Looking for the perfect rural escape? One of the best weekend staycation destinations in England has to be the wonderful New Forest National Park in Hampshire. Visiting for the first time I discovered that there’s an abundance of amazing things to do in the New Forest, from exploring lilac heathland to enjoying the history of the National Motor Museum…
Therefore let’s delve into just how much there is to discover in the wonderful New Forest:
Things to do in the New Forest –
1) Make friends with New Forest Ponies:
While the New Forest may be England’s smallest and newest national park (only being officially declared in 2005) it’s home to one of the most unique attractions: feral horses, donkeys, cows, and even pigs.
The New Forest ponies have become synonymous with the area, and if I’m honest they were the main reason I chose to visit! After all, as I horse lover how was I meant to resist…
The ancient tradition of ‘commoning’ is to thank for the thousands of free-roaming livestock. Over two thousand years ago, William the Conqueror made the area his private hunting reserve and gave locals the right to graze their livestock on the ‘common ground’, a practice that still remains in place today.
The hunting grounds now make up the National Park, and it’s really quite magical to see the horses roaming free amongst the striking natural surroundings.
While it won’t take you long to spot your first horse in the New Forest, I particularly enjoyed seeing them wandering around the villages in the area. There’s just something so surreal about seeing them walking down a high street, or taking a nap in someone’s front garden!!
2) Get your walking shoes on:
Just like in England’s better known national parks, such as the Lake District, one of the best things to do in the New Forest is to simply get your walking shoes on and explore the breath-taking landscape.
There are over 140,000 acres in the New Forest to cover, which are served by countless miles of well-maintained footpaths, and cycleways.
I particularly enjoyed the variety of the landscapes that you can discover on New Forest walks, from the ancient woodlands to lilac heath as far as the eye can see! Oh and there’s also plenty of wonderful coastal walks too…
TOP TIP: Forget your bike? There’s plenty of bike rental shops dotted throughout the new forest, meaning you can hire a set of wheels just for a day of exploring!
3) Hit the Beach:
Speaking of the coast, the New Forest National park is just 20 minutes away from the sea. So while many people don’t associate it with a beach holiday, there’s in fact a handful of gorgeous beaches right on its doorstep!
We decided to visit the splendid Avon Beach, just outside of Christchurch. Backed up a charming avenue of trees and colourful beach huts, it’s one of the few sandy beaches in the area (although you’ll still find some small pebbly sections).
It also has great amenities, such as the wonderful Noisy Lobster restaurant/cafe. However, I thought the real draw was the amazing views of the Isle of Wight and The Needles that you can enjoy from the beach!
In this way, despite having somewhat grey weather for our visit, we still enjoyed walking along the beach promenade and watching the odd brave soul take a dip in the sea.
4) Explore Beaulieu Motor Museum:
One of the most unique attractions in the New Forest has to be the Beaulieu Motor Museum. Founded in 1972, it features a fantastic display of 285 vehicles and details the developments of the motoring industry, right from the very first motorised cars in the 1800’s.
Despite not having a keen interest in cars, I still found the museum rather fascinating and loved fun displays such as ‘the world of Top Gear’ that featured several famous cars from the series.
Meanwhile, my dad loved the classic sports car and informative F1 section of the museum. Thus, a visit is definitely one of the best things to do in the New Forest.
In addition to this, as the museum was founded by the late Lord Montagu, a ticket to the National Motor Museum also grants visitors access to explore the wider Beaulieu Estate, where it’s based.
The Montagu family have owned the estate for over four centuries. However, the history goes back much further, as an abbey was founded in the grounds in 1204.
Although largley demolished by Henry the 8th, you can explore the ruins of the abbey (and discover parts of it that remain intact) inside the beautiful Beaulieu Palace House.
If this wasn’t enough, there’s also a vast children’s play area, and stunning kitchen, and formal gardens to enjoy. Overall, Beaulieu is a fantastic day out in the New Forest for anyone, whether or not you’re a car fan!
5) Bucklers Hard (What to do in the New Forest):
A short drive from the National Motor Museum you’ll find the tiny Georgian hamlet of Bucklers Hard (which is actually still part of the Beaulieu Estate).
Originally built as a shipbuilding yard in the 1720’s Bucklers Hard was once a bustling hub that made Nelson’s fleet for Trafalgar. Today however the hamlet is as peaceful as it gets!
It’s made up of two simple rows of traditional cottages that run down to the river… The cottages act as a frame for the handful of boats moored in the harbour, and thus create a stunning postcard view.
We visited the village just before sunset, in early September, and basically had the whole place to ourselves! It really was a relaxing haven simply untouched by time and has to be the most picturesque of all the attractions in the New Forest.
TOP TIP: While there is a paid for Maritime Museum at Bucklers Hard you can simply have a look around the village for free! This fact is quite unclear when you arrive, but we discovered that there’s another entrance for those who do not want to tour the museum!
6) Take a Carriage Ride:
Since the New Forest is famed for its horses, what could be better than hitching a ride on a traditional horse-drawn carriage for a trip around the National Park?
We took a short ride around the picturesque village of Burley with N&J Heavy Horses, who operate tourist rides throughout the summer. It only costs £7 per person for an hour’s tour, plus the horses were so beautiful and clearly well cared for, which made the experience even more delightful.
On top of this, the magnificent shire horses were obviously well known in the village, as a highlight of our tour was riding passed Burley Lower School where all the kids came running up to wave to the horses as we went passed!
7) Hurst Castle:
However, another of the top things to do in the New Forest (that we sadly didn’t have time to visit) is Hurst Castle.
One of the lesser-known historic Royal buildings, Hurst Castle was built in 1544 by Henry VIII as a strong military fortress. Today it still commands the entrance to the Solent (the strait that separates the Isle of Wight from mainland England) and it played an important role in defending the country during both world wars. Something that is very unusual for a castle of its period!
Luckily, I’ll be able to use still needing to tour the castle as an excuse to return to the New Forest… Not that one ever really needs a reason!
Places to visit in the New Forest –
Despite its small size, there are still a few main ‘hubs’ or towns in the National Park. Therefore, while we’ve already established a lot of the top things to do in the New Forest, no list would be complete without mentioning the following villages, which are very much central to any trip to the area.
Named one of ‘Britain’s most beautiful places to live’ the charming village of Brockenhurst is one of the largest towns in the New Forest. It’s home to a handful of superb traditional pubs and lots of cute shops, such as the local Butchers!
In this way, it’s the perfect base for any trip to the New Forest! Especially since you’ll find miles of untouched countryside just a short walk from the town centre.
In addition to this, a lot of New Forest accommodation can be found in and around Brockenhurst… However, on my own trip, we opted to stay in the outskirts of the National Park in the equally as charming Fordingbridge, where prices were cheaper!
Top Tip: When planning my New Forest trip, I noticed a lot of people suggesting that the village of Lyndhurst was THE place to visit/stay. However, for me, it just didn’t have the same curb appeal!
Out of all the places to go in the New Forest, nowhere is as picturesque as the tiny hamlet of Burley!
I briefly mentioned the endearing village above, as its where you’ll find the heavy horse wagon rides! However, it’s worth visiting in its own right… Emerging right out of the heart of the forest, Burely is just so peaceful and pristine that it really encompasses all the best things about the New Forest!
The final of my top New Forest places to visit is the colourful costal town of Lymington.
We stopped off at this ancient seaport on the way back from the beach and loved the feeling it brings of being by the seaside. In fact, the town is still very much a major yachting center, boasting three marinas!
There’s actually quite a lot of things to do in Lymington, meaning you could easily spend a whole day here! Highlights include boat trips around the Solent to the Isle of Wight and historic “Roman Seawater Baths” (which were actually built in 1833).
However, we simply explored the town’s classic Georgian High Street! There are lots of cobbled side streets to discover, and some lead down to the pretty main quay area, which offers relaxing marina views.
We also enjoyed lunch at the kings head pub, which turned out to be the perfect place to end our trip to the New Forest!
These top 10 things to do in the New Forest, are definitely highlights of the National Park. Therefore, visiting or experiencing even one or two of them will make any trip to the area memorable!
I have to say that the New Forest England, exceeded my expectations! It may be small but the charm and beautiful views more than makes up for this fact.