There is something magical about the New Forest. Nestled on the south coast, close to the sprawling city of Southampton, you feel, as you turn off the A31 onto one of the Forest’s quiet, slow roads, that you have entered another world. Expansive heathland with wandering ponies, densely packed forests of towering pines and (my favourite) the mystical ancient woodland of oak, beech and ash. This is a place where you can wander in the speckled summer sunlight under the shelter of the majestic trees and feel that you could be living in almost any century of the last millennia.
The timeless feel of the New Forest is no accident. The forest was protected by royal order in the reign of William the Conquerer, more than 900 years ago! Through the centuries, whilst other areas of the south coast were developed through trade and fortified against continental attack, the New Forest remained untouched, as a royal hunting ground for centuries and then as a natural haven in more recent decades. The New Forest, which covers 220 square miles of countryside and coast, is now Britain’s smallest National Park and will be protected as such for many generations to come.
What will strike you on any amble through the New Forest is the tranquillity. Drive slowly and carefully as ponies and cattle graze freely; an absolute delight to a toddler in the back of the car who’ll never get bored of squealing ‘pony!’. If you go quietly you’ll spot deer in the woodland and maybe even come across some roaming pigs. It’s as free range as you can get here in the forest!
The New Forest is a wonderful destination for a summer break, with plenty to fill a big holiday, but it’s also close enough to be an ideal destination for a weekend away from it all. You can spend all your time here walking and cycling but if you fancy breaking up all the worthy outdoor activities with teashops and an amble round independent shops and galleries, we’ve come up with a pick of our favourite Forest spots to meander through in Britain’s smallest and most compact National Park.
Known as the capital of the New Forest, Lyndhurst is as bustling as it gets in this part of the world! There’s a museum and visitor centre as well as shops and tea rooms a-plenty.
Deep in the Forest, Brockenhurst is easily accessible, with its train link to London and a branch line to Lymington (from where you can hop over to the Isle of Wight). The peaceful village has a lovely green at its heart, usually a meeting place for ponies, cattle and the local donkeys! The village is set in some of the most beautiful scenery in the Forest and lots of great walks and cycle routes start from here.
This bustling harbour town on the south coast is packed with great little shops and plenty of places to break for a coffee. With its busy quay and thriving marina it has a fresh coastal feel and a great atmosphere, as well as being really very pretty! There’s a market along Lymington’s Georgian High Street on a Saturday morning which is well worth a visit. Word of warning though; parking here in summer can be shocking so take the train if you’re basing yourselves in Brockenhurst!
In the far north of the Forest, Fordingbridge is known as the ‘northern gateway’ to the New Forest. You’ll find restaurants, shops and riverside strolls here.
Just a stone’s throw from the A31 (the main road which cuts through the New Forest) Burley wears its spooky past proudly and its shops are full of memorabilia of its local legends of witchcraft, dragons and smuggling. There are tearooms, art galleries and shops here, as well as lots of great walking from the village.
The walks around Beaulieu and its estuary are some of the most tranquil in the forest. Deep in the south east of the forest at the head of the Beaulieu river, this ancient village is stunning, with pretty craft shops and a chocolate shop. Beaulieu Abbey and the National Motor Museum make a great family day out, but you can have a lovely day just ambling in this peaceful spot and enjoying a picnic. Close by is Buckler’s Hard, a tiny, picture postcard pretty village set by the river.