Renowned for being the creation of William the Conqueror, the New Forest is perhaps the most famous of the king’s royal hunting grounds. It’s an area rich in history and wildlife, but for me it has a more personal meaning. The Forest is the location of precious childhood memories of idyllic holidays: dimly recalled sunlit glades, warm breezes and picnics with plastic beakers.
Woodland accounts for a little less than 40 per cent of the Forest and the rest is a broad mix of habitats, including heathland, mire, pasture, arable farmland and an amazing coastline of estuaries, lagoons, marsh and plain. For many of the annual visitors to the national park, the huge areas of woodland might be the obvious attraction but, for me, its most beautiful parts have to be the intersections of habitats; the places where woodland meets pond or where forest lawns verge on the heathland.
Wildlife organisations throughout Britain go to great lengths to create pocket-sized nature reserves with this degree of habitat diversity, but the New Forest is the real thing – a 150-square-mile, county-sized natural haven with superb wildlife watching opportunities.
With so much tree cover, there’s no real need for birdwatching hides in the New Forest but the deer observation platform at Bolderwood is useful – you can watch fallow deer from there. A red deer safari in Burley Park, around five miles to the southwest, is the easiest way to see Britain’s largest wild terrestrial mammal.
Two connecting ornamental drives (small, quiet, single-track lanes) at Bolderwood and at Rhinefield meet at the A35 west of Lyndhurst and make a great cycle ride as the route eventually leads to the village of Brockenhurst. It’s seven miles in all, but some six and a half of them are flat or downhill and the landscapes you pass through along the way are inspiring.
The largely broadleaf and deciduous woodland gives way to evergreen and coniferous growth near the foot of the Bolderwood section, but rather than serried ranks of pine, you’ll find that giant sequoia and Douglas fir, some in excess of 150ft high, dominate in every sense.
At Blackwater car park, there’s the chance to enjoy the Tall Trees Trail – a smooth gravelled 1.5-mile trek around the specimens – as well as an arboretum where you’re free to wander and muse on whether you can, indeed, tell the wood from the trees. But I elected to head to the edge of the wood where the bristling seedheads of bog cotton arrestedmy attention by twinkling like little starburstsas they swayed in the breeze.
Back on the cycle route, the journey to Brockenhurst has you nipping in and out of the great central belt of woodland, giving you a chance to discover some of the Forest’s iconic species. There are rarities in these woods – stag beetles, for example, so called because of the antler-like mandibles of the male. They depend on decaying wood and so have become increasingly scarce in intensively managed environments. They do well in the Forest, however, and the best time to see them is on warm early evenings from May to August.
Females, which lack the ‘antlers’, are around three centimetres long but it’s the males who win the award for Britain’s largest beetle, being more than twice as long. You may see them in awkward flight; their wings are capable of a drowsy hum that reminds me of an old Triumph Bonneville motorbike and they hang in the air like radio-controlled helicopters.
You’re most likely to see stag beetles on the outskirts of the Forest’s towns, of which Lyndhurst is the prettiest as well as being the most useful in terms of visitor centres, shops and cafes. Lyndhurst lacks a railway connection, though it makes up for this by having the Forest’s best bus services, particularly in summer when the green and red open-top buses operate a regular timetable, perfect for hop-on-hop-off exploration around their circular route. If you’re coming by car though, be warned: the traffic at summer weekends can be dreadful.
The Solent Way
Lyndhurst may be the National Park’s capital, but Lymington, which lies on the south coast facing the Isle of Wight across the Solent, is by far the largest town as well as a major yachting centre. In keeping with its nautical status, it has a busy high street peppered with the odd salty boutique, cafe and restaurant. It’s also a useful base from which to explore the south of the Forest and the Solent coastline between Keyhaven and Calshot, as well as the tidal reaches of the beautiful Beaulieu River.
One of the best ways to explore the coast is by walking the Solent Way, a 60-mile footpath from Milford on Sea east to Emsworth Harbour. For much of its length, the path follows the coast.
A section runs through the Lymington-Keyhaven nature reserve – a superb 500-acre feast of lagoons and marshes between the mouth of the Lymington river and the village of Keyhaven. It’s a feeding ground for a variety of birds, especially during spring and autumn migrations.
The New Forest coast is superb country for birdwatching but is often overlooked. I’ve spent many spring days at Exbury Gardens near the mouth of the Beaulieu River, behind the gnarled trees that frame the reed beds. Another good spot for birding is Lepe Country Park, a few miles along the coast, with wildflower meadows and a beach with views to the Isle of Wight.
Opposite Exbury on the river is Buckler’s Hard, a former 18th-century shipbuilding village that constructed vessels for Nelson’s navy and is now home to an excellent maritime museum. Further up the river is its eponymous village, Beaulieu, where there is an amazing motor museum, the remains of a Cistercian abbey and a historic house. A single ticket gives access to them all.
The National Park is conveniently divided into north and south by the appalling dual carriageway of the A31, which runs along a watershed that connects Southampton and the M27 with Bournemouth, Dorset and the southwest.
Unusually for a road, it signifies more than just sound and fury, for the landscapes are markedly different on either side of it. Bolderwood, Rhinefield, Beaulieu and the divine Solent coast estuaries and lagoons lie to the south as do the largest towns and villages, while the northern part of the Forest has smaller enclosed woodlands and scattered settlements around the extensive heaths.
It was on one of these heaths that I spotted my first Dartford warbler – the Forest is one of the main breeding grounds for this elusive little bird. I was on a cycle path near North Gorley, on the Park’s western boundary, and spotted it when I sat under a silver birch to havemy picnic lunch. It was a reminder that although you can tour the New Forest on horseback, bus, car, bike or on foot, one of the best ways to discover it is just to pick a spot and sit down for an hour. If you’re willing to let the forest come to you, it more than repays the effort.
Ian Vince is a nature and travel writer and is a regular contributor to BBC Countryfile Magazine. He is the author of The Lie of the Land: An under-the-field guide to the British Isles (Boxtree, 2010).