The New Forest promises a traditional family holiday with all the comforts of the 21st Century. Located in South East England, the national park sits in Hampshire with Dorset and Wiltshire on its boundaries, providing a wealth of attractions to discover. Woods and heathland, beaches, thatched cottages, and free roaming ponies are just a handful of delights you will find. It’s the sort of place your kids will be able to immerse themselves in having fun, forgetting about their phones and tablets, and giving you the sort of family time that is often so difficult to find in day-to-day life. Here is a taster of some of the brilliant family days out you can have.
One of the main reasons families visit the New Forest is for the opportunity to spend time exploring the ancient woodland and breathtaking coast. There are miles of tracks and trails to explore and the good news is that there are walks suitable for families of all ages – including tiny ones in buggies. The easiest routes include those to the historic Rufus Stone where William II died. There is a small car park and it’s a nice spot for a picnic, however there are no toilets. There is a flat, easy walk around Hatched Pond near Beaulieu, though be aware that it is impassable with a pushchair around the southern bank. The cliffs around Milford-on-Sea offer fantastic views and bird spotting opportunities, while the Reptile Centre near Lyndhurst has several forest trails and offers the chance to see all varieties of British snakes (hopefully if they oblige!).
In addition to endless country lanes, there are over 100 miles of way-marked off-road bike trails in the New Forest – plenty to keep even the most active of families happy. Given the delicate ecological nature of the forest, it’s important to keep to the way-marked routes which traverse the entire district. The Forestry Commission has provided a helpfully detailed map, and there is ample information at the excellent Information Centres to help you plan your routes and holiday. Numerous places provide bike hire, including Forest Leisure Cycling in Burley, Cyclexperience in Brockenhurst, and Trax Bike Hire, which will deliver and collect bikes to and from your New Forest holiday cottage.
Ponies are a very special aspect of the New Forest. Their presence dates back 2,000 years and there are more than 3,000 of them living here and roaming freely today. There’s no better way to explore the forest and get up close to the native ponies than on horse back. Bagnum Riding Stables is near Ringwood and caters for children as well as adults. You can also try Burley Manor Riding Stables in Burley, Forest Pines Riding Centre in Saint Leonards on the Dorset border, and Sims Cottage Riding Stables in New Milton (make sure you book ahead!). Whether you are an experienced rider or looking to try pony treking for the first time, the New Forest is one of the country’s best places to experience the thrill of horse power.
The beaches and lakes in the New Forest are as enjoyable as the forest and woodland. One of the most popular places to get wet is at the New Forest Water Park in Fordingbridge. The 50 acre site offers wakeboarding, water-skiing, paddle boarding and an inflatable aqua park.
Explore the coastline, or simply enjoy the sunshine while the kids play and paddle on the shingle shores of Milford-on-Sea or Calshot. Lepe Country Park near Beaulieu is the perfect spot for a full day out, with not only a mile of beach to explore, but meadows, a park, BBQ sites, a café, bird watching opportunities and a calendar of events during the school holidays.
While you can usually expect warm and sunny days in spring and summer, New Forest weather can be inclement. It doesn’t pose a problem because there are a wealth of indoor venues which means the fun doesn’t stop even when the rain starts.
Liberty’s Owl, Raptor and Reptile Centre
See majestic birds of prey, including hawks, falcons, owls and eagles, up close and in safety at Liberty’s Owl, Raptor and Reptile Centre in Ringwood. Daily flying displays take place indoors when it’s raining so you won’t miss out simply because it’s wet. There is also an impressive reptile house with reptile shows running regularly during summer holidays.
Longdown Activity Farm
Bring your wellies and be a farmer for a day at Longdown Activity Farm in Ashurst. Children have the opportunity to bottle feed calves, goat kids and ducks, as well as hold rabbits and guinea pigs. If the rain eases there are tractor rides and pony rides to enjoy, as well as an outdoor play area, diggers and go-karts; but if it doesn’t, the indoor play area with ball pit, trampolines, sand pit and straw den will be more than enough for the little ones.
Beaulieu National Motor Museum
The renowned Beaulieu National Motor Museum is in the heart of the New Forest and provides a full family day out whatever the weather. It’s a popular attraction with adults and children of varying ages as there is so much to see and do.
As well as a staggering collection of more than 250 cars – including the World of Top Gear with some of the vehicles featured on the programme – there is a Formula One display, Secret Army exhibition, extensive gardens, a historic manor house and ruins of an abbey, monorail, vintage bus rides and a fun programme of school holiday activities. Whatever your age, female or male, you are sure to enjoy a day at the motor museum, and if there’s time afterwards, walk along the river to Bucklers Hard for some maritime heritage.
New Forest Centre
Learn about the fascinating history of the region at the New Forest Centre in Lymington. It includes a museum with hands-on displays to keep the kids happy for an hour or so, and the gift shop sells an array of locally sourced items with a traditional feel. Staff are friendly and happy to share their wealth of knowledge about not only what it is like to live in the New Forest, but how you can get the most from your holiday.
A wet day is the ideal time to explore some of the chocolate box villages the New Forest is famous for, with Lyndhurst being the largest. As well as shops, cafes and pubs, there is a museum, excellent information centre and St Michael and the All Angels – the church where Alice Liddell, the woman who inspired Alice in Wonderland, is buried. If churches are your thing, be sure to visit St John the Baptist Church in nearby Boldre, which is nearly one thousand years old.
Lymington’s Saturday market draws visitors and locals from around the New Forest area. The pretty high street is lined with Georgian shops, and the cobbled quay is lined with independent boutiques and a top spot for crabbing if there is a break in the weather. You can also catch the Isle of Wight ferry from Lymington providing another excellent day out.
The New Forest promises an amazing family holiday packed with excitement and adventure, and is equally as popular for a weekend away, given how close (and accessible) it is from London. Whatever the age of your children, or weather it’s not surprising some families return annually to enjoy everything on offer.