It’s also a great place to cool off during the current Indian summer that has the mercury rising high above average seasonal temperatures.
The forest was planted by Henry VIII who decided the only thing missing from his life was a hunting ground in the south of England. And thus it was decreed that the wild horses that originally inhabited the forest would forever possess their right to the land, which means that killing them or even relocating them, remains illegal.
The New Forest refers to both the park and the handful of towns that make up the area that extends from the coastal places like Lymington, inland 10-20 miles. Many Londoners keep sailboats docked here, and it’s considered a food basket, with an abundance of fresh produce, dairy and fish sourced locally.
No matter the season, this is an outdoor-lover’s delight – with cycling, walking, kayaking, swimming and other activities. But, even for those less active, there’s so much to do that you’ll want a couple of days to do the New Forest properly. Sadly, hotel reviews and the skinny on best beaches will have to wait for next time. We’re playing hooky during a particularly steamy mid-week. Our outing is a multi-generational one, with visiting parents who, despite scouring guidebooks about the UK, haven’t come across this lovely, unspoiled area. And that’s one of the good things about this area – there’s something for everyone.
With just a day, one can get easily see enough of the New Forest for it to be worthwhile. Better yet, it will leave you wanting more. Despite having been a few times, I’m already planning my next trip.
Here are my picks for a great taste of the New Forest in just one day:
Unless you’re headed to the coast, the best plan is to arrange a taxi to collect you from Brockenhurst station and take you to the hamlet of Beaulieu, a 9,000-acre estate belonging to the Montagu family.
Motoring to success
Edward Montagu took custodianship of his family’s Beaulieu (pronounced Bew-ley) estate when he was just 25 years old, in 1951. In order to pay the upkeep, he established a motor museum, which now houses hundreds of cars of historical importance along with photograph and film libraries. Montagu’s museum was a small collection to start, and now occupies 40,000 square feet, including both cars from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the Great Gatsby’s beauty, and many others laid out in an easy to navigate, chronological course. Technicians rev the engines at various times of day, explaining the advancements made, and there are more commercial exhibits on-site, like World of Top Gear, with a test track and simulator. Car lovers will have seen nothing like this, and even those who aren’t fussed about wheels will find it interesting to chart the evolution of cars in this very interactive display.
One entry ticket grants access to the entire Beaulieu compound, which has expanded its offerings over the years to include an Abbey, the Palace House, and a Victorian kitchen garden with Alice in Wonderland-themed topiary.
A monorail and an open top bus transport guests around the grounds, making it very manageable for older and younger guests.
Ideally, you’ll arrive early to spend a couple of hours at Beaulieu before lunch, or have an early lunch after arriving and then walk it off at the museum and gardens, as we’ve done.
The estate includes the Montagu Arms Hotel, just a short drive from the compound, set on the short high street just long enough for about half a dozen shops – most of them selling ice cream or other goodies to take home.
Focus on local produce
We tuck in for a three-course lunch at Monty's Inn, the hotel’s 19th century pub. It’s wonderfully quiet mid-week, with warm and welcoming service. We start with goat’s cheese and yellow beetroot; the latter picked from the hotel’s garden, the former from the farmer ‘just down the road.’ Comfort dishes like fish pie and fish and chips are elevated given the proximity of the fishing boats. Everything we taste, our attentive waiter Michael says, is local. Much of it, he boasts is grown just 20 metres from our table. Like the ceps in the risotto, the raspberries for the Eton Mess, and the blackberries pureed to top the lemon posset.
Ask the driver to cut through the New Forest on the way back to Brockenhurst. Roll down the window to take in the sweet, earthly fragrance from the trees and take a last glimpse of the horses before your own modern chariot arrives at the station.
Travel: By Southwest trains from Waterloo to Brockenhurst. There’s a bicycle hire shop at the station, or arrange a taxi, in advance for the short journey to Beaulieu. Tour buses run from June through mid-September: http://www.thenewforest.co.uk/discover/new-forest-tour.aspx.
Beaulieu provides a 20 percent discount for bus ticket holders.
Monty's Inn at the Montague Arms Hotel: