SARAH SINGLETON finds plenty to interest and enthrall on her first visit to the New Forest in Hampshire

AS a lover of woodland, I wonder why it has taken me so long to visit the New Forest – but head south from Swindon a mere 50 miles, and it is as though you have entered a new country entirely.

Once Salisbury and the Wiltshire Downs are behind you, the land levels out and the trees close in. No fields, but tracts of woodland, heath and unenclosed pasture, where deer, pigs and horses graze. In winter the trees are bare, revealing their complex forms, and the ground is rust-brown with dead bracken and fallen leaves.

Here you seem to travel not only in space, but in time. This forest has existed, in various forms, since the last ice age. It contains prehistoric round barrows. William the Conqueror proclaimed it a Royal Forest and used it for hunting.

Seeing the unbounded heaths, the scrub, the mature trees, and pools of water and marsh, you would not be surprised to see some medieval peasant emerge with her pigs, or a tribesman of the Jutes with his spear – or perhaps one of those Norman knights, muddy from the chase, still in pursuit of a white hart.

Here the houses are different too – red brick cottages, many with thatched roofs, or timbered, with complex windows, like gingerbread cottages. The place names reflect its Norman heritage – like Beaulieu – or else its Anglo-Saxon past, with all the hursts (meaning ‘wooded hill’), such as Lyndhurst and, in the heart of the forest, Brockenhurst.

We are staying at the Cottage Lodge Hotel in Brockenhurst. This place has ancient roots too, its earliest parts built in the 17th century from ship’s timbers. Appropriately, the forest is inside the cottage as well as outside – the tables in the integral White Tails Restaurant are made by Robert Dyer from a rare black poplar (we are told you can line them up to reconstruct the tree, but do not put this to the test).

Our room, called Standing Hat, contains another Dyer creation – a stunning four-poster bed made from a local beech tree, great weighty pieces of wood all honey coloured and curvaceous. We also have the treat of a wood-burning stove, and the room is dog-friendly, so you can take your dog with you to share the pleasure of walking in the forest.

We have a day to explore, so after a delicious cooked breakfast, our host, hotel owner Christina Simons, takes time to give us lots of useful advice (with a map) about the best way to spend our time to gain an enjoyable overview of the delights the New Forest has to offer.

First off, a warm-up walk along the Tall Trees Trail, a mile and a half clearly marked, under ranks of majestic conifers planted in Victorian times.

Our second stop was Knightwood, reputedly the largest and possibly oldest oak in the New Forest and reckoned to date back some 500 years. Both these places are clearly marked, with car parks and even podcasts to listen to. The Knightwood tree is also wheelchair accessible.

Our next stop is Bolderwood, where we hope to spy some of the forest’s many fallow deer. Unfortunately, on this occasion the deer are nowhere to be seen, but we strike off through the forest away from the marked trails and enjoy an hour’s walk with the place seemingly to ourselves – and it is a complete delight.

Winter is an excellent time to visit. Tourist numbers are low, and the forest has a particularly pagan kind of beauty. Without its mantle of leaves and undergrowth, you see the bones of the trees, the bright velvet greens of mosses, the forms of lichens and barks. Walking through a grove of holly trees, we see a blackbird guzzle bright red berries.

I enjoy seeing the ponies, too. They are far from wild, and one Shetland even deliberately steps in front of my car and stands eyeing me over the bonnet – none shall pass - till in the end I have to reverse and drive around him.

After our walk, the itinerary takes us along a rough track to the High Corner Inn, out in the wild. This place bustles in the summer, but on this winter’s afternoon we have the place to ourselves, for a tasty lunch and a long rest by the logs burning in the large stone fireplace – the perfect refreshment before a change of focus from nature to culture, and a visit to the grave of Arthur Conan-Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes.

He is buried in the graveyard at the New Forest church of All Saints, in Minstead – a curious place with a history going back to the Jutes (a Saxon baptismal font still stands inside) and a higgledy-piggledy interior of galleries and pews.

Conan-Doyle’s grave has a pipe resting on it. We pay our respects and head into picturesque Beaulieu for coffee and a visit to the fabulous Beaulieu Chocolate Studio, where all sorts of delicious concoctions are made.

The evening meal served at the White Tails Restaurant, back at the Cottage Lodge Hotel, is another highlight of a memorable day. Run by chef Martin Packard, the dining is superb, with lots of fresh, locally sourced ingredients. It is open to non-residents and the dishes are all expertly prepared and singing with flavour. The chef even prepares a vegan dinner, a savoury mushroom served with lusciously sweet tomatoes, and a dessert of tangy rhubarb crumble.

Cottage Lodge is the perfect site for New Forest exploration at any time of year. It has 16 individually decorated rooms, all bursting with character. As well as providing a forest idyll of wood and stove, and in addition to the welcome it extends to dogs, and on top of the wonderful dining, it is eco-friendly and sustainable – with the hot water in Standing Hat heated by solar panels and the electricity produced by photovoltaic cells.

After a two-night stay, I am completely enchanted by the New Forest and already planning another trip. We have just scratched the surface with this little taster. Now I want to explore this fascinating and hauntingly beautiful place on foot, with lots of long walks.

If, like me, you have not visited before (or have not been for a while) and if you love the natural world, then go. Go now, while the winter remains and it is a kingdom of winter colours, of holly and moss and lichen, and you will still have the place – by and large – to yourself.

Travel facts

A stay at the Cottage Lodge Hotel costs between £60 and £165 a night for B&B for two people, depending on the time of the year and day of the week.

For more information, visit, or the White Tails Restaurant at, and the New Forest at

Cottage Lodge is currently offering a 3-for-2 deal which works out to just £99 per person (two sharing a room), including cooked breakfast. The offer is available from Sundays to Thursdays from now until March 19 and includes accommodation in a four-poster bedroom, Bucks Fizz breakfast, tea and cake on arrival and a late checkout on the final morning (noon).