Located 90 miles from central London, the New Forest District of South West England boasts picturesque countryside, traditional villages, ancient woodlands, and scenic coastal routes.
The Forest, as the locals call it, was once a royal hunting ground for William the Conqueror. Today, the New Forest National Park covers much of the district. The outstanding landscape is only one of the reasons to visit this area, however. Here are a few others.
1. You Can Enjoy Scenic Hiking And Biking
The New Forest is a lowland natural park with no large mountains and 145 square miles of crown land. Wide trails through ancient woodlands and heath offer countless opportunities for hiking and biking, activities that allow you to discover the Forest’s plants and wildlife.
More than 1,000 ancient trees have been recorded in the New Forest. It is believed to have the highest concentration of ancient trees in Western Europe and the most extensive heath remaining on the continent. You’ll find woodland flowers like foxgloves and bluebells; heather that bursts with purple color in August; marsh flowers; 15 varieties of orchids; and rare and endangered fungi. There are uncommon butterfly species, numerous birds, and five species of deer.
Forestry England lists several walks that are suitable for people of all ages and abilities. The New Forest National Park site also offers a list of walking routes that will take you through villages, woodlands, and country lanes. The park’s list of accessible walks without stiles is divided into three categories: for all, for many, and for some. The Forestry Commission maintains a number of marked trails at popular car parks across the New Forest.
There is also a cycle route network, and you can rent a bike at any number of locations around the New Forest. Because of the fragile nature of the landscape, off-road cycling is restricted to marked cycle routes. Take extra care near ponies and riders on horseback.
Stick to the marked trails. One can easily become disoriented in woodlands. Over half of the New Forest National Park is of national or international importance for conservation, so be respectful of that and leave the area undisturbed. Do not pick or remove any of the wildflowers you see.
2. You’ll Get To Meet The New Forest Ponies
The New Forest is perhaps best known for its ponies. The ponies are no taller than 58 inches, and they’re usually brown, bay, or chestnut.
Although the ponies have lived in the New Forest for 2,000 years and roam freely, they are not completely wild. They are owned by local residents, who have the right to allow their ponies and cattle to graze in the open forest throughout the year. The constant grazing of the 5,000 ponies plays an important role in maintaining the landscape.
The ponies are beautiful, and you may be tempted to feed or pet them, but do not touch them. Feeding the ponies can cause them to expect that and lead to aggressive behavior. They may seem tame (one came right up to my husband on a village street), but they are semi-feral and can be unpredictable. Watch and photograph from a safe distance.
3. You’ll Love The Quaint Towns And Villages
The New Forest is dotted with picturesque towns and villages.
Beaulieu at the head of the tidal section of the Beaulieu River may be the most picturesque. Dating to the 13th century, the village retains a sense of history.
Lymington is a yachting haven with bustling cobblestone streets and Georgian buildings.
Brockenhurst is a pretty village with pubs, restaurants, tea rooms, and boutiques. Ponies and donkeys stroll the High Street.
Burley has also become popular with tourists because of the ponies and donkeys wandering its streets.
Lyndhurst, known as the capital of the Forest, has shops, pubs, and restaurants. It can get quite busy during the summer.
4. It’s Home To The National Motor Museum
At the National Motor Museum in Beaulieu (pronounced BEW-lee by locals), you can tour a palace, explore the ruins of a medieval abbey, stroll through beautiful gardens, and see more than 280 vehicles. Vehicles on display in the museum include classic family cars, motorcycles, buses, delivery vans, and Grand Prix racers. The oldest vehicle dates to 1875. There is also a recreated 1930s garage full of vehicles from that era.
The land on which the estate now stands was once a royal hunting lodge and later a Cistercian abbey. Today, the abbey is a peaceful ruin. The Palace House, at one time the gatehouse of the abbey, has been in the Montagu family since 1538. The house has been restored to what it would have been like in Victorian times. Guides dressed in Victorian costumes lead you through the stately home.
The grounds around the house and museum contain serene gardens. Footpaths allow you to walk through a wilderness garden, a flower garden, and a kitchen garden and past ancient oaks along the river.
5. You Can Tour An 18th-Century Shipbuilding Village
Buckler’s Hard on the banks of the Beaulieu River was once a thriving shipbuilding village where the ships for Admiral Horatio Nelson’s fleet were built.
Today it is a quiet, peaceful spot. River cruises sail from the area from Easter through September. Visit the Maritime Museum to learn how the warships were built and see how villagers would have lived and worked in the early 1800s. Take a step back in time at the reconstructed Shipwright’s Cottage.
6. The Exbury Gardens Are Lovely
The Exbury Gardens & Steam Railway, owned by the Rothschild family, is a 200-acre woodland garden. It was the brainchild of Lionel Nathan de Rothschild, who started developing the garden after buying the estate in 1919. Development stopped during World War II, and Rothschild died in 1942. After the war, his son began restoring the gardens and later opened them to the public. The gardens are now open from mid-May through October.
The area is known for its rhododendrons, azaleas, camellias, and rare trees and shrubs. A narrow-gauge steam railway meanders through parts of the garden, including the Summer Lane Garden, which is not accessible by foot. The train is wheelchair accessible.
7. The Markets Offer Great Shopping
At the New Forest’s weekly town markets, you can shop -- or simply browse -- for a variety of goods, including fruit and vegetables, clothing, and local crafts.
The Lymington Charter Market is the largest and busiest market in the New Forest. More than 100 stalls along High Street sell general household products, produce, bric-a-brac, and locally made and artisan products. Note that there is no parking on High Street during market days. You will need to use one of the town’s car parks.
Other markets occur on Tuesdays in Hythe and on Wednesdays in New Milton and Ringwood.
8. The Local Fare Is Mouthwatering
Restaurants, pubs, cafes, and tearooms throughout the New Forest offer local produce, locally sourced game, and freshly caught fish. Restaurants range from relaxed cafes to fine-dining establishments like the award-winning Montagu Arms and Chewton Glen, which offer five-star dining and demonstrations by celebrity chefs.
New Forest pubs offer local ales as well as delicious meals. Some of the pubs are more than 500 years old! Many are located in lovely countryside locations, are family friendly, and have garden areas. The Trusty Servant in the center of Minstead serves up home-cooked meals. Ponies and donkeys walk by the door of the 18th-century New Forest Inn in Lyndhurst.
Ringwood Brewery offers 2-hour tours. Its ales are available at many pubs and shops in the area as well as at the brewery itself. New Forest Cider in Burley sells unpasteurized real cider straight from the barrels.
There are many tea rooms throughout the New Forest that offer casual meals or traditional afternoon teas. For a special treat, try the elegant afternoon tea at the luxurious Rhinefield House, a manor house dating to the 1880s and set on 40 acres of beautifully landscaped grounds.
What To Know Before You Go
There is regular bus service around New Forest National Park, as well as a hop-on, hop-off tour bus that operates during the summer months and eight rail stations, but the best way to explore the region is by car. Be careful when driving, and watch for animals wandering through villages or crossing roads. The ponies have the right of way.
The Go New Forest Card, which can be purchased for £10, provides discounts at many New Forest attractions, businesses, and restaurants.
While there are more than enough attractions listed on tourist sites to make your New Forest vacation a delight, locals may be aware of less-publicized walks and landscapes that could become highlights of your visit. Talk to the locals in the pubs and at bed and breakfasts to get their recommendations.