The English countryside is more than just lovely walks in the countryside, nature and fresh air. It’s a place that takes me back to my childhood daydreams of fairies, goblins, heroic knights, outlaws, legends, princes and princesses.
Which is why I love the tiny village of Brockenhurst in the New Forest, Hampshire. It’s a place where you can let your imagination run wild.
New Forest, which is more than a thousand years old, is a world of creatures, ancient woodlands, fascinating history, royalty, miles and miles of forest, and breath-taking country walks. And, most importantly, it’s only an hour and a half from Waterloo station by train.
What’s particularly fascinating about the New Forest is that is still retains the code of law handed down by William the Conqueror who declared the whole area a royal hunting preserve in 1079, thereby protecting the area from development.
A movie set
In Brockenhurst, animals wander the village streets as though on the set of a movie – New Forest ponies, great hairy, long eared donkeys and herds of mooing cattle which you can pat (you’re not meant to), feed (strictly prohibited) and follow around the village (well, I’ve never been good at following rules).
Animals not robbers rule the highways in the New Forest. Horses groom each other in the middle of the main road and mares push their newborn trembling foals across the asphalt, oblivious to the oncoming traffic.
No one toots or shouts angrily at each other as they do in London. It’s all very civilised and peaceful and motorists sit waiting patiently, quietly until the grooming session has finished or the foal has shakily reached the grass. Metal cattle grids on the roads in the village allow vehicles to leave, but keep the animals in.
The New Forest is jam-packed with crisscrossing country walks ranging from half an hour to over two hours duration and none are particularly grueling All you need is a guide book and away you go.
There are dozens of B&Bs and hotels to stay at in Brockenhurst including the gorgeous 26-bedroom country house, The Pig, with its own walled kitchen garden – (you need to book weeks’ ahead); or the 1902 mock Tudor, dog friendly Forest Park Hotel.
Keep an eye out for the beautiful privately owned country homes dotted around the New Forest as well. I spent a lot of time on my tiptoes peering into people’s gardens wishing I had their houses.
On one walk, I visited St Nicholas Parish – the site of the church so old it was mentioned in the Domesday book of 1086 A.D. Its ancient cemetery was smothered in wild flowers and protected by enormous trees; some truly primeval plots hidden behind rusty ornate gates like a scene from The Secret Garden.
Beds of bluebells sparkled in the sun, dappled light shone through trees as though lighting the way to Excalibur and acres of muddy bogs sit silent and still. New Forest Ponies thundered around in large herds, or quietly munched away under the trees.
Legend has it that the New Forest Ponies swam ashore from a wrecked Spanish galleon. All the ponies are wild in the sense that they can roam free but many are owned by New Forest commoners.
Some of the New Ponies are broken in and you can ride them through the New Forest. Obviously this needs to be done through a registered equestrian centre like Ford Farm Stables. You can’t just run out into the New Forest with a rope and jump on the back of a pony, unless of course you fancy being stamped into the ground or bucked off into a nearby oak tree.
A tiny foal, accompanied by its stressed out mother, chased us the whole way, squealing and cantering its tiny hooves across the heathland, up hills and under bridges. Apparently the foal chases nearly every hack around the New Forest with its poor mother in hot pursuit.
Birds and large dragonflies flew around us as we rode through the forest and occasionally we’d catch a glimpse of deer or wild ponies in the distance. It was truly another world.
I even saw my old friends, the delinquent Brockenhurst donkeys, who blatantly ignored the tourists ‘woo-hooing’ them hoping to to get a photograph. They always looked like they were up to no good – these three asses. You’d see them standing near the cattle grids plotting their escape, or around the corner of Tesco’s getting ready to pounce on an unsuspected child carrying carrots or bags of sugar. In Spring there are loads of baby donkeys who hang out on corners with their mothers, learning the ropes.
While riding, cycling and walking is definitely the best way to see the New Forest, there is also the New Forest tour bus which operates in the Summer and will take you from village to village and even down to the seaside. Or you can simply hire a car and explore the area.
There are plenty of pubs and tea houses dotted around Brockenhurst to choose from. The Tea Garden, near The Splash, serves the best cream teas. Also check out The Thatched Cottage which looks like a house in the Shire with its traditional thatched roof and tiny interior, and my favourite – the Snakecatcher – in Lyndhurst Road which has a fantastic outdoor area, great pub food and is named after a famous snake catcher called Harry ‘Brusher’ Mills. His grave, featuring a snake, is near the old church.
The New Forest is a place for everyone – whether you’re just wanting a weekend out of the city, are keen on horses and want the freedom to ride ‘off piste’, are fascinated by wildlife and birds, or like me, have a wild imagination and want to be re-acquainted with your childhood dreams.
|A scene from The Hobbit?|
|The Thatched Cottage|