The New Forest was made a National Park in 2015, and with no ridiculously steep hills to climb, it’s relatively easy going on foot, making it a good choice for mixed age groups and abilities.
There are 220 square miles of woods, heather heathlands, rivers, ponds, and wildflower meadows to explore either on foot or bike using over 100 miles of designated cycle paths – or mountain bike over thousands of tracks and trails.
There are 9000 or so free-roaming New Forest ponies, donkeys, and cattle plus fallow, roe, red, sika and muntjac deer, bats, badgers – even Polecats.
If you visit between September and November, you are likely to see the ponies joined by hundreds of pigs who are set loose into the forest to forage on green acorns, which can make the ponies, donkeys, and cattle ill.
Explore pretty villages where ponies, donkeys, and cows wander
Lymington regularly appears in the top 10 lists of ‘The Best places to live in the UK’. Located on the south eastern coast of the New Forest, it’s where the land meets the sea in a melting pot of marinas, Georgian architecture, independent shops, and places to eat. Stroll down to the cobbled town quay where fishermen tinker with lobster pots and nets alongside sailors busily preparing to set sail. From the Quay, you can take fishing trips, mini cruises, and direct trips across to the Isle of Wight, which take just 30 minutes. You can also hire speed boats and yachts for the day or zip over to the Isle of Wight’s Needles rock formation on a RIB from providers based at the marinas. On Saturday, there’s a weekly street market in the high street. Keep a lookout for a gold post box that was painted as a tribute to local lad, Sir Ben Ainslie who grew up and trained in Lymington before winning Gold in the 2012 Olympics.
Brockenhurst is a popular village with a quaint high street frequented by ponies. Lots of independent shops and eateries. There’s also a mainline train station which runs a frequent service to London Waterloo taking just under 90 minutes.
Burley has a high street with ponies for Instagram shots and an eclectic mix of quirky gift shops, eateries, and foodie offerings. Burley was an important destination for Smugglers and Highwaymen during the 18th and 19th centuries, who when caught, were hung from an Oak tree nicknamed ‘the Naked Man’ on nearby Wilverley plain.
Lyndhurst is a large, vibrant village known as the ‘Capital of the New Forest’. Take time exploring the main street. The towns iconic landmark is called Bolton’s Bench – a large hillock topped with a huge yew tree and panoramic views across the forest.
Milford on Sea is coastal foodie village on the southern shores of the New Forest with a pebble beach and walkway to Hurst castle (see Award-winning beaches, clifftop walks, castles, and coastline). There are a bevy of restaurants and eateries. See food and drink for more info.
Beaulieu is hailed as one of the prettiest villages in the National Park, and a favourite hangout for the ponies and groups of curious donkeys to gather. The Beaulieu river, woods and surrounding forest are seriously pretty with year-round interest. The tiny high street is home to Beaulieu Chocolate Studio, an art gallery, gift shop, village stores and tea rooms. Visitors flock to Beaulieu to visit the world-famous National Motor Museum, Palace House, and gardens (see days out and attractions).
Ringwood is the gateway to the New Forest if you’re travelling from the west. The roads, lanes and squares are home to a mingling mish-mash of character properties and historic abodes dating back to the 17th century. There’s a popular market each Wednesday and farmers’ market on the last Saturday of the month.
Award-winning beaches, clifftop walks, castles, and coastline
Spend summer days splashing about in the sea and building sandcastles on the award-winning sandy beaches of Avon and Highcliffe Castle beaches. For a change of scene, take a clifftop walk to Barton on Sea where you can hunt for fossils such as gastropods and sharks’ teeth. Further along, is Milford on Sea (the foodie village) and gateway to a one and a half mile pebble spit leading to King Henry VIII’s coastal fortress, Hurst Castle.
Take a walk around the castle’s rooms and courtyards detailing its history and exhibits of when the castle last saw active use as an armoury in WWII. The views are spectacular taking in the Isle of Wight, Old Harrys Rocks, Christchurch Harbour, and the busy shipping lanes of the Solent. Instead of walking back, hop on the little ferryboat and chug through Keyhaven Nature Reserve.
At the far eastern point of the New Forest is Lepe Country Park which has a play area for smaller children and a large lawn for picnics and ball games. The park’s shoreline is about a mile across the Solent to the Isle of Wight. To the east is Southampton Water which is a hive of activity with huge vessels navigating their way to and from the famous docks. There’s also a walk with plaques detailing the remains and defences from the World War II D-Day invasions and the role the area played during the war.
Days out and attractions
The Beaulieu National Motor Museum See displays of more than 285 cars, motorbikes and vehicles dating from 1875 up to modern-day. Highlights include land speed braking and racing cars, the World of Top Gear, a special exhibition of cars from film and TV – think Mr Bean’s Mini, James Bond’s cars, Del Boy’s yellow van and the blue Ford Anglia from Harry Potter! For children, there is also an enormous wooden palace play area complete with secret staircase and passages, bridge, clock tower and a trick bookcase. Earmark a full day to look around everything as there is so much to see and do.
Exbury Gardens for garden lovers and anybody that apricates colour and beautiful plants. Set in 200-acres with 22 miles of paths. The gardens are well known for their stunning rhododendron and azaleas. If you don’t fancy walking, take a ride on the popular narrow-gauge steam train.
Is a historic shipbuilding village on the banks of the Beaulieu River which built vessels for Nelson’s Navy. Trees from the forest were felled in great numbers to make substantial Naval warships in the Battle of Trafalgar. The museum chronicles the village’s history and how during the second world war the village and Beaulieu River went once more into production, transporting motor torpedo boats, landing docks and pontoons for the D-Day landings.
Moors Valley Country Park, near Ringwood, 1000 acres of woods and parkland with signposted nature trails, a narrow-gauge steam train as well as high ropes, Segway’s, Go Ape, cycling, a play park and more. Take a picnic or grab a bite at the café.
Snowtrax artificial ski slope near Christchurch. Learn to ski or have a go on the ringos and skibobs. Refreshments and meals are available in the Alpine Restaurant, and the large adventure playground is a big hit with the littles ones.
The New Forest Wildlife Park Go to see otters, wolves, lynx, and bison amongst other creatures in a vast woodland setting.
Things to do
Deer are timid animals, so if you don’t spot one in the forest, drive over to Bolderwood near Brockenhurst. There’s a viewing platform at the top of a meadow where rangers leave food for a heard of fallow deer April – September. You’ll find a good size car park, picnic tables, a BBQ area and large expanse of lawn. Nearby is a well-marked walking route passing colossal Redwoods and towering Douglas Firs.
Horse riding – You can book a lesson or walk for an hour or two or a full day at Burley Villa in Bashley. Other stables in the forest include Arniss Livery Stables near Godshill and Brockenhurst Riding Stables
New Forest Activities in Beaulieu offer bushcraft, high ropes and low ropes courses, archery, and woodland laser battle (it’s a bit like paintball – without the pain). They also have big, sturdy Canadian Style canoes seating up to four for escorted tours along the River Beaulieu. In the north of the forest are Insight Activities near Fordingbridge who also offer bushcraft, axe throwing, archery etc.
Take to the water with sailing lessons and powerboat training. Spinnaker Club at Blashford Lakes in the north of the forest offer sailing courses for all ages. Aqua safe Powerboat School based at Lymington Yacht Haven have a vast number of courses for motorised vessels, and Hengistbury Head offers courses in sailing, powerboats, windsurfing, paddle boarding and kayaking which can be booked through Brockenhurst College. Also, check out New Forest Paddle Sport Company for SUP’s and kayaking along the coast.
Food and Drink
Go to the award-winning Setley Ridge Vineyard near Brockenhurst for a private tour of the vineyard with wine tasting (book ahead). When there, pop into the farm shop for local produce, gifts and goodies.
Arrange a tour of Ringwood Brewery which wins rave reviews and the Tap Room at local micro-brewery – Vibrant Forest Brewery (on Saturdays and Sundays). If you are in Christchurch (a coastal town just west of the New Forest) go to The Christchurch Confectioner and Gin Shop which is run by a husband and wife team who are a mind of ‘Gin knowledge’ and happily offer tastings from a vast wall packed with local and regional gins.
The New Forest has a handful of Pick Your Own Fruit Farms. The farms usually have shops for more fruits, vegetables, and supplies. Try Goodall’s Strawberry Farm, Dan Tanner’s Cat and Fiddle Farm and Sopley Farm.
Book on a Fungi Foray with a local guide and explore the kingdom of wild mushrooms and fungi. The New Forest is famous for its abundant species yet beware! Many are beautiful and fascinating to look at but are inedible and, some are poisonous. For dates of escorted walks with experienced guides contact New Forest Mushrooms or Wild Heritage.
Go Italian with Angela Hartnett and Luke Holder – Hartnett and Holder at the five star Limewood Hotel. For French food lovers, Les Mirabelles in Nomansland is terrific and, The Pig in Brockenhurst waves the British flag with local produce in a dreamy setting. The Elderflower, Lymington is great with creations by chef Head Chef Patron Andrew Du Bourg.
Verveine in Milford on Sea is quite possibly the best fish restaurant on the south coast. They are also a fishmonger during the day – well worth a visit. Just along the road is La Perle, a stylish family-run bistro who pride themselves on over 90% of their produce is sourced from sustainable suppliers from Hampshire and Dorset. A few doors up are the Wash House Bar, a great ‘micro’ ale pub who work with the best artisan producers and breweries across the New Forest and they’ll let you bring your own food in or order an Italian, Thai, Indian take away to eat while you sup away.
Pubs and Inns
The Three Tuns, Bransgore. A real gastro pad in a beautiful thatched 17th-century inn. The Oak Inn, Bank serves great food with lovely staff and very, very popular. The Trusty Servant, Minstead, is a quaint country pub with log fires, a huge beer garden and lovely food. The Alice Lisle Inn, Ringwood for good food, homely atmosphere, and a favourite haunt for dog owners. Royal Oak, Fritham. Another pretty thatched pub, this time dating back to the 1600s. Great food and a warm welcome. The Turf Cutters, East Boldre has delicious menus and a fine selection of real ales.
Rosie Lea House on the road between Brockenhurst and Lymington is a bit of a gem, what was once a pub with a large beer garden is now part restaurant, part tearoom, part pub. The home-made food is to die for and cakes deliciously scrumptious.
For simple outdoor adventures, just pull on some sturdy shoes and head out into the forest and get up close to nature, with the ponies plodding past and wildlife all around you. Step it up a gear and book a guided tour from a local who can share knowledge of the area, point out the wildlife you would probably miss on your own and areas fascinating heritage and history. Try Fuzzacker Guided Walks, Wild Heritage or New Forest Guided Walking who offer all length of walks, particularly longer ones between 9 – 13 miles.
You can join the Avon Valley Path at Ringwood. The path totals 34 miles from the cathedral city of Salisbury (17 miles north) to Christchurch (9 miles south). There are five distinct sections of the walk, each with highlights including water meadows, birds, and wildlife such as kingfishers and otters playing in the river. Each walk promises wonderful views and plenty of good eating pubs along the way.
Where to stay
Remote luxury at Undercastle Cottage, sleeps 6 Woodgreen.
Location is everything with this 5* Gold award-winning cottage in rural New Forest. Undercastle Cottage is in a wonderfully rural spot with just the wildlife as your neighbours.
The cottage has 1100m of private fishing rights on the banks of the Hampshire Avon for some of the best year-round coarse and fly fishing in the country, and tutorage is available if you’re a novice wanting to learn how to fish or would like to hone your rod action.
Non-fishing guests can hang out on the sun terraces, so you’re still all together. Inside is packed with personality and opulence by the bucket load. Underfloor heating, vaulted ceilings, big comfy sofas and huge French doors leading to one of two sun terraces to soak up the gorgeous views and watch otters play in the river.
There are two double bedrooms in the main house, with the option of an additional ensuite twin in the Fishing Lodge across the sun terrace. Forest walks and cycle paths run from the front door.
7 night breaks start at £1921 www.undercastlecottage.co.uk call 01872 553491