After last week’s visit to Northumberland, this week we travel south for the next installment of our look at the National Parks of Great Britain. There are only three more to go – two in the south of England and one in Wales. So let’s explore the New Forest.
New Forest National Park was established in 2005. The 220 square mile park, primarily in Hampshire, is the site of an ancient woodland by the same name. Covering a much larger area thousands of years ago, it was cleared for settlement during the Bronze and Iron Ages. What remains now is much the same as what was left by the 13th century. William the Conqueror declared it a royal forest, and common grazing rights have been in existence since the 17th century.
Roughly 35,000 people live within the New Forest and one estimate puts the annual number of visitors at 14.5 million, making it the second most visited park after the Lake District.
Visitors will find local information centres in most of the small towns and villages within the park. The official New Forest Centre is located in Lyndhurst. In addition to tourist information, the Centre features exhibitions by local artists, and galleries showing the history of the New Forest and its resident ponies. (While in Lyndhurst, visit the grave of the Alice from Alice in Wonderland. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is buried in nearby Minstead.)
What to do.
The New Forest was hugely popular with tourists and visitors long before it became a National Park. The small villages scattered throughout are ideal as an overnight stay or for just passing through and enjoying an ice cream. Walking and cycling routes crisscross the area and so there is no shortage of paths to take. The path through the Keyhaven Marshes overs wonderful views across the Solent to the Isle of Wight, and allows for wonderful wildlife spotting opportunities. Other popular strolls are the 4 or so miles from Beaulieu to Buckler’s Hard, or through the forest around Brockenhurst. Whether you want to wander around an old English village or cross forest and open heathland, there are options for either.
The flat lands of the New Forest also make it ideal for cycling. There are more than 100 miles of cycling paths, and the villages are also very bicycle-friendly. And of course, horse riding is very popular in the area. Learn about forest rides or lessons here.
What to see.
Without a doubt, one of the most popular tourist attractions within the New Forest National Park is Beaulieu. The house, gardens, and famous motor museum all make for an exciting family day out. Also make time to wander into the village of Beaulieu.
Right at the edges of the New Forest but fascinating for historians is Hurst Castle, an old coastal fortress accessible by a narrow shingle spit. Also at the edge of the forest and close to the banks of the River Avon is the Fordingbridge Museum which offers an interesting glimpse into the area’s local history.
But wildlife is one of the main attractions here. The New Forest’s status as common grazing land means it is used openly by pigs, sheep, cattle, and ponies. It is not at all uncommon to find that traffic has drawn to a standstill while cattle amble across the roadway, or to see ponies wandering through a village centre. By all means, take photos but do not approach the animals.
There are also dozens of gardens open to visitors. Dogs are often welcome too. Exbury Gardens are particularly beautiful, with 20 miles of trails through spectacular rhododendrons and camellias. An onsite steam train ride will keep the little ones entertained.
Avoid the crowds.
There’s no denying that this is a popular park, especially during the summer months. But there are still ways to enjoy the peace and quiet. The majority of the tourists descend upon Beaulieu, Lyndhurst, and Brockenhurst. Once you get out of the villages and into the forest itself, there are fewer people. Horseriding and cycling are both great ways to get further afield so that you can enjoy the outdoors.
Where to stay.
Because of the villages in the park, it is easy to find a hotel, B&B, or farmhouse to stay at. Campsites are also plentiful, and caravans are welcomed. Do note that wild camping is prohibited. Our sidebar includes several affiliate links to hotel chains and cottages within the area.