“New Forest” is a bit of a misnomer. It’s not new and only 23% of its 92,000 acres is wooded. And that’s where the fun begins. The name dates from 1079 when William the Conqueror claimed this area for his private hunting ground. Back then, the word “forest” meant tracts of land reserved for the king and his cronies to hunt, rather than dense woods.
Today the New Forest is a wonderful mix of forest with extensive trails, lawn, bogs (where you don’t want to walk) and open heathland, most of which is accessible to visitors. You can fly a kite on open grass or burrow in to some very thick woods for a leaf-crunching stroll. Ride a horse on wooded paths or across heathland, cycle on marked trails to visit a pub for lunch, or seek out aquatic birds on the coast that borders the Forest at Lymington and Keyhaven.
One of the most remarkable features of the Forest is that visitors are free to wander pretty much where they want. There are 134 car parks with walking trails leading from them. In order to keep things natural, there is minimal signage which means it’s easy to get lost. On foot, you can wander anywhere unless a sign says otherwise but it’s essential for bikers to stick to marked trails. This is because bicycles can easily damage delicate eco-systems and essential ground surfaces.
Following is a two-day itinerary, largely in the southern areas, that provides a good overview of life in the Forest, combining a bit of history, walking and outdoor fun.
Lyndhurst, the unofficial capital of the New Forest, is a great place to begin a visit because of the New Forest Centre, where the museum provides excellent background on how the Forest works. Understanding all that goes on behind the pretty scenery adds depth to any visit. Unfortunately, the town itself is popular with tourists and riddled with traffic problems. Go early on your first day.
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A short drive from Lyndhurst, the delightful village of Minstead is home to Furzey Gardens, a slightly quirky but picturesque array of plantings and one of the most enjoyable places to visit in the area. These charming gardens were established to provide learning disabled people with the opportunity to develop confidence and life skills by tending the plants. The children’s playground area is especially wonderful.
Just up the hill from the main village green, All Saints Church attracts fans of Sherlock Holmes who come to visit the grave of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The churchyard is peaceful and the church itself well worth a visit. Wandering around Minstead will take all of two minutes but it is a quintessential English village and well worth a visit.
At lunchtime, head north to Fritham where the The Royal Oak serves the best ploughman’s lunch in the Forest. In summer, there is loads of outdoor seating but in winter you need to come early to snag a table in the original pub. This is a traditional pub with traditional mealtime hours; lunch is served between 12 and 2:30.
One of the reasons the Royal Oak is always crowded, is because it’s situated near some great walking trails which begin just beyond the car park. Hampton Ridge is a five-mile route between Fritham and Frogham with fabulous views. You can also head west to Godshill for walking trails that pass through parts of the Forest used for bomb trials during WWII.
If you go the other way towards Bramshaw, you’re sure to share the terrain with roaming cows.
Evening: Dinner in the north or west Forest If you want to stay in the north Forest for dinner, there are plenty of options. The best (and most expensive) is Les Mirabelles, a French-owned restaurant which serves authentic French cuisine. It’s wise to reserve ahead. Otherwise there are several restaurants in Fordingbridge or the Rose & Thistle, a 16th-century pub in Rockbourne, which also must be reserved ahead.
Start the day with breakfast at Steff’s Kitchen, a café at the end of Beaulieu High St. The casual restaurant, which is part of a garden centre, has a cozy feeling and in summer there are outdoor tables in the nursery or in the streetside garden. Then walk over to Beaulieu Abbey, which was a thriving monastery in the 13th century. The abbey is part of all Beaulieu attractions so one ticket includes admission to Beaulieu Motor Museum and Palace House. To save money, buy tickets online.
Up the hill from Beaulieu Abbey, is Buckler’s Hard, a 19th century shipbuilding port which went on to have an important role in World War II. Consider leaving your car in Beaulieu village (there is a village parking lot) and walking along the river trail (about two miles). This pleasant trail meanders through the woods in parts, and along the river’s edge in others. It is an easy walk and a great way to get fresh air in between attractions.
In Buckler’s Hard, the long, sloping lawn leading down to Beaulieu River is a fine place for a picnic (you can pick up supplies in either Beaulieu village or at the small shop in Buckler’s Hard) or you can dine in one of the hotel restaurants, one of which has an outdoor terrace.
From Buckler’s Hard, you can walk back to Beaulieu village along the river trail but first take a cruise on the Beaulieu River. You’ll see a bit of the Solent, the body of water between the Isle of Wight and the mainland, and also some grand riverside homes and Exbury Gardens. A classic pub evening in the East End. Dinner has to be at the East End Arms, a popular pub in a quiet corner just outside Forest borders, owned by John Illsley, bass guitarist of Dire Straits. Although the pub has smartened up in recent years, it still retains an old-world charm and serves much better food than many other pubs in the area.