The New Forest
I’m no cowgirl, but there’s a definite thrill in riding a steed past a herd of wild ponies cropping grass. Concho, the piebald I was steering across a corner of the New Forest, seemed unimpressed as we clopped past.
But then, the equine locals here are used to taking the landscape in their stride.
The New Forest, spanning Hampshire, Wiltshire and a bit of Dorset, is as well known for its ponies as it is with, well, not really being a forest at all.
William the Conqueror designated this area of wild heath, pasture and trees a royal forest for deer hunting in 1079. Today, some 3,000 ponies plus other livestock still roam the vast open spaces of this National Park – animals owned by commoners, New Forest locals exercising ancient grazing rights.
Western trail rides with riding school Burley Villa in New Milton will let you explore in style. If you can sit on a horse you can ride out – these are steady mounts who’ve seen it all before and this gentle riding style is perfect for beginners.
But if you prefer four wheels to four legs, even a casual drive takes you along roads bisecting gloriously untamed wilderness to harbour towns such as Lymington and villages like Brockenhurst, where free-roaming cows dawdle on grass verges and wild pigs run out in front of your car.
Picturesque harbour at Lymington
It’s pretty magical stuff. And never more so than in autumn with the tang of wet earth and leaves in the air and morning and early evening mists turning the grazing ponies into mysterious silhouettes.
To stay here is to catch a hint of what this corner of England must have looked like back in 1079. But the accommodation choices are considerably better and nothing is more than an hour from anything else in the New Forest.
We had opted for Shorefield Country Park in Milford on Sea, a cost-effective, comfy base, where our four-bed chalet also had an outdoor hot tub that was incongruously enjoyable to sit in amid some drizzle.
The park also has good amenities for all ages, from an indoor pool and tennis courts to an Elemis spa – plus it’s a short walk to the beach, from where you can see the Isle of Wight’s Needles.
But it’s the forest that really calls and there are many ways to explore apart from saddling up. It’s criss-crossed with walking trails and cycle paths.
My husband Drew found horsepower more to his liking on offer at the area’s two petrolhead museums, the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu and the Sammy Miller Motorcycle Museum. Beaulieu is definitely the one for those who like cars but couldn’t identify a chrome tipped exhaust at 20 paces.
The real Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is here; so are iconic orange Outspan car and World Land Speed Record breaker, Bluebird, among others – all parked in a large building in the leafy grounds of Beaulieu Estate.
Sammy Miller with a 1924 Grindlay Peerless
For serious enthusiasts though, Sammy Miller leads the way with four halls of lovingly restored classic motorcycles, from vintage to racing, including the Grindlay Peerless. It’s staffed by bike buffs with great stories.
One volunteer showing us round stopped to admire a shiny Brough Superior, bike of choice for T E Lawrence, otherwise known as Lawrence of Arabia. “Mr Lawrence took me out on one of these in 1934 when I was nine,” he mused, fondly. Crucially, the museum also has a café with excellent quiche and cake to which I retreated after admiring the spark plug collection (memorabilia also includes displays of everything from manuals to goggles).
Drew, however, was lost in motorcycle bliss for two hours, although even he was flummoxed in the end when someone asked him what he thought about desmodromic valves.
With the limits of his motorbike knowledge tested, and mine exhausted, we needed a drink – something with a hint of the fruits of this particular forest at Setley Ridge Vineyard, where owner Paul makes wines from his own vines and offers tours and tasting.
His wines are part of the New Forest Marque, a stamp of authenticity – and the terrain is definitely in the drinking here.
The crisp, yet earthy, dry white paired perfectly with the scent of mossy, gorse-filled heathland. We clinked our glasses to the New Forest, breathed deeply and drank in the end of a perfect weekend.
GETTING AROUND Hire bikes from Forest Leisure Cycling in Burley. Day’s rental from £17.50 adults, £8 children (4-7 years). forestleisurecycling.co.uk, 01425 403584
GRAPE TIME There are vineyard tours at Setley Ridge in Brockenhurst most days for £6pp (minimum six people). setleyridge.co.uk
RIDE YOUR PONY Burley Villa School of Riding in New Milton offers various sessions, including a two-hour Western Trail ride (£65). burleyvilla.co.uk, 01425 610278
MOTOR MANIA Tickets to the National Motor Museum in Beaulieu cost from £19 for adults. beaulieu.co.uk Entrance to the Sammy Miller Motorcycle Museum is £7.50 for adults. sammymiller.co.uk
WHERE TO STAY Shorefield Holidays offers a 10 per cent discount on October half-term stays. Three nights’ self-catering, in a superior two-bedroom hot tub lodge is from £709 (quote HAL 10).