If ever there was a misnomer for a place it surely must be the New Forest. One of Britain’s most ancient surviving landscapes, it was so named when William the Conqueror created a royal hunting preserve there in 1079 to hunt wild deer and boar.

Since 2005, the New Forest has been a national park, Britain’s smallest at just 218 square miles. Yet, despite its name, only one-third of it is woodland, while more than a quarter of it is  heathland and grassland – making it Europe’s largest remaining area of lowland heath.

The New Forest is, in fact, a unique landscape that comprises woodland, heath, grassland, glades, bogs, rivers and streams, coastal saltmarshes and farmland, as well as picturesque villages, bustling towns and popular tourist attractions.

Surprisingly, with a population of almost 35,000, the New Forest – or, simply, the Forest as the locals call it – is the most densely-populated national park in the UK.

Each year, that is swelled by more than 13 million visitors, who come for its beautiful, natural environment, the variety of outdoor activities they can participate in, its historic and cultural heritage, and its wealth of flora and wildlife.

The Forest is home to rare species including Britain’s only native cicada, mole crickets, several species of carnivorous sundew plants and heathland birds such as the Dartford Warbler. Other Forest inhabitants include otters, polecats and several deer species, among them fallow deer, which can be seen at close quarters from a viewing platform at Bolderwood deer sanctuary.

Not all the wildlife is wild. The iconic New Forest  ponies, which roam freely throughout the national park and can often be found stopping traffic in the main streets of its communities, are actually all owned by commoners who turn them out in the park for grazing. There are 4,000 of them and the distinctive, closely-cropped “lawn” areas of the New Forest are the result of that grazing.

Cattle and donkeys also roam freely, as do pigs in autumn. Commoners are allowed to let their pigs loose for a couple of months to eat the acorns that are poisonous to the ponies and cattle, along with crab apples and beech mast, in a centuries-old practice called pannage. There are up to 600 of them these days, although that is just one-tenth of the numbers that once grazed there.

The Forest is a haven for horse riders, cyclists and ramblers. There’s a network of over 100 miles of cycle routes along tracks, old railway lines and minor roads, with lengths ranging from three to 21 miles, some of them taking in villages with tea rooms or pubs for a refreshing pit stop. If you don’t have your own bike, you can rent models including electric bikes from a number of cycle hire shops.

Guided walks

Horse riders are not restricted to marked routes, a key attraction of riding in the Forest. There are many stables where you can take a forest hack or book a riding lesson. Meanwhile, walkers have 143 miles of tracks to explore apart from the open heath and grassland areas, and guided walks with experts can help unlock secrets about its nature and history.

The towns and villages, both within and just outside the national park, are worth spending time in to browse shops and markets, visit pubs and restaurants and experience the atmosphere that makes the Forest so special.

Lyndhurst has been known as the capital of the New Forest since Norman times and it makes a great starting point to learn about it. The New Forest Centre has a fascinating interactive museum which brings the Forest’s history, traditions and nature to life as well as an exhibition gallery, visitor information centre, reference library and gift shop.

The main focal point in the town is the tall tower of the pre-Raphaelite church of St Michael and All Angels. Former Lyndhurst resident Alice Liddell, later Hargreaves, was the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and is buried in the graveyard. Among
nearby attractions are Longdown Activity Farm, with hands-on farmyard activities for the whole family, and the New Forest Wildlife Park, which has a Tropical Butterfly House as well as resident animals including otters, Scottish Wildcats and lynx.

Brockenhurst has a mainline railway station and, with some of the Forest’s prettiest scenery in the area, is the starting point for many of the walks and cycle trails. It makes a good base for a Forest stay, with hotels and B&Bs in the village and nearby. There is a ford, known locally as the Watersplash, a pretty green, where you can often see ponies and donkeys grazing, picture-postcard buildings and several pubs. One is called The Snakecatcher after legendary local character Harry “Brusher” Mills, who caught snakes to sell to visitors, zoos and research centres and who is said to have caught 30,000 adders and grass snakes in his lifetime. He used to drink at the pub, then called the Railway Inn, and died in 1905 just outside after having a tipple there. It serves food, but snake is not on the menu.

Witches

Whitefield Moor, not far from Brockenhurst, is a good place for picnics and relaxing, sharing the grassy lawn with grazing ponies and cattle. Burley is the Forest’s most picturesque village and is full of timeless charm with its thatched cottages. It also leaves visitors spellbound. Sybil Leek, a self-styled white witch, lived in the village in the 1950s. She moved to America, where she died in 1982, but the Coven of Witches shop she established in Burley is still going strong and sells all things magical, mystical and New Age.

Beyond Burley, near Picket Post, is a car park with an elevated viewpoint giving glorious sunset views and paths to amble along through the heathland.

Ringwood, on the western edge of the national park, has been the Forest’s main market town for centuries and has a mix of modern shops, thatched cottages and old inns plus a Saxon church and an old, arched stone bridge over the River Avon. It is the home of the Ringwood Brewery, which offers weekend brewery tours with tastings.

Nearby Moors Valley Country Park, in Ringwood Forest, has a woodland Play Trail and Go Ape Tree Top Adventure with zip wires, Tarzan swings and canopy rope walks. Bordering the Forest’s southern boundary is delightful Lymington, where the New Forest National Park Authority is headquartered. The rich past of this historic port town is evident in the pretty cobbled streets and grand Georgian buildings lining its High Street. Go there on a Saturday morning for the wonderful weekly market, with stalls lining either side and stretching down towards the quay from which you can buy crafts and local produce; look out for the New Forest Marque (www.newforestproduce.co.uk), sold there and in other Forest markets and shops, that shows it is local.

Savvy shoppers might also want to browse the charity shops that dot the high Street. This area is fashionable with the country set, and you find a better class of bargain in their unwanted discards, as I discovered on a recent visit. I was staying in a posh
New Forest hotel for the weekend and had stupidly forgotten to take a jacket for dinner. In one charity shop, I found exactly what I was looking for – a brand new, unworn Armani sports jacket that not only fitted but was a steal at £20!

You can take a boat trip around the Solent from the quay, and regular ferry services run to the Isle of Wight, just across the water. You can also take a walk along the nearby nature reserve and visit Henry VIII’s Hurst Castle fortress. Seaside towns Milford and Barton are just beyond.

Mighty oaks

The park’s southern flank encompasses 26 miles of scenic coastline, broken by the Beaulieu River. On its banks lies Buckler’s Hard, an important 18th century shipbuilding village where several ships for Nelson’s fleet at Trafalgar were built.

Part of the Beaulieu Estate, the village is now preserved as a maritime museum with living history depictions in summer. The Master Builder’s Hotel , in the building at the end of the grassy street, was the former master shipbuilder’s house.

New Forest oaks were said to be the finest in the land for building the Royal Navy’s vessels. Many were felled and a Parliamentary Act in 1808 ordered their replanting. The most famous surviving ancient oak is the pollarded (traditionally-pruned) Knightwood Oak, near Lyndhurst, thought to have been planted before 1600.

Close to Buckler’s Hard is Beaulieu, where you can visit historic Beaulieu Abbey and Beaulieu Palace House, home to the Montagu family since 1538. Its popular gardens are linked by monorail to the adjacent National Motor Museum, where exhibits document motoring on Britain’s roads. Its Bond in Motion exhibition, which runs throughout 2012, celebrates 50 years of Bond movies with 50 vehicles from the films.

Across the Beaulieu River are the famed Exbury Gardens (www.exbury.co.uk), created in the 1920s and spanning 200 aces of horticultural splendour as well as a narrow-gauge steam railway. Nearby Lepe Country Park has pine-fringed cliffs, a beach and preserved D-Day remains.

Hythe is the birthplace of the hovercraft. Jump on a ferry to Southampton (www.hytheferry.co.uk) from Hythe’s Victorian pier after riding the world’s oldest pier train. On several days a week, you can watch flour being milled at restored Eling Tide Mill, the UK’s only tidal water mill. Times are governed by tides.

Fordingbridge is the northern gateway to the Forest and is noted for its Medieval stone bridge over the Avon and its excellent, free museum. Rockbourne Roman Villa, just outside town, is well worth a visit.

Also a must visit if you have children in tow is Paultons Family Theme Park, which has more than 60 rides and attractions and is home to Peppa Pig World.

Or you could simply head off on one of the many paths to immerse yourself in the New Forest’s glorious nature. You’ll find it a walk in the park.


New Forest facts

Getting there

By car, take the M27 and exit at Junction 1, signposted Cadnam. South West Trains  provide access to stations in the New Forest from London’s Waterloo, while Cross Country trains runs services from Reading and the Midlands.


Getting around

The New Forest is served by a public bus network. The New Forest Tour operates two hourly, circular routes from Lyndhurst in open-top buses from June 30-September 16. Hop on and hop off where you like or switch between tours, on the same ticket. Up to four bikes are carried free. Adult fares range from £10 for one day to £20 for five days. Parking is largely restricted to car parks in towns and villages. Buy a £20 short-stay clock online from New Forest District Council.Valid for a year, it allows parking for up to three hours at a time.


Accommodation

The New Forest has everything from campsites and holiday parks to B&Bs, self-catering, pubs and luxury hotels. For a detailed list, see www.thenewforest.co.uk/accommodation. Options include Hoburne Holidays' park, B&B Cottage Lodge, Little Paddock self-catering lodges, boutique hotel Stanwell House and luxury hotels Rhinefield House Hotel, New Manor Park Hotel & Spa, Limewood, Careys Manor, Chewton Glen and The Pig.


More information

New Forest Tourism Association
New Forest National Park
New Forest District Council


All prices and details were correct when published in tlm - the travel & leisure magazine, please check before you visit the New Forest.