If you’re seeking an instant remedy to the Festive over-indulgence, then a walk through the New Forest could be the answer. At a time of year when everything seems to be masked with snow, the Forest scenery takes on a mysterious and haunting beauty all its own. Visually stunning, the New Forest covers a huge area, taking in the southwest of Hampshire as well as parts of Wiltshire and Dorset.
For enthusiasts, the region is home to diverse and rare wildlife which, as a taster, includes Britain’s only native cicada and Southern damselfly – a species seldom seen in the UK. For those keen on exercise, there are plenty of great walks no matter what the season. And with very few restrictions and gentle terrain, the choices are yours.
Acres Down is one of the shorter walks at just over two miles. This circular route is generally gravel track with gradual slopes making it a hike which can be completed in around an hour. Don’t be surprised to see New Forest ponies wandering around on your journey and keep an eye out for the European Honey Buzzard – a species rarely seen elsewhere. For those keen on pub lunches in a traditional setting, The Trusty Servant in the village of Minstead, is an ideal stopping point.
For an all in one tour of the area, try the walk from Matley. East of Lyndhurst – known locally as the “Capital of the New Forest” – the walk will last for a few hours and takes you through virtually all the different types of New Forest woodland, open heath and marshland. Covering around four miles, you’ll be treated to some beautiful and diverse scenery, and you’re not far from the Beaulieu Hotel – if you want to stop for lunch.
One of the New Forest’s more popular hikes is the Ashley Walk. It starts and finishes near Godshill on the National Park’s western escarpment. This quaint settlement dating from the 18th century, is a working Forest village with a number of thatched cottages. The walk takes you close by the remnants of the Ashley Bombing Range – dating from World War II. With a distance of almost six miles, Ashley Walk can be completed in three hours and you’ll see plenty of different woodland and open heath along the way.
For those keen to experience a more sociable hike, the New Forest – like several other parts of England – offers Health Walks. These are free, regular guided walks open to all age groups lasting between 30 and 90 minutes. No special requirements are needed, other than suitable outer clothing and sturdy footwear, and the benefits to your health are long-lasting. Led by a trained leader, you’ll be in good company as you explore the New Forest scenery en masse.
Wilverley Inclosure, in the southwestern part of the New Forest is another popular hike. The walk is graded and runs for just short of four miles. In this largely wooded area you’ll find the terrain underfoot generally smooth but somewhat hilly in parts, and keep an eye open for wildlife and the signposted Wilverley Wander which runs for two miles. For more details visit www.forestry.gov.uk/newforest.
A great way to round off your day’s walk is by visiting one of many New Forest pubs. One such is the Royal Oak in Fritham. This quite unique pub – with its thatched roof – is one of the New Forest’s smallest and oldest pubs dating back to the 17th century. It’s also near the Fritham Walk. This walk is ideal for deer spotting, but be aware that in early October it’s the rutting season and not the best of times to get too close with the camera. The walk runs for just over four miles, so allow at least a two-hour window to complete it.
Holm Hill – despite its name – is a relatively flat walk of around three miles. It’s mainly open heath with some superb views in all directions. The walk is ideal for families and quite easy-going underfoot. If you’re lucky, you may see elusive Red and Fallow deer in the undergrowth as well as squirrels and rabbits. For lunch, there are several pubs nearby, including the stately Rhinefield House Hotel, which you’ll see during the walk.
Aside from its popular walks, the New Forest is literally a naturalists paradise. A massive variety of wildlife can be found in this quite unique eco-system. The area is home to at least five species of deer – including the elusive Muntjac or barking deer, and at least 100 bird species. You might see polecats and otters, though not quite as common, as well as badgers and foxes. Large numbers of orchids and other rare plants are also present. You could say the New Forest has something for everyone.
Its Ancient and Ornamental woodland, widely diverse wildlife, and the freedom to ramble are what makes the New Forest a first among tourists. It covers a huge 285 square miles – including its National Park – and is home to some of the oldest oak trees in Britain. Why not mark it off on your “to do” list. For more information, visit www.new-forest-national-park.com.