At roughly 56,000 hectares (about half of which is woodland), the New Forest National Park is the smallest national park in the UK. But it packs a lot into a small space and makes for great daytrip destination from London now that the sun (hopefully) is coming out.
The ‘Nova Foresta’, encompassing a coastal swathe of land located about 65 miles south-west of London, was first designated as a new hunting forest by William the Conqueror in 1079 – indeed, his won, King William II (William Rufus), died there in an apparent hunting accident in 110o (his death is marked by a memorial stone, just off the A31 near Stoney Cross, which tells the story although this is apparently not the site where he actually died).
Later a source of wood for the Royal Navy, the forest gained government protection with the passing of the New Forest Act in 1877. Most the of land is still owned by the Crown whose assets here have been managed by the Forestry Commission since 1923. The forest was designated a national park in 2005.
The journey from London takes about an hour and a half by train – Waterloo to the town of Brockenhurst (buses travel around the forest area including an open top tourist bus). While a car is useful if you want to visit several sites in a single day, traffic can get heavy, particularly if the sun is out.
A good place to start is the New Forest Visitor Centre, located in main town of Lyndhurst, which has plenty of information about the region (including a small museum) and on some terrific walks (included guided walks if you so desire).
A good short walk, starting only a couple of miles out of Lyndhurst, takes in the Knightwood Oak – reputed to be more than 600 year, it’s the largest oak in the forest and boasts a girth of more than 7.5 metres – and the Reptile Centre (inhabitants include adders, the only poisonous snake in the UK) and a walk through some stunning conifers.
One of the highlights of New Forest are the 3,000 free-roaming wild ponies – they can get rather friendly, particularly if you’re having a picnic, and you’re advised not to feed or touch them. They can be seen all over the forest including wandering through some of the villages.
Other attractions in the New Forest include the 26 miles of coastline from where you can get terrific views of the Isle of Wight across the Solent – the coastal village of Buckler’s Hard is also worth stopping by for its maritime history, and car buffs will love the Beaulieu National Motor Museum (complete with the remains of Beaulieu Abbey and the intact Palace House, built in the Abbey gatehouse and home to the Montagu family since 1538), located on land which once housed Beaulieu Abbey (really a day in itself).
There’s also plenty of outdoor activities you can take part in – everything from walking and cycling to horseriding to kayaking.
And if you do decide to stay overnight, there’s plenty of accommodation and the option of camping (designated places only) if you so wish.
For a novel about the forest and its history, check out Edward Rutherfurd’s The Forest.