The New Forest: a place where vast stretches of heathland are peppered with wild ponies roaming free, where cars wait patiently for herds of cows to meander across roads in search of a new grazing spot, and where the wildlife is so abundant that you almost expect David Attenborough to pop up and start narrating your day. Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it?
The New Forest is a truly gorgeous part of England to escape from the carnage and chaos of every day city life, and if you’re in need of a countryside refresh, it’s ideal for a weekend break. My boyfriend and I have just returned from two nights in East Boldre, a sweet village that we used as our base to explore Hampshire’s most beautiful district, and were taken with this incredibly underrated national park.
Just to be clear: the New Forest may not be your favourite spot in the world if you’re a go, go, go type of person. The villages surrounding the national park aren’t what I’d describe as sleepy, but they’re certainly not rowdy! However, if the idea of hunkering down in a country pub, cycling through conifer-rich woodland and enjoying a slow and easy pace sounds like your cup of tea, then it’s time to start planning your weekend in Hampshire.
Ready to get started? Here’s what to add to your itinerary for a weekend break to the New Forest.
Drive Through the National Park
The New Forest is known for its pine-forested heathland and wild ponies, so what better activity to add to your itinerary than to simply breathe it all in? Driving through Hampshire’s quaint villages (Beaulieu and Burley are particularly pretty!) and the New Forest National Park itself is a great way to discover hidden pockets of nature that haven’t yet made the guidebooks.
There are ample places to pull up and go for a walk, with lots of roadside trails leading to free car parks. We spent a few hours just driving around and choosing routes at random, which allowed us to avoid the most popular trails and enjoy a bit of serenity.
A note on driving through the New Forest:
The roads through the NF are pretty easy to navigate. They’re often wide enough to allow two-lane traffic and sweeping enough to enjoy the drive, with plenty of road signs directing you towards the main tourist attractions and villages.
However, it’s really important not to get complacent on the roads: horses, cows and donkeys can often be found wandering aimlessly right in the middle of traffic, so you definitely need to take it slow and cover your brakes when coming around corners. This is especially important at night, when deer and foxes take a turn at exploring the country roads.
Explore The National Park By Bike
There’s a lot of national park to explore – and you’re going to want more than your own two feet to do so! With a myriad of gorgeous routes and plenty of gravelled paths perfect for bikes, cycling through the forest is the ideal way to immerse yourself in this enchanting patch of England.
In fact, this is the first thing we did on arrival! We hired bikes from New Forest Cycling, based in Burley, for just £20 per day. The guys working at the shop were really helpful, and helped to adjust the bikes and helmets before we started cycling. Sold? Here’s a link straight to their bike hire page!*
As I’ve mentioned, the New Forest isn’t short on picturesque cycling routes to tackle; no matter where you go, you’ll be surrounded by perfectly unspoilt nature. Nevertheless, I recommend choosing a route that takes you via the Bolderwood Deer Sanctuary, as this is a cute spot to stop and enjoy a picnic.
*It’s worth noting that New Forest Cycling will ask you to bring two forms of photo ID to the hire shop. Why? One is for them to keep until you return with the bikes, and the other is for you to keep with you in case you fancy a quick pint at one of the many country pubs dotted throughout the park!
Visit The SenSpa For A Massage
My boyfriend and I have a running joke that if we’re going away on holiday, we’re confident the rain will come. Every time we plan a weekend break, you can be sure the Met Office will deliver the news that nobody wants to read. Usually, we’ll chuck on a rain jacket, lace up our walking boots and simply get on with it, but this weekend, we opted for a slightly more luxurious approach to the miserable weather: a trip to SenSpa.
The SenSpa, tucked away behind Careys Manor Hotel in Brockenhurst, is a Thai-inspired oasis that’ll refresh and rejuvenate you after hours of roaming through the woods. Although much of the spa is closed due to Covid-19 restrictions (thankfully, it won’t be long until these are lifted!), the majority of treatments are still available to book and enjoy.
If you’re visiting the New Forest with your partner or a friend, I truly recommend SenSpa’s Time For Two package. After a 60-minute full-body massage, the million thoughts buzzing around my head had evaporated, my skin glowed with essential oils, and my shoulders and back were free of the tension I’ve been holding for months.
Wander Up And Down Lepe Beach At Sunset
High-rise buildings and light pollution mean it’s difficult to catch the sunset when you live in a city, so finding a calm spot to watch the sun go down is one of my favourite parts of exploring the UK’s countryside. There’s nothing like feeling the air cool as the colours of the sky take on a life of their own – and where better to do so than the coast?
Hampshire’s Lepe Beach is a stretch of shingles backed by shrubs and trees, with views across to Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight. It’s popular amongst kite surfers, who were the only people brave enough to battle the chill of the ocean when my boyfriend and I arrived late in the evening!
You’ll need to pay to park at Lepe Beach (we paid £2.50 for an hour or so) but it’s worth it for a walk along the shore and breath of fresh, salty air. The sunset looks pretty good, too!
Spot The Needles At Milford-on-Sea
One of my favourite parts of visiting the beach is looking out across the horizon at the surrounding islands and countries – so I was pretty excited to catch a glimpse of the Needles, one of the UK’s most iconic natural landmarks, from the Hampshire coast.
Even if the weather’s a little too gloomy to spot the Needles in all their glory (…kind of), then parking up at the Milford-on-Sea car park (SO41 0PY) and walking along the seafront is pretty special, too. Again, this part of the British coastline is shingly (you won’t find white sand beaches in Hampshire!) so you’ll hear this incredibly soothing sound as the waves hit the shore.
If you’re in the mood for a slightly longer walk, you can meander across from the car park towards Hurst Castle, an artillery fort from the 16th century. We didn’t have time to do this, but if you’re a history buff, you’ll likely want to add a trip to Hurst Castle to your New Forest itinerary.
Enjoy Dinner At a Country Pub
What’s a British staycation without a pub lunch or dinner? The New Forest is heaving with quaint country pubs, and although we couldn’t sit inside (May 17th, we’re waiting for you!) many of them still went above and beyond to create that much-needed pub ambience. I’m talking fairy lights, blankets for your legs, and of course, outdoor speakers.
As a vegan, I was pleasantly surprised with the number of pubs we came across with great plant-based options. I’m often left eating chips while my boyfriend tucks into something a little heartier, but I didn’t have this issue at all in the NF villages we visited. The Moving Mountains burger at The Royal Oak (in Beaulieu) had to be my fave! I also noticed that a lot of pubs had labelled gluten-free options, which is good news for coeliacs and GF eaters.
Alongside The Royal Oak, we also liked The Snakecatcher (this is next door to a sweet, vegan-friendly Italian restaurant, Albero, in Brockenhurst) and The Turfcutter’s Arms, which was in walking distance of our accommodation. I only wish that we didn’t have to enjoy our pints in the rain!
I loved visiting the New Forest – and I hope you do too! Let me know if there’s anything I’ve missed that you’d add to your dream New Forest itinerary.