10 top things to do in the New Forest

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The New Forest National Park lies just west of Southampton and offers much for travellers. So here’s a look at 10 top things to do in the New Forest.

Far from being completely forested or new, the area is actually a mixture of heath and woodland that England’s King William I (William the Conqueror) declared subject to forest law in 1079. Effectively, that made the area a personal playground, reserved for royal hunting expeditions.

Immerse yourself in the New Forest’s history

The New Forest Museum tells the story of the area. Exhibits include bronze coins, dating from the Iron Age, that were discovered close to Lyndhurst.

The Rufus Stone, at Canterton, is reputed to commemorate the spot where King William II died during a hunting trip in 1100. Sir Walter Tyrrell fired an arrow at a stag but killed the king and, consequently, felt it prudent to flee overseas. With friends like that, who needs enemies, eh?

There's roe, red and fallow deer in the New Forest. We chose this picture because its sika.
There’s roe, red and fallow deer in the New Forest. We chose this picture because its sika.

View animals in the woodland

The New Forest is famed for its free-roaming ponies that have right of way on the common land.

Round ups of the ponies, known as drifts, are held each year in the late summer and autumn. The animals are branded and their tails are clipped: the ponies of the New Forest, contrary to widespread belief, are not wild.

Pigs, donkeys and various species of deer can also be spotted.

horse, pony, New Forest
A wild pony? Or simply downright cute?

Drive carefully on New Forest roads

If you do choose to visit the New Forest by car, rather than by train, be aware that the maximum speed limit is 40mph on unfenced roads. Yet motoring even at that speed is pushing it, especially in low light conditions.

Given the propensity of animals to cross the roads without warning, it makes sense to drive cautiously on roads in the New Forest.

Look around the National Motor Museum

The National Motor Museum, at Beaulieu, started as a collection of cars displayed in Palace House, the family home of Lord Montagu. The collection tells the story of motoring since its advent and includes notable vehicles such as Bluebird, driven by Donald Campbell while attempting the land speed record.

A monorail loops through the grounds of the Beaulieu estate, which features the ruins of an abbey. The Domus, the dormitory of the estate’s lay brothers, has an exhibition about the rigours of monastic life. It wasn’t all about drinking mead and brewing beer.

Spend a day cycling in the New Forest

Rather than driving, why not head out into nature and spend a day cycling along around 140 miles of waymarked trails that cut through the New Forest?

The trails provide ample opportunities to view the landscapes and wildlife.

Cyclexperience (tel. 01590 624 808) is based in Brockenhurst, close to the railway station. The company hires out conventional and electric bicycles, meaning that even if you’re not the fittest fella in the forest you can still get out for a ride.

Heath, New Forest
A misty morning on heath in the New Forest.

Take a guided walk

Marked trails make self-guided exploration of the New Forest easy enough.

For detailed insights into the heritage and wildlife of the region you could book a tour led by an experienced local guide. Steve Adams is a member of the Fuzzaker Walks and Tours team, who are committed to green tourism initiatives.

You’ll have opportunities to hear about the commoners, who are permitted to graze their livestock in the forest, and of the verderers and agisters. The latter two groups are officials who enforce laws within the New Forest. The terms date from the time of the Norman Conquest.

View Moorish architecture

Rhinefield House is a grand, 19th-century manor house that has been converted into a 50-room hotel. The grand hall, which has an ornate wooden ceiling, is based upon the design of Westminster Hall in Britain’s Houses of Parliament. Outside there’s a maze, based upon the one at Windsor Castle.

Arguably the most visually impressive of the many rooms at Rhinefield House is the one inspired by the Moorish architecture of Spain’s Alhambra. The Alhambra room was created as a smoking room that is now available for private dining.

Feel like treating yourself? Book a weekend break in the Walker Suite, named after the lady whose oil painting is displayed by the staircase leading to the first-floor.

Alhambra Room, Rhinefield House, Moorish Architecture
Moorish-influenced interior design within the Alhambra Room at Rhinefield House.

Visit the grave of Sherlock Holme’s creator

Arthur Conan Doyle, the man who is best-remembered as the author who created the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, is buried at All Saints churchyard in Minstead.

Conan Doyle died in 1930 but it wasn’t until 1955 that his remains were interred in the New Forest.

His headstone is located at the back of the churchyard, past the church, of which parts date from the 13th century.

Feast on shortbread

Tuck into Burley Rails Shortbread, made with unpasteurised butter from Midgham Farm in Fordingbridge. They really are melt-in-your mouth cookies.

Tracy Thew bakes the delicious shortbread in a cottage that dates from 1811. The house is typical of those dotted around the forest.

The shortbread is sold at a handful of stores in the New Forest, as well as tearooms, including The Sett (17 Lundhurst Road, Brockenhurst) and the Minstead Village Shop and Tearoom.

Dine in a country pub

Traditional country pubs are dotted throughout the New Forest.

In addition to being places for quenching your thirst after a long walk or bicycle ride, many serve hearty pub meals. The Trusty Servant Inn (Minstead; tel. 023 8081 3137), for example, offers British cuisine, including steak and ale pies plus fish and chips.

The Bell Inn (Brook; tel. 023 8081 2214) is a family-run business occupying an 18th-century property where stage coaches once halted. Seats in front of the inglenook fireplace represent a good spots to warm on chilly winter days. Chef Mark Young and his team place an emphasis on well-presented food made with seasonal produce. Dogs are welcome in this cosy pub.

Dinner, The Bell Inn
Dinner served at The Bell Inn.

Further information

The New Forest has rail connections with London and other British cities. Direct South Western Railway services take less than 90 minutes to reach Brockenhurst from London Waterloo.

For ideas about more things to see and do in the area, and to book accommodation, take a look at The New Forest and Visit Hampshire websites. Purchasing a Go New Forest Card may be a way of saving money while you are in the area.

The Visit England website has information about the New Forest and further afield.

The photos illustrating this post were supplied by Why Eye Photography which undertakes travel-related assignments in the United Kingdom and beyond.

Disclosure: Our writer visited the New Forest as a guest of Go New Forest Community Interest Company. This post includes affiliate links to books sold via Amazon.

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