Entering the New Forest is like stepping 1,000 years into the past. Archaic traditions or 'Common Rights', dating back to when William the Conqueror claimed the forest as his hunting ground, still apply to the land and its residents, or 'commoners', as they're locally known. These rights allow ‘commoners’ to graze their animals unhindered on the open land, to let their pigs gorge on the fallen acorns in the autumn, and even chop a stipulated amount of firewood for their wood burners at home. The New Forest is very much a living, working forest and a unique landscape to explore.
If it's history you've come to see then there's plenty to keep your curiosity sated. Many of the oak trees alone are centuries old, swathes of which were chopped down to build Nelson's ships at Buckler's Hard on the banks of the Beaulieu river. Not forgetting there's an abundance of museums, historic churches, memorials, working mills and even remnants from both World Wars to investigate.
For those of you with binoculars handy you're in for a treat with the variety of wildlife there is to spot among the ancient woodlands, nature reserves and heathlands. You'll find rare birds, deer, wild ponies and all three of our native snakes in the National Park, and if you head to one of the wildlife parks you'll be able to catch a glimpse of some of Britain's rarest and endangered species, including the Scottish Wildcat.
Green-fingered folk can grace majestic gardens surrounding fine stately homes, art lovers can soak up the arts and crafts scene in the local galleries, while shopaholics can melt their plastic in the independent shops selling quality local goods in the towns and villages. Foodies will be in gluttonous heaven with the smorgasbord of New Forest breweries, dairies, farm shops, bakeries, cider farms and vineyards to have a tipple and a nibble.
And for the children? A visit to one of the many farms to cuddle and feed the animals should keep them beaming for days on end.
To save you a bit of cash, consider getting a Brand New Forest card, which offers discounts at many pubs, restaurants and attractions in the area.
Discover Exbury’s hidden beauty as you explore this 200-acre site, famed for its flora and fauna including Rothschild Collection of rhododendrons, azaeleas, camellias and rare trees and shrubs. A steam railway line follows a picturesque circular route through the gardens along the ‘Rhododendron Line’ and there’s also the chance to hire a chauffeur driven buggy for private tours. If you tire of exploring, a number of interesting exhibitions are available to visit, including the story behind the construction of the Rhododendron Line.
This family theme park is home not only to exciting thrill rides and activities, but also a wide range of exotic birds and mammals and a collection of beautiful gardens. Children can learn about everything from emus to meerkats while the main garden, once the site of Paulton's house, boasts magnificent cedar trees that are over 160 years old as well as a network of paths only discovered during a recent renovation. The tranquil lake is fed by a tributary of the River Test, and is home to a surprising amount of wildlife.
Jutting out at the seaward end of the shingle spit that stretches 1.5 miles from Milford-on-Sea, Hurst Castle has a uniquely rich history. Originally built by Henry VIII it was once used to imprison Charles I, as well as being used as a prison and garrison during WWII. Hurst is now open to the public and offers many interesting exhibitions including the Garrison Theatre and the Trinity House lighthouse exhibition where you’ll learn more about the castle’s interesting past. What's more, the views of Milford-on-Sea and the surrounding coastline from the top centre keep are spectacular.
At the world-renowned Motor Museum, you'll discover a collection of over 250 vehicles from every motoring era in history. There's also the chance to explore the science behind motor technology or enjoy the ‘Wheels’ exhibitions, where you’ll ride through motoring history, from the invention of the wheel to transport possibilities in the future. New to 2011, the 'Feats of Endurance' exhibition will also showcase vehicles that have braved extreme conditions around the globe and survived. The multi award-winning Jack Truck 1930s garage replica is a must see, having been lovingly created over the last 25 years.
Address (click link to view on google maps): John Montagu Building, Beaulieu, Hampshire, SO42 7ZN
Visit the only fully working and productive tide mill in the UK, producing flour using a tradition dating back some 900 years.Perched on the edge of Southampton Water, the site was abandoned in the 1940s but was restored in 1975 and now exists as both a working mill and a museum paying tribute to its industrial heritage. If you’re hoping to catch them milling, check the website for milling times.
In the heart of the National Park, the New Forest Centre is packed full of displays and activities. The New Forest Museum provides information on many aspects of the Park, from its geology and history to its commitments to wildlife and conservation. For children, the interactive family fun tree exhibition allows them to discover more about the park’s animal inhabitants while the New Forest gallery has a year round exhibition programme. The New Forest Centre is a must see as a first stop for visitors.
Great for children and animal lovers alike, Longdown Activity Farm lets visitors join in with their daily schedule of activities that includes feeding kid goats, calves and ducks, meeting the pigs, and getting to cuddle with baby rabbits, chicks and piglets at the baby animal encounter. Tractor and trailer rides are a great way to spend the afternoon while the farm shop offers locally-sourced Hampshire produce including everything from free-range meat and eggs to local honey and ground flour from the Eling Tide Mill.
While it may be a great form of public transport, the New Forest Tour is also a great way to see the National Park. Relax as the bus ventures past magnificent heathland and woodland, then hop off whenever you feel like it to explore further. On-board commentary will provide information on all the important sites you pass, and you’ll be given a guide showing a wide variety of fantastic cycle routes. The tour runs every day during the summer months and even has space for several bicycles on board.
Discover a little more of the New Forest's history with the Hythe Ferry and Pier Railway. Together, they link the Hampshire village of Hythe with Southampton, running every half hour, seven days a week. The railway is the oldest continually operating pier train in the world, having remained unchanged since the 1920s. Whether you choose to enjoy a boat trip or hop on the train, this is a great way to see the area surrounding the National Park. The pier also carries a walkway and cycle way.