Autumn colours at Rhinefield, New Forest, Uk | Girl with a saddle bag travel blog

Exploring the New Forest in autumn: A local’s guide

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Discover the beautiful New Forest in autumn in my local’s guide: from where best to spot wildlife and wild ponies, to great walks and hidden places to enjoy regional produce. As a near neighbour to this extraordinary part of southern England, I’m sharing a few secrets and surprises – but most of all, my absolute favourites.

There’s no better time to visit the New Forest than in autumn.

The trees are turning ochre and gold, mist glitters on the plains early in the morning, the spring-born ponies are donning their first winter coats and pigs graze the fallen crop of acorns strewn across the forest floor.

The New Forest remains fairly unusual in the UK as it’s very much a working forest, where some locals still make a living from the landscape’s natural abundances. It’s apparent in the herds of pigs, ponies and cattle you can hardly miss at this time of year. And if you know what you’re looking for, like the locals do, the early autumn can be a wonderful time to forage fruit, berries and nuts in this National Park.

There’s another reason I love the New Forest in autumn. It’s quieter. There’s still plenty of people around (if you know where to look), walking and running and riding and cycling – but the tourist traffic is largely gone. It’s easier to find peaceful spots.

I’ve variously lived in, worked in and been a near neighbour to the New Forest over the years. But wherever I am in life I try to make time for the forest when October and November roll around. There’s something magical about this semi-wild landscape on the cusp of winter.

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About the New Forest

Almost at the centre of the south coast of England lies the New Forest. Whilst it’s a National Park, it isn’t strictly a forest – well not all of it. It’s a patchwork landscape of ancient woodlands, forestry plantations, wide open plains, heaths and running rivers that sprawl across the west of Hampshire. It’s an environment that’s been uniquely shaped by people over thousands of years, taming it to take advantage of it’s plentiful natural resources.

The past

You might wonder why it’s called the ‘new’ forest, given it’s been here since the last ice age. (You might now be starting to realise I spent three years as an undergraduate studying this patch of England). During the Norman period – some 900 odd years ago – it was claimed as a royal hunting ground by William the Conqueror. And with these boundaries of the forest roughly plotted out, it took it’s ‘new’ name. It’s stuck ever since.

The present

Over the years, there have always been forested parts of this landscape. Today it’s still sustainability harvested, with careful timber cutting helping to keep the canopy open to maintain the natural diversity of the woodland. It’s also an important part of keeping some of the ancient forest traditions alive. It’s why you’ll see cattle and ponies grazing freely all year round, owned by locals or ‘commoners’. Commoners have rights to graze small numbers of animals in certain parts of the forest, collect firewood or even cut peat – as they have done for hundreds of years. The right of pannage in particular allows pigs to graze the forest for a few short months each autumn. In fact, living in an older house in the forest can sometimes entitle you to commoner’s rights specific to your home.

All of these activities take place under the watchful eye of the Verderer’s Court and a team of ‘Agisters’, an centuries-old organisation of individuals who look after the collective care of the forest.

The forest is full of wild places to explore – but also home to smart villages, small towns and even a few beautiful pebble beaches along it’s southern fringes. It’s a place that constantly surprises, even once you think you know it inside out.

Things to do in the New Forest in autumn

It’s all about getting out on two feet – or two wheels.

Now is a fantastic time to walk. And as the roads are a little quieter than in mid-summer, it’s also a great time to get your bike out. If you don’t have your own, you can find hire shops in Brockenhurst – ideal if you’re heading here by train but want to explore further afield.

There are a few spots in the forest that shine brightest in the autumn. Here are my favourites;

For the best wildlife spotting

You can’t beat an autumn walk at Fritham. This sweeping plain towards the north of the forest is a good place to find ponies and donkeys throughout the year. But in the autumn it’s one of the best places to spot the majestic deer that call the forest home. This is the rutting season, when stags fight for supremacy. If you visit when it’s quiet you just might be able to hear their bellowing calls or catch a glimpse through the trees.

There are some beautiful walks through the woodland here. Seek out some of the hides high up in the trees if you’re keen to spot deer. Or simply follow the main gravel trail that runs from the Royal Oak pub for an out-and-back route with panoramic views.

For the best foliage

Head to Boldrewood. This area of ornamental woodland (and ornamental drive) is particular spectacular once the leaves start to turn. As well as finding plenty of trees native to the New Forest, you’ll find lots more unusual species that you wouldn’t expect. It’s a rainbow of colours come late October and early November, and a good starting point for many walks.

This is a great spot to cycle through – easy to each from Brockenhurst, with relatively little traffic.

For a sense of contrast

Tread some of the many paths around Rhinefield and Wilverley enclosures. Here you’ll find a patchwork of woodland and open plain, ancient forest and newer plantation. For a real sense of the diversity of this National Park, you won’t find many better – or more tranquil – spots.

If you want to explore the forest by off-road bike, start in Brockenhurst and head in this direction. Meander across the plain and then onto the Castleman’s Corkscrew – a disused railway line turned bridleway and cycle path. There’s a myriad different ways to return to your starting point, depending on how far you want to ride, and how many villages you want to adventure into.

For fun with the family

Everyone will love Moors Valley Country Park. On the northern edge of the New Forest, close to the town of Ringwood, is this gem of a managed woodland. It’s packed with interesting things to do, including a vast wooden play trail and tree-top trail that’ll appeal to kids of all ages. You’ll need to pay to park, but once you’ve done so all the activities are free. Enjoy during half term and on remaining dry weekends – the play trails are open all year round but it’s rather less muddy now than in mid-winter.

How to find the best New Forest walking routes

I usually use my trusty Ordnance Survey map of the New Forest (Explorer OL 22) to plan our walks. We pick a location in the Forest and use the map to easily locate the main trails – or smaller footpaths if we want to go off-piste. You’ll find plenty of well-maintained gravel paths in the Forest and good signposting to help out around villages like Lyndhurst and Brockenhurst. Download the OS MapFinder App for a digital copy, or hop over to Amazon to pick up paper copies;

More recently, I’ve downloaded the New Forest National Parks Authority walking app and it’s brilliant. If you’re not a regular visitor to the Foret, the 27 detailed routes should be more than enough to get you started. We’ve found some super routes we wouldn’t otherwise have known about, even as locals.

Download it for Android here or Apple here for free.

If long-distance walks appeal, check out my guide to 5 long-distance walks in Hampshire. Some of these traverse the Forest and provide a little inspiration.

Eating in the New Forest

There’s an abundance of places to eat in this part of the world. But the very best are the one’s that recognise the bounty of the forest around them and serve up great local produce.

Good food seems to come hand in hand with good atmosphere round here, reassuringly, so the places I recommend aren’t just great spots to grab a bite to eat – they’re a forest experience in themselves. For the ultimate day out in the New Forest in autumn, head to the pub post-walk for some hearty local grub.

For a traditional post-walk ploughmans

The Royal Oak, Fritham

I’ve been coming to this pub all my life, or so it feels. On the edge of the plain at Fritham, it’s a tiny, old-fashioned place that it’s near impossible to find a seat in within minutes of it’s doors opening. With low oak-beamed ceilings, a roaring fire most weekends and local ales on hand pump it’s everything you’d want at this time of year.

The menu is mostly ploughman’s lunches (a platter of meats and or cheeses, plus pickles, salads and bread for the uninitiated). And it’s as good a ploughman’s as you’ll find anywhere – local cheeses and meats, plus plenty of home baking – perfect with a pint after a long walk in your wellies. Dogs very much welcome.

Check out The Royal Oak’s website here.

For a bowl of something hot and steaming

The Turfcutters Arms, East Boldre

This is the sort of pub that you’d only know exists if you’ve happened to stumbled across it or have been introduced to it by those in the know (thank you friends!). It’s another old-fashioned pub that serves up pub classics and steaming bowls of deliciousness, like game casserole, at this time of year. More roaring fires, and a huge garden for a bit of alfresco eating if you want to make the most of the last few warm weekends of the year.

Check out The Turfcutters Arms website here.

For the best Sunday Roast in the forest

The Oak Inn, Bank

If colder days and falling leaves leave you craving A Great British Sunday Roast, I’ve never found a better one in the forest than at the Oak. Homemade yorkshire puds, local meat, endless veg (no really, and all of it cooked to perfection) – it’s a good as it gets. A proper roast dinner cooked with love and respect for the ingredients. This pub is the real deal, just be sure to book in advance if you want to be sure of getting a table.

Check out The Oak Inn’s website here.

For an indulgent treat

The Pig, Brockenhurst

This boutique hotel and restaurant is only a stone’s throw from the small town of Brockenhurst, but feels a million miles from the traditional tea rooms that line the High Street.

The whimsical greenhouse restaurant might be upmarket, but it’s also laid-back, surprisingly fun and delightfully charming – something you might not expect from one of the most refined eateries in the forest. The menu is a celebration of the restaurant’s surroundings with foraged, homegrown and locally-produced ingredients taking centre stage. They also do a darned good pud.

Check out The Pig in the Forest’s website here.

Getting to the New Forest

It’s easy to reach the New Forest by road or rail.

London is just over an hour and a half away, and it’s a great day trip destination. Alternatively, if you want to stay longer you’ll have the best pick of the hotels, guesthouses and cosy rentals in the forest at this time of year. Either head down by train and make Brockenhurst your base (you can walk or cycle in many directions from here) – or come by car and have complete freedom to explore.

Don’t forget that the forest is also flanked by two small, but perfectly formed, regional airports: Southampton and Bournemouth. They’re easy options if you’re travelling from further afield. Either book a rental car for your arrival, or fly to Southampton and jump straight onto a train at the airport that’ll whisk you into the New Forest in half an hour.

To the New Forest by car

If you’re travelling from elsewhere in the UK, you’ll likely reach the forest via the M3 and then M27 motorways. The M27 take you right to the eastern fringes of the New Forest, then hop onto a A road to take you to your final destination.

To the New Forest by train

There’s several railway stations in the New Forest; Ashurst New Forest, Brockenhurst and Sway. They’re all served by direct trains from London Waterloo, with fast services stopping regularly at Brockenhurst. This station is your best bet – not only does it land you in the heart of the forest, it’s a journey of only an hour and a half on faster trains.

Autumn is a time of year that tempts you inside, calls you to stay home rather than stay out exploring.

But now’s the time to throw caution to the wind. There are plenty of places at their very best at this time of year – and the New Forest in autumn is one of them.

Come and discover the joys of the changing seasons in ancient woodland, then curl up with scrumptious seasonal delights.

I love it, and think you might too.

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Alice
girlwithasaddlebag@gmail.com
29 Comments
  • Marguerite
    Posted at 10:18h, 27 September Reply

    I relaxed just by reading about this lovely forest πŸ™‚ Living in Germany, I feel very fortunate to have many forests so close to home, and the pictures remind me a little bit of the Wuhlheide Forest close to my house (although ‘my forest’ is much smaller!) Enjoy the fall!

    • Alice
      Posted at 09:40h, 29 September Reply

      Thank you Marguerite. I would absolutely love to return to Germany at this time of year, I visited Bavaria at this time a few years ago and it was absolutely beautiful. I hope you have a super time enjoying the best of this season where you are.

  • RunawayBrit
    Posted at 08:45h, 27 September Reply

    I left the UK in 2007, and I only ever return in the summer and at Christmas, so I have missed 14 British Autumns. Your post fills me with a nostalgia that I can’t even describe. Sure, we have Autumn in Sweden but it is short. The leaves are only turning golden now, but with snow falling in the north already, winter is never far behind autumn here. I spent a few childhood holidays in the New Forest, so thank you for the trip down Memory Lane!

    • Alice
      Posted at 09:41h, 29 September Reply

      I had the joy of visiting Sweden at this time a few years ago and it was stunning! But I am very lucky that the autumn colour lasts a long time here. The Forest is a magical place and I’m glad you’ve had the chance to visit before – and do hope you get to do so again in the future.

  • MacKenzie
    Posted at 23:02h, 26 September Reply

    It looks so lovely there! I’m in the US, so with the pandemic I won’t be able to see it in the autumn – but one day I’d love to!

    • Alice
      Posted at 08:03h, 27 September Reply

      I do hope you’re able to make it here one day, I’m sure you’d love it!

  • Silly Little Kiwi Blog | Tara
    Posted at 16:55h, 26 September Reply

    New Forest looks amazing! We’ll have to make it our next stop!

    • Alice
      Posted at 17:02h, 26 September Reply

      Go for it! It’s a great part of the country, loads to see and do at any time of the year.

  • Christine
    Posted at 15:47h, 26 September Reply

    I absolutely love the way you describe everything! I feel like I’m
    Reading a book. I haven’t been to the UK but you sure are making me miss a good autumn πŸ™‚

    • Alice
      Posted at 16:21h, 26 September Reply

      Thank you Christine for such kind words! It is easy to write about places you really love πŸ™‚ Autumn can be a great time to visit the UK – it is a little quieter and there are fantastic spots – like the New Forest – to catch autumn foliage.

  • Hazel
    Posted at 13:37h, 26 September Reply

    Yes, there’s something special about Autumn and the way it turns the green foliage into a pattern of colour. This is a very comprehensive post on the New Forest. Love the history info as well.

    • Alice
      Posted at 16:20h, 26 September Reply

      Thanks so much Hazel. One of the real joys of living near the Forest is that you can keep exploring and learning more about this fascinating place. There is a comprehensive little museum in Lyndhurst if you are ever down here and interested in finding out more about the landscape and history.

  • Katy
    Posted at 13:16h, 26 September Reply

    This looks like such a beautiful place and your photos are amazing! I’d love to visit after covid

    • Alice
      Posted at 16:18h, 26 September Reply

      Thanks so much Katy, I hope you have the chance to visit the New Forest one day.

  • Helena
    Posted at 12:45h, 26 September Reply

    Love the New Forest and the walking trails there!! And now I’m craving a Sunday roast! Would love to give biking a try there too

    • Alice
      Posted at 16:18h, 26 September Reply

      Great to hear you’re a fan of this beautiful National Park! I’d highly recommend it for cycling. I’m a road biker and love being able to jump from one village to the next, but if you prefer off-road there are a huge number of well-surfaced gravel trails that help you to explore some of the best parts of the Forest πŸ™‚

  • Lucy
    Posted at 09:45h, 26 September Reply

    So many awesome ideas! I’m planning my autumn trip already

    • Alice
      Posted at 16:16h, 26 September Reply

      Thanks so much Lucy, I hope you make it down here when the colours are at their best.

  • sam
    Posted at 08:46h, 26 September Reply

    Oooo it looks so pretty here, next time I’m back in the UK I will try and visit πŸ™‚

  • Jo Jackson
    Posted at 06:58h, 02 December Reply

    What a fabulous post. We have driven past so many times but never stayed there. Something we intend to rectify.

    • Alice
      Posted at 16:36h, 02 December Reply

      I’m sure you’ll love it Jo – hope you have a chance to visit soon.

  • Emma Jane
    Posted at 23:56h, 24 November Reply

    I visited the New Forest in January this year and I felt like I’d stumbled into a fairytale. Thank you for helping me reminisce with your beautiful photos. I can’t wait to visit again.

    • Alice
      Posted at 20:35h, 27 November Reply

      That’s lovely to hear Emma Jane. It is a beautiful place – and as someone who loves to travel I need to remind myself every now and then that I am very lucky to live so close by. Hope you have the chance to visit again soon.

  • Helen
    Posted at 21:57h, 24 November Reply

    Such gorgeous photos and you write beautifully about the area. Seeing the deer on the plain must be magical. Autumn definitely sounds like the best time to visit!

    • Alice
      Posted at 20:36h, 27 November Reply

      Thank you Helen. Autumn really is a special time in the Forest, but it takes a lot of luck to see the deer! I’ve not spotted any this year, but I am never bored of the pigs, ponies and cattle.

  • Dalal
    Posted at 19:35h, 24 November Reply

    This looks like a fairytale forest <3 I've never seen such a detailed guide, loved reading about the flora!

    • Alice
      Posted at 21:23h, 27 November Reply

      It is Dalal! There is some wonderfully diverse flora and fauna in the New Forest – that varies so much with the seasons. It’s pretty beautiful (and bountiful) in the spring too.

  • Dana Berez
    Posted at 14:10h, 24 November Reply

    This looks so relaxing! This is the perfect place to get away. Thanks for sharing- adding it to my bucket list!

    • Alice
      Posted at 21:21h, 27 November Reply

      I hope you’re able to visit one day – I’m sure you’ll love it! It’s a pretty special corner of England.

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