Newest Review: ... seriously lucky break to see the rare smooth snake. Things to do As with many of the National Parks, the primary strength of the New Fore... more
A New look at the old Forest
New Forest (Hampshire)
Member Name: silverbird44
New Forest (Hampshire)
Advantages: Beautiful, varied countryside, fantastic wildlife, family friendly
Disadvantages: Can get a little busy in Summer
When you talk to people, there are always places that they remember from childhood - Sunday afternoon places, peaceful, laughing places, where some of the most precious memories are made. For me, one of these places is a small clearing in the New Forest, where my family and I used to meet our grandparents and cousins from Bournemouth for picnics and cricket during the Summer. These afternoons were the beginning of an inescapable love affair with the New Forest. In this review, I hope to introduce you to one of the UK's most underrated National Parks, and to explain why this stunning region should be at the top of everyone's to-do list.
What and where?
Becoming a National Park in 2006, the New Forest seen from the road seems only a tiny pocket of mixed woodland and heath tucked into southern Hampshire. But at 571km2 it clocks in at two thirds the size of the Lake District, and is a region of much greater complexity and potential than a brief observer would realize.
A little history
The New Forest is the proud owner of a very interesting history. Designated a hunting area by William the Conqueror in 1079, the landscapes and the systems used to manage it have remained largely the same for almost a millennium. Two of William's sons, Richard and King William II (Rufus) were later killed in the forest, with the site of William II's death marked by the Rufus stone. Since its first founding the forest has moved from being a hunting site to an important source of timber, first for the royal navy and later for the First and Second World Wars.
The New Forest is also interesting in that it is covered by Commoners Rights, which preceded the adoption of the forest by William I but were later reinforced by acts of parliament. These acts related to the right of local people to graze sheep and cattle on the land and to collect peat and bracken. The grazing of livestock has become an important part of the maintenance of heathland in the area, and every year local farmers still run pigs through the broadleaf forests to eat the acorns. The law and history of the Forest are intriguing - but it does give you a bit of a shock when your picnic is disturbed by a huge sow and a bunch of squealing piglets!
The lay of the land
The region of the New Forest contains habitats with widely differing personalities. The most famous of these is the broadleaf woodland that gives the area its name, a gorgeous mixture of ancient trees such as oaks and beeches, where stony tracks and tiny streams track across sun dappled floors and into secret clearings. Then there are the plantations, mostly managed by the forestry commission, patches of intensely dark conifers that block all light and hide a host of birds. The final, and often forgotten, part of the forest is actually the part that contains no trees at all, the heath land - a highly endangered and important habitat. This landscape is often found on the higher areas of the national park, and so has a feeling of air and space which is not found in the closed forest. In Summer the heath is glowing, heat hazed and buzzing with insects: in Winter it becomes coated with frost, pale and shining and barren and beautiful.
The mixture of habitats, as well as the national rarity of these habitats, is the main reason behind the huge diversity of wildlife to be found in the New Forest. For birders the heath supports raptors like Hobbies, Honey Buzzards and this year a breeding pair of Goshawks, as well as lower occupants of the food chain like Dartford Warblers and Nightjars. The poster mammals are the gorgeous little New Forest ponies and species of deer including Roe, Red, Fallow, Sika and Muntjac, many of which can often be seen peeking at you through the trees. But one of the real gems of the forest lies in its reptile life. It is one of the few regions of the country to contain all three native UK snake species, although you have to get a seriously lucky break to see the rare smooth snake.
Things to do
As with many of the National Parks, the primary strength of the New Forest lies in its natural beauty and the opportunities that offers. There are many miles of walking, off road biking and horse riding trails, most of which have the added benefit of being easy to follow and so are open to pretty much anyone (although the easy landscape does not mean walkers should go out unprepared). These trails are also very good for families with younger children.
For those who prefer to enjoy the countryside without expending quite so much energy, the forest is peppered with pretty towns like Brockenhurst and Lyndhurst, as well as visitor attractions like the Otter and Owl Sanctuary or the New Forest Reptile Centre. Lyndhurst also hosts the New Forest Centre, an information centre and museum which is very useful for those unfamiliar with the National Park.
Of course, for many a day out in the countryside is not complete without a drink in a country pub, and here the New Forest comes into its own. The Alice Lyle and Red Shoot pubs are both good quality and family friendly pubs, but my particular favourite is the High Corner Inn, situated down a dirt track in the heart of the high forest. Although more commercialised than my Dad remembers it being when he was younger, it is still a wonderfully cosy little pub and one that we can't help returning to over and over again after a long walk.
Places to stay
Finding accommodation in the New Forest is actually spectacularly easy - searching for New Forest campsite turns up a whole heap of results, and for those who prefer a comfier bed there are rooms available in pubs, bed and breakfasts and hotels all over the region. Finding cheap places to stay is a little more difficult, especially during the Summer season, but the plus side is that the whole area is very family friendly and many campsites offer good facilities for children.
How to get there and around
The New Forest is one of the most accessible national parks, crossed by multiple decent roads and with lots of car parking space, although those aiming for some of the smaller car parks should aim to leave early. I'm afraid my normally rubbishness at giving directions will return here, but I can say with confidence that it's not difficult! It is also accessible by public transport, situated as it is on the train line between London Waterloo and Southampton and with frequent trains stopping at Sway, Lyndhurst and Brockenhurst. You can step onto the train in London and be strolling through the forest about an hour and a half later.
The good points
Where to start with the good points? Beautiful, unusual landscapes, hard to find in any other part of the country, open space near to some of the country's busiest towns, accessible, family friendly, and absolutely stuffed with things to do.
The bad points
The only major bad point of the forest is that, because it is so well connected and accessible, it is sometimes hard to escape the crowds on Summer weekends. Biking on the roads can be a challenge when traffic levels are high, and those used to the quieter confines of Dartmoor or Snowdonia might find the business of the area a little off putting.
Perhaps I am a little biased in favour of the New Forest. For many, it will pale when compared to the majestic grandeur of the Lake District or Snowdonia, because it doesn't have high mountains or huge lakes or anything like that. But it is a landscape of gorgeous subtleties, picnics under trees twenty times your age, long lazy Summer afternoons and chaotically colourful Autumns. I do, and always will, love the Forest to pieces for the memories that it contains for me. And I highly recommend that you go and make some memories of your own there.
Thank you very much for reading and have a lovely Summer :)
Summary: A place that everyone should visit
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