The New Forest
Rebecca Lawson discovers this quintessential area of Britain complete with olde-worlde pubs, wild ponies and a touch of magic.
If you’re looking to experience England at its lush green, cobblestoned, thatched-roofed best, the New Forest is certainly a great place to start. Nestled on the south coast, only minutes from the bustling port town of Southampton and about 90 minutes from London, the area is full of deep emerald greenery, quaint stone buildings covered with vines and plenty of quiet English pubs where you can lunch on toad-in-the-hole or a nice old-fashioned ploughmans, complete with ale to wash it down. But these are not the only things the New Forest tempts families with. Neither is Peppa Pig World, the National Motor Museum or the New Forest Wildlife Park. The biggest drawcard in this charming corner of rural Britain are the wild ponies.
The area’s most famous residents wander peaceably along the roads throughout the New Forest, fitting in perfectly within the bustling towns and grazing at will throughout the woodlands. Visitors to the area will almost certainly witness the animals ambling down the high street of towns like Burley or Brockenhurst where the human locals are so used to them that they don’t even turn a hair. In fact, the ponies have become so good at cohabiting with their neighbours that it is a perfectly ordinary sight to see them doing some window shopping of their own or pinching a flower off a window box or two.
Other wildlife that can be seen freely roaming the area are New Forest Deer of which there are about 1300. There are also over a dozen breeds of cattle that roam freely, including the shaggy Highland Cows, and the New Forest is also one of the rare places that still practices pannage. This is the age-old practice of releasing domestic pigs into the forest every autumn, allowing them to graze off the acorns, chestnuts and other nuts that litter the forest floor at this time of year. This is especially important as acorns are poisonous to the local ponies.
The best place for any visit to the New Forest is the bustling town of Lyndhurst. This is home to the New Forest Centre which houses a fascinating museum where kids can find out why the ponies are kept in the forest, start tracing their family tree, discover the local history (including smuggling), gain insight into life in the forest in medieval times and meet some of the local wildlife.
Although the area is easy to explore by car, if you don’t have one or you’d rather be able to sit back and soak up the atmosphere with the kids, another great way to get around is on the hop-on hop-off New Forest Tour bus. With three routes, the bus covers the entire New Forest area and will make sure you don’t miss any of the best attractions. You’ll also get a good eyeful of the stunning landscape.
The New Forest also has a plethora of easy cycling and walking tracks which allow you to get off the beaten track and explore the paths less trodden, and there are certainly plenty of these. The area is ribboned with over 160kms of cycle tracks. Cycle maps can be downloaded off the website or picked up in the New Forest Centre when you get there. There are plenty of places that hire bikes. Country Lanes Cycle Centre in Brockenhurst or AA Cycle Hire in Lyndhurst are good places to start.
If cars are a big thing in your family, you won’t want to miss Beaulieu, home of the National Motor Museum. Housing over 250 vehicles, the museum tells the story of motoring over the last 100 years. Another highlight is the World of Top Gear exhibition where cars from the show are displayed, and for real die-hard fans, the Stig Driving Challenge is not to be missed.
Included in your visit to Beaulieu is entry into Beaulieu Abbey the Palace House, which has been the family seat of Montagu since the 14th century. Here the kids will get a feel for medieval monastic life, wander around the palace and discover its collected treasures, with options to enjoy the waterside location in numerous walks along the winding river.
To really put a smile on the kids’ faces, treat them to a day at Paultons Family Theme Park which is also the home of Peppa Pig World. Real-life Peppa and her brother George will guide the kids around seven rides, including Peppa’s Big Balloon Ride, Grandpa Pig’s Little Train and George’s Dinosaur Adventure. You can also venture inside Peppa’s house and make a splash at the Muddy Puddles Water Splash Park.There’s only one word for it – oink. Make sure you check online for opening days and times as it’s often closed in colder months.
The New Forest is full of charming towns. Brockenhurst and Lyndhurst are the largest; Lymington is a bustling port town crowded with pretty market stalls every Saturday, but one of the most bewitching is Burley.
Full of magic and mayhem, the town found its association with witchcraft as recently as the 1950s, when a ‘white’ witch named Sybil Leek lived there. She was an eccentric character, wandering the town in a black cloak with a pet jackdaw on her shoulder. Unfortunately Sybil is no longer in the area, but her enchantment remains and kids will love exploring the magic shops where you can purchase a new cauldron for brewing potions, or a broomstick to zoom around town on. Don’t miss the Coven of Witches shop – it will leave you spellbound.
If magic isn’t your thing, never fear – there is also the New Forest Cider shop to quench your thirst or a tractor safari through Burley Park which visits the red deer that also make the area their home. Burley is another favourite of the local ponies and they are often seen wandering down the high street, nodding ‘hello’ to the locals and visitors alike – casting their very own rural magic over the area.