7 Things to Do in the New Forest
Get ready for wildlife spotting, walking along majestic trails and exploring castles with this guide to spending time in the New Forest.
Despite the name, the New Forest – a swathe of unspoilt heath and woodland in Hampshire and Wiltshire – is actually quite old. William the Conqueror created this royal forest for hunting deer, controversially pulling down dozens of parishes to do so, less than a decade before he commissioned the Domesday Book in 1085. These days, though, the wildlife’s in charge, with great efforts made to to protect it. So much so that pigs, cattle, donkeys and the wild ponies have the right of way on the roads: and it’s not uncommon to see a pony holding up traffic in the villages.
The protected area, given National Park status in 2005, is perfect for wildlife spotting, plus walking and cycling among majestic pines, redwoods, oaks and yews. There are also castles to explore and restaurants championing foraged food and artisan produce from the local land. Where to find them? Read on for Plum Guide's expert list of things to do in the New Forest.
Take a forest walk (or cycle)
The New Forest National Park is home to 140 miles of footpaths and 100 miles of cycle tracks through its open pasture, heathland and (obviously) forests. Head out early from your Plum home, Hare & Hound and prepare for an adventure. For impressive redwoods and firs, the Tall Trees Trail is a good option (its flat terrain makes for easy walking too). Or the Blackwater Arboretum Sensory Trail offers azaleas, rhododendrons, tall sequoias and wooden forest-inspired sculptures – plus picnicking areas for those who require regular feeds. For cycling, hire a bike in Burley, then follow the nine-mile route to Bolderwood Deer Sanctuary.
See the ponies
Wild ponies have roamed and grazed the New Forest National park for millennia. And since there are about 5,000 here, you won’t have much difficulty finding them. To explore the forest on (tame) horseback, head to the Burley Villa riding school.
Snoop round Highcliffe Castle
This grade 1-listed castle, built in the romantic and picturesque styles, is quite the looker. It’s appeared on TV, in both The Antiques Roadshow and Mr Selfridge, telling the story of the flamboyant real-life retail tycoon. In 1916 Selfridge and his family moved into Highcliffe Castle, where, apparently, his mother was responsible for throwing rather lavish parties. Take a tour to learn more about its history, and see some of the unrestored rooms behind the scenes – then explore the grounds, with their woodland walks and precision-trimmed parterre.
Wander Exbury Gardens
If you’re one of those people who go from stressed to calm in seconds if someone simply puts you in front of some greenery, then Exbury Gardens is your place when looking for things to do in the New Forest. Expect 200 acres of woodland, gardens stretching along the fancily named Beaulieu River, daffodil meadows, hydrangea and maple walks, precision-placed sundial gardens and views over the water to the Isle of Wight. Placate any kids in tow with a ride on the steam railway.
Dine at The Pig
For extra-special dining on some of the New Forest’s best local produce, head to The Pig’s greenhouse restaurant. For anything that can’t be grown in the kitchen garden, there’s a 25-mile rule for ingredients, which even the restaurant’s forager has to abide by. So the menu changes daily and the chef talks in ‘micro-seasons’, but do expect fare like pizzas from the wood-fired oven outside and local pork. Once you’re feeling suitably porcine yourself, head to the former Shepherd’s Hut or Potting Shed (which have been converted into treatment rooms) for a massage or facial.
Hire a boat at Lymington
Fancy yourself as the captain of a yacht for the day? Well, the truth is we can’t guarantee they'll let you steer for a bit, but you can be skippered around the Solent by a professional, to enjoy this part of southern England from a different, more watery perspective. For fun things to do in the New Forest as a group, luxury boat service Lymington Boat Hire will have you covered for parties of up to 10.
The clue’s in the name: Beaulieu is a beauty. Set off from your Plum home, The Verderer and get ready to fall for its chocolate box charm. The village high street is lined with postcard-pretty red-brick shops, and the Beaulieu Chocolate Studio with its artisan bars and boxes is a good place to start. But Beaulieu is most famous for its National Motor Museum, filled with historical and famous cars like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Beaulieu’s best bit, though, is the picturesque riverbank – it's a prime picnicking spot – and if you’re feeling daring, rent a canoe for a river jaunt.
And there's our expert guide to things to do in the New Forest, one of the best places to visit, full of great things to do, in England. While Plum Guide has always focused on big global cities, many of us aren’t ready for international jet-setting and bustling metropolises just yet. So our fastidious homes critics have been busy hunting for the perfect country boltholes and properties in laidback little towns that are perfectly placed for outdoorsy staycations.