26th Dec 2011 9:46am | By Editor
Saddle up and get lost in the New Forest - a wild corner of England. Just make sure you find your way out. Words: Rebecca Kent
I’ve only cycled five miles from my accommodation, snuggled in the bewitching woodland of the New Forest. Yet, just when I think I’ve left London’s customary congestion and sea of brake lights far, far away, I screech to a halt behind what looks suspiciously like congestion and a sea of brake lights.
Oh bother! I’d been giddy at the thought of my impending adventure, leaving the big smoke for a 22-mile cycle route through the woodland and valley bogs. But as the traffic begins to slacken to a crawl, imaginings of dancing with wildlife and wading through ancient foliage bleach out. Could the rest of London have had the same idea?
Thankfully not. I inch to the front of the traffic and find the chaos comes down to a herd of wild ponies gathered on a b-road. There are scores of them, unperturbed, unflinching and, dare I say, obnoxious.
But it’s a captivating sight. In this lost world on England’s south coast, home to the country’s largest remaining tracts of unenclosed pasture land, heathland and forested plains, ponies roam free. They co-exist with locals and visitors alike who come here to explore a sumptuous playground of green, dotted with quaint villages and criss-crossed with cycling and walking trails for the adventurous likes of, well, me.
Leaving traffic nightmares behind, I set off on my mountainbike from Brockenhurst, a charming forest village of thatched cottages, historic pubs and loitering donkeys, and delve into the wood along the ‘old railway route’, a 21-mile track deemed suitable for the ‘slightly more adventurous’.
The path meanders along a winding network of gravel and dirt tracks, and, when I can eventually resist stopping every few metres to pat roaming equines and take photos, the landscape is exciting and diverse. Butterflies flutter bravely about my nose, and tall woods give way to flat sandy trails and knobbled hills, which then open into expanses of bold, green pasture.
After a break (and a beer), I push off through the Deer Fields and Bolderwood Ornamental Drive, home to the Knightwood Oak, said to be the forest’s largest and oldest tree. From here ... well, it is anyone’s guess. Late afternoon has set in and I have well and truly trailed off the map. My butt shifts uncomfortably in my saddle and frustration runs high. The more I try to navigate my way back to Brockenhurst, the more my ‘slightly more adventurous’ 22-mile route becomes a ‘slightly painful, temper-fraying 30-mile punishment’. I am isolated, without a GPS or a soul in sight. Am I in Scotland?
I crank my bike into gear to take on a bumpy hill. To my delight, a young woman on horseback appears at the crest. I beg for directions. I’d beg for a lift, but horseback isn’t exactly a more favourable option.
“Can you go through streams?” she asks. At this point I am so knackered I could probably summon the power to walk on water if it meant getting back. So I reach the water in a cloud of dust, having ripped at backbreaking speed down a stony embankment riven with crevices.
I take a flying leap across the water – or at least I try to. When my bike leaves me and I take a dip, my cursing can be heard echoing though the hills.
Back on route – one route or another, anyway – I end up on a country lane, taking solace in the signs of civilisation. Staring perplexed at a T-junction, an old dear with gardening gloves and a pitchfork appears for help. I hear her life story, the details of her hip replacement, and how long it takes her to clean her dentures in the morning, then she sends me on my way – the right way – labouring with every push of the pedal, into the sanctuary of Brockenhurst.
Eventually, I arrive and like the ponies can roam free – although walking rather awkwardly, I’ll admit.
The serenity: beach huts line the coast
A sprawling attraction, the Beaulieu estate contains a motor museum, a 13th century abbey and palace, and the largest collection of James Bond cars in the world. You can get around it all in an old open-top London bus, or monorail. Tickets cost £19. (beaulieu.co.uk)
Set back from the road and into the forest, The Oak is a true hidden gem, with great seafood to boot. (fullers.co.uk)
You’ll need a car, or strong walking boots, to find The High Corner Inn in Ringwood, but the serenity and pub fare will be worth it. (highcornerinn.co.uk)
Wellies, walking boots, and dogs are welcome at the Drift Inn on Beaulieu Road. (driftinn.co.uk)
Grab some mates and cram into a caravan or cabin at Shorefield Holiday Park, on 100 acres in Milford on Sea. A good base for forest exploration if you can get away from the tennis courts, spa, gym, or bar! Three nights minimum stay from £123. (shorefield.co.uk)
A 17th-century beamed forester’s lodge, The Cottage Lodge in Brockenhurst has a roaring open fire to rest at after an active day. £110pn. (cottagehotel.org)
GETTING THERE: South West trains run services to Brockenhurst from Waterloo. The journey is roughly 1hr 40 mins and tickets cost from £9 one way. (southwesttrains.co.uk)
Bike hire costs £15 per day from Cyclexperience, New Forest Cycle Hire
Downside car park, Brockenhurst train station, SO42 7TW
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