The Delights of The New Forest
By Mary Anne Evans
The early sun begins to burn off the morning mists, the scene resembling a billowing curtain drawn back to reveal a landscape of moorland punctuated by groups of trees and small hillocks, rolling fields and…ponies. Many ponies; in fact around 4,500 of them live here in the New Forest. Strong little ponies of all colours and sizes grazing quietly. They look particularly cute, but you should be wary. They’re semi wild and only used to being touched during the annual autumn pony drifts when they’re rounded up by the Agisters and commoners. Hold on; this is 21st century Britain and I’m in an area that’s a mere 90-minute train ride from London and we’re talking about Agisters…and commoners?
This mix of ancient and modern is part of the immense charm of the New Forest, an oxymoron if ever there was one. The approximately 150-square mile area in the south east of England was designated as a royal hunting ground by William the Conqueror in 1097 as his Nova Foresta. The King gave the commoners the right to graze their livestock on the land – as long as they didn’t fence their properties and interfere with his pursuit of anything on four legs that could be eaten. And by land, we mean any land. So don’t be alarmed at the pony trotting down a main street in front of you, or pigs, cattle and deer grazing freely on the verges; it’s all part of local life.
We arrived in the New Forest out of season which given its huge popularity in the height of the summer was a distinct plus. We were there for a bit of peace and quiet, a winter break away from London, with Careys Manor in Brockenhurst as our base. It’s a red brick, imposing Victorian mansion built in the 1880s, but it was as much for the spa as the surrounding gardens and 3 restaurants that we chose it. A day of trudging through January mud, peddling along country lanes (okay, so we were on electric bicycles), or trying some amateur kayaking cried out for a long soak in the hydrotherapy pool.
The first thing a first-time visitor should do is book a guided walk with Fuzzackers. Answer to the first obvious question? Ask Steve, who was our guide for the walk. A fuzzacker is the local name for the rare Dartford Warbler which nests here in the heather.
We visited a commoner’s house where ponies, now tamed and trained, grazed in their stalls. We walked past fields which after a rainstorm become bogs to trap the unwary. These bogs are the last place where orchids bloom in summer ‘like marshmallows on fire’ says Steve. We stopped to look at rough grazing ground where lapwings nest in the spring, visited a commoner’s house for a brief lesson on breeding and branding ponies and saw where the Southern Damselfly lays its eggs – in hoof prints which have filled up with water. It’s enough to turn the most die-hard townie into a real country bumpkin.
Brockenhurst itself is a pretty little village with the odd shop, a useful mainline train station with direct trains to and from London, and a church that goes back to the 11th-century Norman invaders. The small church’s rounded, carved doorway and 12th-century font are what you expect. The World War I Commonwealth War Commission graves in the peaceful churchyard are more surprising until you figure out the geography. Brockenhurst is close to Southampton with its large port, so it was an obvious place to treat soldiers wounded on the Western Front. The nearby hotels of Balmer Lawn and Forest Park were commandeered, and together they treated around 3,500 Indian soldiers until 1915 when the Indian Army Corps was posted to Egypt. A year later, the No 1 New Zealand General Hospital was built here, treating around 21,000 New Zealand troops until the end of the war. In the churchyard 93 graves name those who didn’t make it. In April there’s an Anzac service.
If you’ve done enough physical exercise or the weather’s bad, nearby Beaulieu offers a great day out for everybody. Beaulieu Motor Museum is the place for petrol heads, with some 250 cars that range from 1875 to today’s Formula 1 beasts and everything in between, including the Blue Bird of Sir Malcolm Campbell. Looking at the car with its front end held together with leather ties and its extraordinary tapered tail, it’s difficult to imagine it setting that speed record in 1925 when it roared along Pendine Sands at 105.76 mph. And it’s not just the children who gravitate to the original Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the flying Ford from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
A couple of miles down the private river that is part of the huge Beaulieu estate you come to Buckler’s Hard. It’s an impossibly picturesque village where two rows of red brick cottages lead down to the water’s edge, and photographers are driven into a frenzy of activity.
Now sleepy and peaceful, Buckler’s Hard (a ‘hard’ was a shipway) was once a shipyard centre. Warships for Nelson’s navy were built and launched from here, including Nelson’s favourite, Agamemnon. He captained the 64-gun ship of the line at the siege of Calvi in 1794 where he lost the sight of his right eye. ‘Never mind’ he wrote to his wife, ‘I can see very well with the other.’ He saw very well at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, defeating the French in the decisive naval battle.
Maritime Museum. Credit Maritime Museum.Stories and seafaring go hand in hand and the Maritime Museum comes up trumps. Nelson’s colourful life; the much later significance of this tiny village where parts of the Mulberry Harbours of the World War II Normandy D-Day Landings were constructed; Sir Francis Chichester and Gypsy Moth; all these stories and more keep you riveted for at least a couple of hours.
Crews training to use the landing craft in World War 11 were housed in nearby Exbury House,requisitioned by the Royal Navy from the Rothschild family. Today there are no echoes of war; just a world-class collection of rhododendrons, azaleas and camellias bordering the paths, their vivid blooms reflected in the still ponds of this fabulous woodland garden.
Lyndhurst, capital of the New Forest, is a town of handsome houses and an impressive Victorian legacy. The red brick church of St Michael and All Angels was built in the 1860s when the Gothic revival was at its height. A rich fresco by the Victorian’s favourite and most fashionable painter, Frederic, Lord Leighton, decorates the wall behind the altar, depicting ‘The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins’. The characters were apparently modelled on local people; looking at it I couldn’t help wonder what those depicted as the foolish virgins thought. The stained-glass windows were designed by other prominent pre-Raphaelite artists: Edward Burne-Jones, Philip Webb, Ford Madox Brown, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Morris. In the churchyard there’s the grave of Mrs Reginald Hargreaves who died in 1934, better known as Alice Liddell, the inspiration for Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.
But back to the beginning, to those Agisters, commoners and Verderers who are alive and well and still operating under laws which stretch back centuries. It’s worth going on a Wednesday to the Court of Verderers which occupies part of an impressive 17th-century Queen’s House. ‘Oyez, Oyez!’ exclaims the Head Agister, standing by the front bench dressed in green livery with gold buttons. ‘All manner of persons who have any presentment to make or matter or thing to do at this Court of Verderers, let them come forward and they shall be heard. God save the Queen’. And the session starts.
It may seem a quaint throwback, but the ten official Verderers are still important: they look after the area, the animals and the commoners, following an ancient form of forest government that once controlled vast areas of rural England, not just this corner of the south east. The Verderers employ five Agisters to patrol the area but also themselves spend days riding through the New Forest. This is a close community, looking out for each other and protecting the area. But don’t romanticise too much. Being a commoner is not a way to get rich and most combine looking after their animals with other jobs.
Despite the train links, the busy towns and the annual influx of visitors, the New Forest feels apart from the rest of the Britain. Maybe it’s the connection to the distant past, helped by those old customs; or perhaps it’s the views of forest and moorland with nothing from the 21st century on the horizon. Whatever the attraction, it’s pretty powerful.
Where to Stay
Traditional Chewton Glen Hotel & Spa in Lymington has an illustrious history: Captain Marryat stayed here in the 1840s, researching for his novel The Children of the New Forest. Pluses include some very posh tree houses set in the 130 acres of parkland, a top restaurant and cookery classes. Chewton Glen falls into the very-expensive-but-worth-it-if-you’ve-got-the-cash bracket.
Balmer Lawn on the outskirts of Brockenhurst has good rooms (book one with a four poster bed) with views over the countryside, a spa which uses ESPA products and an excellent restaurant. Friendly and good value.
The Bell Inn, a former 18th-century coaching inn and still owned by the original family, has all you’d expect: flag-stoned floors, open fireplaces and wood-beamed rooms. It’s casual, dog- and child-friendly and has a very good restaurant serving everything from home-cooked bar snacks to 3-course meals. The Bell also owns two nearby golf courses.
Getting to the New Forest
If you’ve coming into Southampton on a cruise ship, book a car at the port and spend a few days here in the New Forest before going on to London, or to London Heathrow where you can leave your hire car and get on the plane home.
Regular trains from London Waterloo go to Brockenhurst, Lyndhurst, Southampton and other New Forest destinations.
For more information: www.thenewforest.
Mary Anne Evans is a former magazine editor and now a freelance travel writer living in London but partly spending her time at her 400-year old house in the remote French area of the Auvergne. She is the author of guide books to Brussels, Bruges and Stockholm, and contributes to Frommer’s Guides to London and France. She also writes extensively about Scandinavia and the Nordic countries. She is about to launch her own website: Mary Anne’s France