Neil Sowerby walks on the wild side in this pony paradise
ASSURED our chihuahua, Captain Smidge, would be treated ‘royally’ in the New Forest, we then remembered some gruesome history. It was here that a medieval royal, William II, aka Rufus, was killed by a stray arrow while out stag hunting. The mystery of whether it was mishap or murder remains after 900 years. A memorial stone from much later marks the spot, though the jury’s out even on the accuracy of the location.
Brusher, armed with just a sack and a forked stick, was a self-appointed snake catcher, trapping 30,000 grass snakes and 4,000 adders over an 18 year career
Surely the true monarchs of this National Park are the magnificent oaks. Smidge cocked his leg against one giant 200-year-old specimen at Buckler’s Hard near Beaulieu. It was a mere sapling when the mature trees around it were felled to build Nelson’s Navy. Arguably the Forest’s oldest tree (500 years plus) is the majestic, pollarded Knightwood Oak just off the busy A35. A tourist destination since Victorian times, it is sturdily fenced off from canine (Smidge frustrated) and human visitors.
The latter are certainly catered for with countless free car parks with access to trails. So you can get up close to the famous New Forest ponies, all owned by ‘commoners’ yet allowed to roam free until the autumn round-up and auctions. Warning, though, don’t feed them (if they come to expect it and become aggressive they face expulsion).
Donkeys, cows and pigs also graze this carefully husbanded land, much of which is unwooded, more heath, furze and mire. Forest as a term applies specifically to the royal hunting ground created by the Norman times (blinding the punishment for any peasant poaching deer).
Our base, the award-winning, mega dog-friendly Balmer Lawn Hotel, was itself built in the mid-1800s as a hunting lodge in a landscape of woods and clearing (ie lawn) that is quintessential New Forest. Just outside Brockenhurst, a more charming candidate for capital of the Forest than bottleneck Lyndhurst up the road, it has been run by the Wilson family for the past two decades with much money invested in its Saltus Spa and Pool. Yet for all the lavish upgrade, the 4-star, 54-room hotel retains a rare warmth.
Before we’d even checked in Captain Smidge had made the acquaintance of Jazz, the resident 14-year-old Jack Russell. Water and treats were not far behind. Kids came over to cuddle our pampered pet.
The overall impression of Balmer’s Lawn (a bastardisation of Palmer’s Lawn, the name given to the patch in the Domesday Book) is of space and light. Our ‘luxury class’ room at the front overlooked a cricket pitch and yes, the hotel is not responsible for the thwack of bat on ball resulting in damage to parked cars.
Our original plan – thwarted by work commitments – had been to coincide with the debut of Dogstival a 20 minute drive away in Pylewell Park, outside Lymington. This new two day festival (May 18 and 19) is a celebration of ‘all things dog related’ in a stunning setting looking across to the Isle of Wight. It will be hosted by local resident, environmentalist and dog lover Chris Packham of BBC Springwatch fame (more festival details below).
Still, without such a focus, the Forest was still a perfect place to mooch with a pooch. You can understand why Trusted Housesitters, the pet and house-sitting service, recently analysed nearly 12,000 social media posts about dog walking in the UK over the past year only the Lake District scored higher.
In summer the area it can be the victim of its own popularity but out of season, it was perfect to drive around. Our favourite outings in a flying visit?
The Rhinefield Ornamental Drive, Tall Trees Walk and and Blackwater Arboretum
Drive west from Brockenhurst and mixed woodland gives way to a dense 19th century conifer plantation, including Sequoias, which can be penetrated via the Tall Trees Walk. We rambled around the glorious foliage of the Arboretum after leaving our car on the site of one of the old royal hunting lodges.
Meeting the Ponies at Hatchet Pond
The biggest stretch of water in the Forest was created in the 18th century to provide power for an iron mill on the edge of the Beaulieu Estate. Today it is a picturesque home to carp, pike and eels for the fishermen, a sunset setting for photographers and a watering hole for the ponies and donkeys, which are almost as prolific.
Buckler’s Hard and Beaulieu
Contrarily ‘Hard’ in these parts means a landing spot that is especially soft. The gravel extends to the low water mark in this estuary village consisting of two rows of houses, meaning it was ideal for shipbuilding in the 18th century. It all happened on the rebound after the Duke of Montagu, owner of Beaulieu, was gazumped in the Caribbean sugar trade by the French.
It built ships for the Battle of Trafalgar and Nelson’s favourite ship, Agamemnon, was launched here. Later it was a hub of activity during World War II and Sir Francis Chichester trialled his yacht, Gypsy Moth IV in the Beaulieu River before sailing it around the world. All this is explained in the Maritime Museum. The village itself is a tableau, locked in time – visit the Shipwright’s Cottage, the chapel (with smugglers’ connections) and a working pub, part of the boutique Master Builder’s Hotel, overlooking the Beaulieu River, where cruises are available. Attractive Beaulieu upstream boasts the National Motor Museum and much more to tempt the tourist.
Forest meets The Solent. Grab some fish and chips at Deep Blue on the impressively broad High Street, grab a window seat and a pint at the harbourside Ship Inn and watch the kids crabbing off the dock. If you’re feeling more outdoorish splash out on the vintage Sea Water Baths (season opens April 27) or trek out to birdwatching mecca the Lymington Keyhaven Nature Reserve.
In the footsteps of The Snakecatcher
Brockenhurst, the nearest settlement to Balmer Lawn is a sedate kind of place. Of the many walks available we chose a 15 minute ramble uphill to St Nicholas, the oldest church in the New Forest, mentioned in the Domesday Book and probably pre-dated by a pagan temple. Its atmospheric graveyard with a 1,000 year old yew tree hosts the graves of 93 men who served in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in the Great War (Balmer Lawn Hotel served as a military hospital). Nearby is a white marble headstone commemorating one of the Forest’s great eccentrics. it depicts an old bearded man in a wide-brimmed hat holding a handful of snakes outside a hut. This was Harry ‘Brusher’ Mills (1840-1905) who armed with just a sack and a forked stick, was a self-appointed snake catcher, trapping 30,000 grass snakes and 4,000 adders over an 18 year career.
Cool Brockenhurst – craft beer, charcuterie and laidback lodgings
In honour of ‘Brusher’ Brockenhurst’s Railway Inn was renamed The Snakecatcher. Next door, at 17 Lyndhurst Road, is a new style food and drink destination that shows The Forest moving away from traditional pubs. We loved The Sett, is run by New Forest-raised but much-travelled Ralph Buchanan and Maisy Wyer, who studied at Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage. They serve charcuterie and cheese platters alongside craft beers and natural wine.
Hipper still is The Pig, a country house retreat with a metropolitan meets rustic vibe. Alas, not dog-friendly. Leaving Smidge curled up in our lovely room, we strolled the mile from Balmer Lawn to sample the food in its potting shed themed restaurant with its mix and match furniture. After cutting edge cocktails in the drawing room of this pile that once belonged to the Queen Mother’s family we ate the best rib-eye ever. Irish-reared and Himalayan salt-aged, it was the only foodstuff not sourced from within a 25 mile radius – indeed, much comes from their own garden. Their home-cured salami is from pigs fed on ‘pannage’ in the autumn – ie. allowed to feast on acorns in the woods, which are poisonous to the ponies.
Liquid refreshment in The Forest
With our porcine dinner we drank an Austrian red blend but it is possible in the Brockenhurst area to sample local wine, red white and rosé, from the Setley Ridge Vineyard. Pay a visit to their farm shop located on the A337 in front of the winery, a treasure trove of local foods, carrying the ‘New Forest Marque’. The Sett stocks cans from Vibrant Forest, one fo the finest of the UK’s new wave brewers. To sample the likes of Fragacea (a fruit sour) and Cambrian Root (a liquorice stout) we visited the brewery on the outskirts of Lymington on the eve of its move to new premises down the road. They are taking their tap room with them, open on Fridays and Saturdays.
Terroir – let the Forest feed you
En route to Buckler’s Hard we chanced upon the Beaulieu Organic Farm Shop, and couldn’t resist stocking up on oxtail, ox cheeks and braising steak from the Dexter herd that grazes on Beaulieu Heath plus some marsh-fed lamb. In season, the shop’s organic fruit and veg are all local. A magical food trove.
Or you could just hole up at Balmer Lawn
Owners Chris and Alison Wilson have restored the historic hotel to its former glory after acquiring it from Hilton in the late Nineties. The luxurious Saltus Spa and pool is the most obvious upgrade and we loved the food from the 2 AA rosette Beresford’s, which we ate in the lounge so our chihuahua could join us and, yes, he wolfed his share of guinea fowl. To help you chill out in the bar he hotel even boasts its own micro-brewery. Alas, they’d run out of the unfined house bitter, Smokin Deer, on our visit.
En route how could we resist Winchester?
It’s been decades since we’d visited Hampshire’s county town, certainly predating the park and ride we made use of. The High Street is still architecturally impressive but dispiritingly now dominated by national shopping and hospitality chains. It was only when we crossed beyond the Cathedral and its Close that we succumbed to the city’s enchantment. The Deanery Bookstall in a corner of the Inner Close sells gifted second-hand stock at ridiculously low prices to raise funds for the Choir and the 30-year-old garden commemorating a former Deant, Thomas Garnier, is a tranquil oasis.
After which we wandered ancient streets to find refreshment in The Black Boy up on Wharf Hill, contender for Britain’s most eccentric pub. Five rooms, rammed with obscure film posters, venerable clocks and stuffed animals (including a giraffe), are arranged around the bar hub, dispensing fine cask ale. Most bizarre? The back room where old fire buckets hang above a stuffed donkey nuzzling an equally stuffed baboon wearing a kilt, alongside a fox with an empty whisky bottle and a gazelle in a Tibetan hat. Who needs drugs?
Dogstival – set to be a Bow Wow!
This weekend festival will showcase some of the most exciting dog display teams from across the UK, expert talks from a range of guests, ‘come and try’ activities such as agility or flyball and Dogstival’s very own ‘behavioural stage’ where owners can understand more about the mental health and wellbeing of their best friend as well as typical behaviour issues that happen in the home.
Guests will also be able to sample food and drink from artisan producers from across the New Forest and Hampshire, lots of wonderful doggy retail stands and also a vintage fun fair with a big wheel looking out across the Solent to the Isle of Wight. There will also be pampering zones, photo booths, a chance to win prizes and water-loving dogs will even have a chance to splash around on Pylewell Park’s own beach.
Host Chris Packham says: “With so much to see, do and try it’s going to be a fantastic day out for every kind of dog including Scratchy – my beloved poodle and the epicentre of my life. Pet owners will also get the chance to learn more about their dog – from their mental health to what's in their dog bowl, as well as hearing more about the amazing habitat and environment around us, which is something I am very passionate about. I hope dog lovers, those thinking about getting a dog, or even people wanting a great day out will all join us.”
Sat May 18 and Sunday May 19, 10am-6pm. Pylewell Park, East End, Lymington, SO41 5SJ. Buy tickets here. For a chance to win free tickets visit www.thenewforest.co.uk and hit the ‘Ideas & Inspiration’ tab
The Sowerbys and Captain Smidge stayed at Balmer Lawn Hotel and Spa, Lyndhurst Road, Brockenhurst SO42 7ZB. 01590 623116. It has a dog-friendly rooms across its range and has launched a special three-nights-for-the-price-of-two offer from just £149 pp (B&B, two sharing a room), available until June 27, arriving between Sunday and Tuesday, and includes 20 pr cent off pre booked spa treatments plus use of the leisure facilities. For an additional £25 per person per night, dinner can be added (to a value of £30 pp). The offer excludes children and family rooms. For further info or bookings call 01590 623 116.
The acclaimed Saltus Spa uses ESPA products and offers a wide range of massages, facials and body treatments. Open from 9am to 5pm each day.
The hotel is 240 miles by road from Manchester; there are also some Cross Country direct train services (four and a half hours) from Manchester on the Bournemouth route.