The New Forest is one of those places that has you reaching for your mobile and logging onto the Rightmove website within minutes of arriving. There’s something about the lifestyle here, all country pubs, local farm shops and wide open spaces shared with wild horses and grazing ponies, that makes a life spent in a thatched cottage in the middle of nowhere sound awfully appealing.
The ancient woods and rolling heathlands that make up the New Forest’s 220 square miles once spread across an even greater area of Southern England, but whilst its extent has diminished, its beauty hasn’t. Bluebells bloom in spring and purple heather appears each autumn. More than 6,000 wild horses and ponies roam free in the forest, the result of a centuries-old law that dates from 1079 and remains in place today. You will happen across the ponies every few minutes, grazing on the gardens of grand Victorian mansion houses and drinking from babbling brooks, entirely undeterred by your presence.
The unique appeal of the New Forest is that it remains largely untouched and nowhere more so than on the Northern Commons. The Foxbury, Rockford and Ibsley Commons are steeped in history, various Bronze Age burial grounds and military bunkers breaking up leisurely walks through wild heathland and ancient woodland.
Less remote than the commons, but no less charming, is the maritime village of Buckler’s Hard. Sitting on the banks of the Beaulieu River, one of the few privately owned rivers in the world, this historic hamlet has a lengthy naval history. Oak from the surrounding woodland formed the backbone of Royal Navy ships during the shipbuilding yard’s heyday, with fifty built here in the early 1800’s and sent to fight in the Battle of Trafalgar. Visitors can find out more at the Buckler’s Hard Maritime Museum, before strolling a scenic couple of miles along Buckler’s Hard Yacht Harbour to the Beaulieu Estate. This sprawling stately home has built quite the history over its 800 years, having been a private royal hunting lodge of King John, to a Cistercian abbey and finally a family estate, purchased from Henry VIII for the princely sum of £1,340 in 1538.
Since the very first opening day of Beaulieu Estate to the public, it has become something of a tradition to display vintage cars in the grounds. Nowadays, this is done on a far larger scale at the National Motor Museum, where the tale of British motoring is told through a collection of 285 classic cars and endless memorabilia. The museum is a must for motor heads, with everything from the World Land Speed Record-breaking Bluebird, to J.S Irving’s Golden Arrow and the ‘is that even roadworthy?’ single-seater Peel P.50 displayed on any given day.
There are countless villages worth a visit in the New Forest, some of them beachy and bustling, others almost silent and home to more animals than humans. If you’re looking for the former, the coastal town of Lymington is quaint British seaside at its best. Elsewhere, Burley is the epitome of a New Forest chocolate box village. It has remained largely untouched over time and days here tend to be spent planning which of the thatched cottages you’d buy with a lottery win, drinking local cider in 16th-century pubs that once hid smugglers and highwaymen, and holding on tight in horse-drawn wagon rides through idyllic glades.
After a day in the New Forest, going back to normality sure isn’t easy. Luckily for you, you’re going on holiday in the morning.