There’s nowhere else in southern England that offers so much wide-open space packed with family-friendly activities, accessible wildlife and local colour, allowing for outdoorsy family holidays that are hard to beat.
A National Park since 2005, the name ‘New Forest’ is a rather dramatic misnomer on two counts: its 520km2 are in fact largely heathery heathland, mixed with stands of ancient trees, creeks and coastline, while foundation by William the Conqueror 900 years ago hardly qualifies it as modern…
The New Forest covers south-west Hampshire, extending into south-east Wiltshire. Strolling through places such as Buckler’s Hard or Lymington, kids will think they’ve stepped back two centuries. Take them into the heart of the Forest itself and they’ll run free in a landscape that’s all but timeless.
Things to do with kids in the New Forest
Explore the Forest’s footpaths and traffic-free tracks. Walking is good but cycling is better – the largely flat terrain has more than 160km of way-marked routes. From Brockenhurst, the giant redwoods of the Rhinefield Ornamental Drive make a great objective; along the way, kids can keep their eyes peeled for buzzards and the strange carnivorous sundew plants found in boggy areas. If they’re really lucky, they may even catch sight of one the Forest’s five species of deer, although the best chance for this is to visit the Bolderwood Fallow Deer Viewing Platform, where wild deer are fed most afternoons.
Clock the famous New Forest ponies, said to be descended from horses brought over on the Spanish Armada, which roam free everywhere, including in the villages. Even if your kids have never been on a horse before, this is a fabulous place to give riding a try: centres such as the Forest Park Riding Stables and Burley Villa School of Riding cater for all standards, from total beginners, and make children very welcome (there’s a minimum age of seven for forest hacks).
Visit Lyndhurst, unofficial ‘capital’ of the New Forest and home to the New Forest Visitor Centre and its attached museum, with lots of hands-on exhibits and the chance to learn about such New Forest esoterica as rights of pannage (acorn-foraging for pigs) and marl (clay-digging). In the churchyard nearby, older children might enjoy hunting out the tomb of Mrs Reginald Hargreaves (better-known as Alice… ‘in Wonderland’).
Head a few miles further from the main road, to the large village of Brockenhurst, which feels positively hemmed in by the surrounding heaths and woodland, with cows coming to drink at the ford on the main street and cattle-grids all over the place to guard against hungry ponies. If two graves in a day doesn’t sound overly-morbid, that of ‘Brusher’ Mills in the village cemetery exerts a peculiar fascination for children of all ages, depicting the bearded Mills clutching a fistful of writhing serpents (Mills was the New Forest’s own resident snake-catcher, trapping thousands of the creatures and even sending some to London Zoo as food; less successfully, he also hawked bottles of baked adder dripping for use as skin liniment).
Venture down to the coast, where Lymington offers cobbled streets, street cafés and bobbing boats, as well as the prettiest approach to the Isle of Wight. Further east, the winding inlet of Beaulieu River splits the New Forest’s low-lying shoreline in two, with the ludicrously bucolic hamlet of Buckler’s Hard (with an entry fee) and river-boat trips on the west bank and, on the east, the world-famous Exbury Gardens. Young children love Exbury’s miniature steam railway and may even be persuaded to attempt some of the 32km of exotically landscaped garden pathways (look out for the Burmese temple bell taken from Rangoon).
Carry on to the head of the river, where Beaulieu itself is home to a so-so stately home and the exceptional National Motor Museum, chock-full of record-breakers and automotive oddities, and reached by monorail.
Dotted elsewhere around the Forest are plenty of other engaging attractions for family holidays with children in need of some structured entertainment (or an escape from bad weather). Longdown Activity Farm has barnloads of cute baby animals to feed and cuddle, while the inmates at Liberty’s Raptor & Reptile Centre are best admired behind wire or glass. A third animal attraction, the New Forest Wildlife Park, concentrates on more local fauna and does an excellent job of mixing zoo-like exhibits with winding woodland trails that give a real taste of the Forest round about. If all that sounds just a teeny bit worthy, Paultons Park is a gentle junior theme-park best suited to primary-school kids and younger children (see our feature on its Peppa Pig World).
If the New Forest has one Achilles Heel, it’s a relative dearth of child-friendly eating places filling the gap between functional pit-stop and two hours of ‘best behaviour or else!’. Most abundant are tearooms, which generally do light lunches and sometimes dinners as well: in Brockenhurst and Lyndhurst respectively, The Buttery at the Brock and Bruin and The Greenwood Tree are typical (and listen up, bedraggled campers – both do breakfasts as well!).
Further into the forest, The Station House at Holmsley and Forest Tea House at Burley are more rural and boast gardens. Over at Exbury, Mr Eddy’s is well-known and enjoyable, with a large outdoor patio.
Pubs are a good alternative for family holidays: The Hare and Hounds at Sway is very family-friendly, with a play area, garden and children’s menu, while The Mayflower in Lymington is chicly modern, with a play area and absorbing views over the river, marinas and sea. The Vanilla Pod Café is another good Lymington option – very metropolitan, but forgiving and flexible too (the owners have young children).
For a something a bit special, the restaurant at the Master Builder’s House Hotel at Buckler’s Hard has a great location, or Blaireau’s Bistro (that’s ‘Badger’s’ to you and me) has unbeatable food; both are child-tolerant, but dining will very definitely be the adults’ treat. For an enticing combination of food, patio and the Italian zest for families, Lyndhurst’s La Pergola Restaurant and Pizzeria may be a more pleasant (and modestly priced) bet all round.
New Forest ponies
When to go to the New Forest
The New Forest is at its most dramatic from late summer to autumn, as the heath turns purple from blooming heather then the trees light up with autumn foliage. Winter is inevitably colder, but unlike upland areas, the weather here seldom gets truly wild.
Spring has bluebells and butterflies, while summer sees the largest but also the widest range of activities when it comes to family holidays, plus child-friendly warmth and sunshine – perfect for encouraging long days spent healthily outside.
So in short, there’s really no bad time to come.
Unpretentious, the New Forest is a great spot for budget family holidays, especially if you combine cycling and camping to keep accommodation and travel costs down.
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