More than meets the eye

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More than meets the eye

New Forest

Forest walk

There's much more to the New Forest than just trees and ponies. Gillian Thornton discovered heathland and heather, deer, D-Day and donkeys…

Set off to explore the New Forest on foot and you're almost guaranteed a good view of its famous four-legged creatures. Around 5,000 wild ponies roam Britain's smallest National Park and they don't seem particularly camera shy. But book a walk with an expert guide and you'll see a whole lot more besides.

In just a couple of hours, our guides Sarah and Mark had given us an inside view of this unique area. We'd learnt about Commoners' grazing rights and heather regeneration, native flowers and timber extraction. We'd watched colonies of wood ants scurrying across the forest floor, spotted fallow deer perfectly camouflaged amongst the trees, and now – my absolute favourite – seen the turquoise flash of a kingfisher flying above a forest stream. Forest magic at its very best.

Britain's smallest National Park, the New Forest lies tucked in the angle between Southampton Water in the east and the Solent to the south. Rent a cottage in the forest and you also have easy access to Southampton and Salisbury, Bournemouth and the Isle of Wight, opening up a wide variety of experiences from one holiday base.

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Modern visitors have William the Conqueror to thank for the New Forest we enjoy today, an area composed not just of trees, but of large areas of heather-covered heathland dotted with bogs and ponds. Deer roamed the land in large numbers in Norman times and whatever your view on the current ban on hunting with dogs, it was William's passion for the chase that established the area as his 'new hunting forest' in 1079.

The ancient system established by William to protect and manage the woodlands and wilderness heaths is still in place today through the efforts of Verderers, Agisters and Commoners – literally the judges, stockmen and land users of the forest. Deer still roam freely alongside ponies, cattle and some 500 donkeys, but numbers are carefully monitored and habitats protected to cater for the largest number of species, including us.

Most people who book a stay in the New Forest are attracted by the great outdoors. This is a landscape that can be enjoyed at close quarters by all ages and fitness abilities, on foot, by bike, or on horseback, independently or as part of a group. Visit www.thenewforest.co.uk before you travel for details of activity centres and riding stables, or pick up the free guide Discover the New Forest from any Visitor Information Centre.

We found the New Forest Centre in Lyndhurst an excellent start to our short break in the eastern forest. As well as providing a wealth of leaflets and personal advice, the Centre includes an extensive shop, a small art gallery for temporary exhibitions, and an interactive museum with family-friendly activities for a small charge.

Known as the 'capital' of the New Forest since Norman times, Lyndhurst is also worth a stopover for its antique shops and for the imposing pre-Raphaelite church of St Michael and All Angels. Standing proud above the village, this ornate red-brick church must have been the last word in Victorian Gothic style with its polished stone and coloured marble, fancy arches and flamboyant windows.

Younger visitors will enjoy the story of Alice Liddell – nee Hargreaves - related on information panels in the nave. The inspiration for Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, Alice lived in the town for many years with her husband and is buried in the churchyard in a simple family grave. Also in the churchyard is another memorial sure to fire the imagination – that of John Frederick Breton who had three horses shot dead from under him at the Battle of Waterloo and miraculously survived to tell the tale with nothing more than bruises!

Brockenhurst, to the south of Lyndhurst, is one of the largest villages in the Forest, beloved of calendar photographers thanks to its water splash where wild ponies are an almost permanent fixture. Carry on south to the coast and you soon come to Lymington, technically outside the boundaries of the National Park, but still an integral part of Forest.

An ancient seaport with a rich maritime history, 21st century Lymington boasts a Royal Yacht Club, a Sailing Club, and a busy marina opening onto the Solent. Ferries take just 35 minutes to cross from here to Yarmouth, making the Isle of Wight a popular day out for Forest dwellers.

We loved the atmosphere around The Quay beside the Lymington river, and the quaint coloured houses on Quay Hill, not to mention the delicious cakes at Sophie's Tea Shop – just the thing to fortify shoppers before an assault on the retail temptations of the attractive Georgian High Street.

East of Lymington lies the Beaulieu River, one of the world's few privately-owned rivers, owned and managed by Lord Montagu. Short but spectacularly meandering, the river passes his home at Palace House, once the site of an immense Cistercian Abbey, before winding through his estate to the Solent.

With its red brick facades, gabled windows and tempting small shops, Beaulieu's picturesque high street is a popular stopover for people visiting the world famous Beaulieu Motor Museum. And not just for people either. Emerging from the village shop, I found three shaggy donkeys heading down the pavement towards me, foraging for titbits in the gutters and stopping to gaze wistfully through the window of the hand-made chocolate shop.

This hairy trio was a graphic illustration – if one were needed – of why it's important to keep your eyes open and your speed down in the Forest. I'm certainly not used to donkeys wandering out between parked cars on my local high street.

Foodies might want to take a night off from self-catering and treat themselves to dinner at the delightful Montagu Arms in Beaulieu with its elegant dining room, cosy lounges and Michelin-starred fare. For a more budget option, Monty's Bar next door - but owned by the hotel – served up the most perfect beer-battered fish and crispy chips I've ever tasted in the traditional surroundings of an oak-panelled pub lounge. This year Monty's is part of a Great Country Pub campaign by Tourism South East to promote traditional pubs – visit the dedicated website for more ideas.

Work your way through the crowd of donkeys and half way down Beaulieu's short High Street, the New Forest Activities booking centre organises archery instruction, canoe and kayak trips, and accompanied walks. Our guides Sarah and Mark offer a range of themed walks throughout the year with subjects ranging from general nature walks to specialised autumn fungi forays. Prices depend on group size and requirements, and kingfishers come free but cannot be guaranteed!

Fired up by our forest ramble, we booked bikes too - £18 per day or £10 for half a day. A further £2 will buy you the official cycle map showing approved routes all over the forest, both on and off road. For a gentle round trip of around 5 miles, take the trail beside the Beaulieu river to Buckler's Hard, originally called Montagu Town and still part of the Montagu estate. Ships for Nelson's fleet at Trafalgar were built here, including his favourite HMS Agamemnon, and a visit today is like stepping back into another age.

We found lots to learn in the varied displays of the redesigned Maritime Museum which include 18th century shipbuilding, the record-breaking solo voyage of Sir Francis Chichester, and the role played by the village in the D-Day landings. Stroll the grassy 'street' between the twin rows of red brick cottages, visit a shipbuilder's cottage, and see the tiny wood-panelled chapel.

Across the river from Buckler's Hard, Exbury Gardens are a riot of colour from the first spring camellias and azaleas to the maples and dogwoods of autumn, whilst Lepe Country Park facing the Isle of Wight showcases maritime history of a different kind. In June 1944, 6,000 troops left this beach for Normandy as part of Operation Overlord, and with them, huge sections of the floating Mulberry Harbours, built in the Beaulieu estuary. Today, the jetties and reinforcements are still clearly visible along the beach.

Many houses on the Beaulieu estate acted as training centres for agents recruited by the Special Operations Executive during World War II, and their secret work is commemorated in a small but fascinating exhibition in the grounds of the Beaulieu Motor Museum, which this year celebrates its 40th anniversary.

The museum began with five vintage cars displayed in the entrance to Palace House and has grown into a museum that really does have something for everybody. You don't need to be a petrol head to enjoy the gleaming chassis and classic lines of exhibits as varied as the Model T Ford and Formula 1 racing cars, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Donald Campbell's Bluebird. Top Gear fans can see the original vehicles – or what's left of them – used in the programme's most ambitious stunts, and enjoy an insight into the team at work in the 'Enormodome' mock studio.

Beaulieu is also celebrating the 50th anniversary this year of the James Bond franchise with a unique exhibition of 50 vehicles from 21 films, including dirt bikes and a tuk tuk taxi, a Rolls Royce Silver Cloud and Bond's famous Aston Martin DB5. All accompanied by atmospheric film clips of the vehicles in action.

And that's not all. Away from the main motor hall, we loved the quiet calm of the ruined Cistercian abbey, the family feel of Palace House, and the beautiful landscaped gardens. In fact visitors to Beaulieu Motor Museum get far more than it says on the tin – just as they do with the New Forest.