There is so much to see and do in the New Forest that those visiting for the first time might not know where to start.
There are free roaming animals including ponies, donkeys, cattle and pigs; there are wild deer in the woodlands, there are amazingly tall trees and there are habitats that are internationally important for nature and conservation.
You’ll also find many pretty thatched cottages, fudge shops galore, lots of marked walks and great cycle paths. So let’s begin at the very heart of the National Park, in the village of Lyndhurst.
If you look on a map, you will see that Lyndhurst is at the centre of the New Forest. It’s a great place to be based, with easy access to woodlands, heathlands, quaint villages and the coast.
What makes it an especially good starting point is that off the High Street, you will find the New Forest Museum where you can pick up handy leaflets and maps at little to no cost, and it is where I collected walking guides for both Lyndhurst and the neighbouring village of Brockenhurst. (One was free and the other cost just 50p.)
I followed the Lyndhurst Parish Circular Walk, and, for someone who has absolutely no sense of direction, I was most impressed that the very detailed guide meant I only got lost once! It starts in the High Street, where it is worth stocking up on snacks and drinks to take with you, as the walk takes around 3 hours.
The walk is described by the parish council as “traditional New Forest”, as it showcases much of what the area has to offer. As soon as I was off the High Street, I saw free roaming ponies as I arrived at one of the first markers, Bolton’s Bench.
As legend would have it, there is a dragon buried here. You discover more about this story as you continue the walk and come across a wooden dragon carving in the woodland.
The walk continues on a gravel path and follows a track into woodland. The parish council guide is very detailed, telling you to look out for gates, cattle grids, signs, tracks and bollards.
If you do get lost, I found I bumped into several other walkers, also clutching the map, and between us we managed to work things out. And, besides, getting lost is often half the fun! It was when I was ‘lost’, in dense woodland, that I stumbled upon 3 deer, prancing through the trees.
Along this walk, there are a couple of pubs along the way if you need a stop. You’ll also come across several old phone boxes, which have been adopted by the parish council and are now libraries and information points.
Brockenhurst has the most beautiful forest streams and the scenery is quite different from Lyndhurst.
I used the Brockenhurst village map, which I picked up at the Lyndhurst Museum, and discovered the walk was just over 5 miles long, or 8km. It’s a nice flat walk, with woodland, grassy paths, cycle tracks and lots of free roaming ponies and cattle at the start and finish.
Brockenhurst is a picturesque village. There is a famous watersplash at the end of the High Street and there are lots of little cafes for refreshments before or after your stroll.
Brockenhurst is said to mean “broken wooded hill”, with it being divided by many streams. Ponies, cows and donkeys often wander along the main street. You’ll see quite a few cattle grids at the end of people’s driveways to deter them from ruining well manicured gardens.
The forest lawns at Brockenhurst are grazed upon by ponies and cattle to help shape and conserve the open landscape of the forest.
Grazed grasslands are also important for ground nesting birds, such as lapwings, also known as peewits, due to their distinctive call.
On my third day in the New Forest, I’d arranged a guided tour with Wild New Forest, setting off from the Bolderwood car park.
My guide was Marcus who took me on a 3km walk, telling me about the history of the New Forest, how old some of the trees were, how global warming is threatening some of our native species and much more.
Marcus explained why ponies roam freely in the New Forest, why there are so many deer, and about commoners and New Forest rangers.
There is a deer sanctuary at Bolderwood, which I didn’t stop at, instead taking in the deer from a distance through binoculars. Marcus told me about the different types of deer and the deer rut which begins in September and lasts a few weeks. This is when males compete for dominance and show off to the females.
If you’re in the New Forest, do visit Bolderwood. It has some of the oldest Douglas fir trees in the area, with some dating back as far as 1860, and is a lovely, tranquil place to walk or relax for a few hours.
My next stop was the very lovely Blackwater, which was possibly my favourite place. I did the Tall Trees Trail, with signs pointing out the tallest and oldest trees, as well as points of interest. It takes you past conifers planted in the 1850s, some of which are not only the oldest Douglas fir trees in the area, but in all of Britain.
I also loved the Blackwater Arboretum, which is a small but nationally important collection of trees from all over the world.
Beaulieu, Bucklers Hard and Burley
I managed to squeeze in a visit to Beaulieu too, where I’d been promised donkeys roaming the streets, but didn’t see any! From here I did a walk to Buckler’s Hard, as recommended by fellow BaldHiker writer Emma Kirkup.
I also had a quick trip to Burley, a lovely little village where there is a history of witches and witchcraft, along with stories about a villager who used to walk the streets dressed in a long black cloak, with a pet jackdaw on her shoulder.
Burley also has the best fudge and cider shops, by the way.
I fell in love with the New Forest and didn’t want to leave. I can’t wait to go again, perhaps in the autumn next time, having visited during a hot summer during July.
If you’re interested in accommodations, I spent my first night at the Penny Farthing bed and breakfast in Lyndhurst, before moving to a glamping pod at the Back of Beyond Camping, Touring and Glamping site at Ringwood, on the edge of the forest. I highly recommend them both.