Gareth Huw Davies

Travel Features

Ancient days in the New Forest, England’s medieval mosaic landscape

Pony power: how grazing keeps a forest in 1000 year-old shape

I’ve republished my travel in Britain e-book Awaydays in Britain – Spoilt for Choice [Kindle Edition].

Follow this link:

This book arose from my travels around the UK over the past 10 years,  to gather information for a series I write for the Mail on Sunday.

Though I enjoy foreign travel,  there is something peculiarly appealing about the short break on home soil. You don’t need to queue through immigration to visit a place that can be singularly different from your home town, city or village.

I’ve had deeply enjoyable days away in places that are no more than an hour’s drive from home.

The articles here are meant to help you choose a short visit – it could be a day trip, or the classic Friday afternoon to Sunday afternoon weekend – to a selection of towns and cities that I’ve written about.

I hope, too, that visitors from overseas will find much here to guide them through Britain, particularly if they are looking for options beyond the well-known destinations.

Although the articles are based on pieces of mine published in the Mail on Sunday, they have been revised and updated, and are drawn from my own research in each of the locations, augmented with further Internet research.

I include the section on the New Forest as a taster (below). I do hope you will consider downloading the book, for a mere $0.99.



At the foot of busy, bustling southern England is a largely intact medieval mosaic of a landscape. It became Britain’s smallest national park in 2006. I found the New Forest not very different from how it was when William the Conqueror set it up as his hunting haunt – if you get away from the roads, cars and houses. My list of things not to miss includes a 900 year old crime scene, the town where Alice (of Wonderland fame) settled down, free range grazing pigs, and the yard where they built the boats for Nelson’s navy.


Green tour


This unique and majestic tract of ancient trees and stately open spaces (lawns), mixed up with fragile, heather-covered heaths, threaded with tinkling streams, was declared England’s smallest national park in 2006. We, like nine visitors out of 10, arrived by car. You’re free to drive around, and stop at set car parks. But there are greener alternatives: for one, you might travel by train to one of the four stations – Ashurst, Beaulieu Road, Brockenhurst and Sway. The forest is within day trip range of London, South.Wales, even the Midlands. Then the easiest and laziest way to see the forest, and promote its tranquillity, is by hop-on, hop-off open-top bus (June to September). The circular meander takes in many key places. Stops include Brockenhurst, with its elegant Georgian buildings; and Lymington, for its cobbled quay, and glimpses to the Solent.


Alice’s wonderland


Whatever became of Alice Liddell, the little girl who inspired Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland? She moved on from mad duchesses and grinning Cheshire cats, and married Reginald Hargreaves in a society wedding in Westminster Abbey in 1880. As Alice Hargreaves, she led a quiet life in Lyndhurst, the unofficial capital of the New Forest, playing down her celebrity. (The house – she sold her original copy of ‘her’ book for its upkeep – is gone.) She died in 1934. Her ashes were buried in the graveyard of St. Michael and All Angels Church, where there is a memorial to her two sons killed in World War I. This imposing Victorian Gothic church, visible from afar in the forest, has a fresco by Lord Frederick Leighton, and fine Pre-Raphaelite windows by William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones.



Graze anatomy


Where else would you see a small herd of cows, in a pose more appropriate to India, browsing free over an unfenced village green, as we did in Beaulieu, close to the National Motor Museum? And the ponies. We would suddenly happen across one, standing still and nonchalant in the middle of the road. (This is why the forest has a blanket 40 mph speed limit.) It was probably trying to work out where next in 200 unrestricted square miles of forest it might head. In September they are joined by pigs, set loose to munch on the acorns on the wide, natural lawns. These wandering animals – there are donkeys too – are a remarkable link with history. They are owned by ‘commoners’, local people who inherit the right to let their animals graze at will. For centuries they have played an essential role in keeping down the scrub, letting the rare forest nature flourish. There’s only one rule: don’t feed them.



Super spin


Simply the best way to enjoy the park’s remarkable landscape and nature is on a bike. Find specialist companies hiring bikes, by the day or longer, on the web site below. They supply all the equipment and route advice you need – and yes, they know where the best pubs and tea rooms are. There are many miles of quiet roads, threading through the forest’s ancient heart. Many have no traffic at all. There are high views as far as the Isle of Wight, shady valleys, and mysterious ways deep into the trees. Stay alert and you may enjoy the wonderful bonus of coming unexpectedly upon the local prestige wildlife. Look (and listen) for Dartford warblers in the gorse, and, most thrilling of all, nightjars at dusk. We once saw an adder, near our picnic spot, under an old oak.



History trail


We connected with the forest’s distant beginnings at the Rufus Stone, near Cadnam. It marks the spot where King William II was killed by an off-range arrow in 1100, not long after his father, the Conqueror, set the forest up as a royal hunting chase. (Or was it murder?) Another link with the past is the ancient Knightwood Oak, near Lyndhurst. The forest’s largest oak is a still thriving example of the ancient art of pollarding, where wood is harvested without killing the tree. We followed forest history right through to World War II. In Lepe Country Park on the Solent, we toured the foundations of the huge units where they built Mulberry Harbours for the Normandy invasion. Download free podcasts, telling these and other stories, from the website below.


Quiet nights


We stayed in the ‘Victorious’, a grand name for a hotel room, but very apt in The Master Builders. Henry Adams and his sons – the hotel is named after them – built this fighting ship for the navy in 1808 (and other vessels that fought with Nelson at Trafalgar) on the placid little inlet we could see from our window. They continue the nautical theme in the foyer, where we walked under a parade of flags on our way to the excellent restaurant. This rambling, comfortable boutique hotel at Buckler’s Hard, down in the bottom SE corner of the forest, is one of Hillbrooke Hotels’ distinctive small stable. You want quiet? Try this. On one side was a grassy road as wide as a Parisian boulevard. On another, the pretty Beaulieu River where globe-circling Francis Chichester tied up. In all other directions, the deep peace of the forest.



Marque of distinction


Locally sourced food is the call of our times. Many shops and restaurants offer it, but it helps when you have a good definition of ‘local’. The New Forest Marque promotes traditional pies, caringly-reared meat, locally caught seafood and New Forest crafts under that banner. Local producers work among the ancient woodlands and in the smallholdings of the New Forest. Marque products come with the guarantee that they are high quality authentic New Forest fare. A purchase means you are also helping to support the traditional country ways in this unique landscape.