18 Nov Exploring the New Forest in autumn: A local’s guide
Discover my recommendations for exploring the beautiful New Forest in the autumn: 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 local 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 forest at this time of year. 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.
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.
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.
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 Fritham. This sweeping plain towards the north of the forest is 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 rutting season, when stags fight for supremac. 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.
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 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 year round but it’s rather less muddy now than in mid-winter.
I usually use my trusty Ordnance Survey map of the New Forest (Explorer OL 22) to plan routes. But I’ve just downloaded the new New Forest National Parks Authority walking app and it’s brilliant. If you’re not a regular visitor, the 27 detailed routes should be more than enough to get you started. Even if you’re not new the area, we’ve found some great ideas that are new to us that we’re planning to try.
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 a traditional post-walk ploughmans
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 ploughmans lunches (a platter of meats and or cheeses, plus pickles, salads and bread for the uninitiated). And it’s as good a ploughmans as you’ll find anywhere – local cheeses and meats, plus plenty of homebaking – perfect with a pint after a long walk in your wellies. Dogs very much welcome.
For a bowl of something hot and steaming
This is the sort of pub that you’d only know exists if you’ve happened to stumbled across it (many thanks to the friends who introduced me to the place). 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.
For the best Sunday Roast in the forest
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.
For an indulgent treat
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.
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 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.
Read more: Find my favourite destinations for a Northern European city break in autumn, ideas perfect for a weekend getaway.