It’s the end of lockdown (again) and we desperately need a change of scenery. But can we actually go on the New Forest trip we booked in long ago pre-covid times? Yes, we’re allowed to travel. Yes, the hotel is re-opening. The weather forecast isn’t great, but this is December in the UK after all. Who’s afraid of a bit of mud?Yahoo, wellies packed and off we go!
The New Forest is not new, nor is it actually a forest. Established as a royal hunting ground by William the Conqueror in 1079, this area of more than 70,000 acres does have some trees, but much of it is open heath. It was subject to the Forest Law, which reserved all animals within it for the King. Legend has it that William evicted the inhabitants of several settlements, and was later punished for this when two of his sons and his grandson all perished in separate accidents inside the ‘forest’.
We’re staying at The White Buck Inn near the village of Burley. It’s dog friendly and has a nice menu. Yes, of course I checked – I already know what I’m having for dinner! We’re too early to check in, but we have a lunch booking at a local pub, so we park up and set off happily down a footpath next to the hotel towards the village.
It’s not long before we spot some of the most famous New Forest dwellers, the ponies. There are thousands of indigenous New Forest ponies running wild in this area, owned by local people who have rights of common pasture. There’s an annual fee for each pony turned out to graze, and they are rounded up each year for a health check. You see them everywhere – last time we visited there were ponies in the carpark of Tesco in Brockenhurst. There are also lots of deer and cattle – there’s a cow on the golf course as we pass. And…
Yes, those are pigs. At first we think we’re seeing things, but no, there’s definitely a herd of pink porkers snuffling around in the leaves, and a lot of enthusiastic grunting going on. There’s obviously food down there in the mud. Lizzie the Labradoodle is transfixed, she would happily stand here watching the piggies all day, but lunch at the Burley Inn is calling.
Inside the pub, the Christmas tree is up and the fire is burning. It’s hard to feel festive with coronavirus restrictions still in place, but we’re eating ‘substantial’ meals (prawn salad for him, Ploughman’s for me) so we’re allowed a drink or two, which helps. Ho, ho, ho! Back at our hotel, we have a coffee in the Gun Room, and it comes with mini mince pies. It’s beginning to feel a bit like Christmas.
Our room is called Rufus, after William the Conqueror’s red-headed son, who was shot and killed with an arrow whilst hunting nearby. Rufus is Latin for ‘the Red’ apparently. His morals were a bit dubious, it seems, as he was known for lust and sodomy. But the room itself is big and comfy, if not particularly luxurious. There’s a Nespresso machine, free bottles of water and hair conditioner supplied. Big ticks from me. But we’re here for the food and the walks. How do they measure up?
Ah, the food! It tastes as good as it sounds on the menu. Clearly there is a bit of talent in the kitchen, even the dogs stand up and sniff the air like the Bisto kids every time a plate comes out. I have prawns followed by cauliflower mornay. The husband goes for soup and hake. Yummy! After cheese and port we stagger back to our room and collapse on the bed. Luckily it’s big enough to accommodate a sleepy Labradoodle. Henry, at 16 years old, is happy to stay on the floor.
Now for the walks. The Inn is pretty much surrounded by open heathland whichever direction you choose. On day one we take the advice of a hotel waiter and head south along the Holmsley Passage towards the old abandoned railway, now a walking track. It’s rainy and there are massive puddles everywhere, but we’re wrapped up well and the dogs love splashing through the water. No dramas.
That is, until we need to cross a small river that has unfortunately burst its banks. The path is nowhere to be seen, so we wade in carefully. The husband discovers he has a leak in one welly, while mine don’t seem to reach high enough, the water is going over the tops. Lizzie is in front, and the current in the middle of the torrent takes her by surprise and washes her away. There’s a moment of panic, but this is a dog who’s used to swimming in the River Thames. She takes it all in her stride and we’re all soon safely back on dry (ish) land at the other side.
It’s uphill back to the village and we have soggy feet, but another pub lunch awaits, so we persevere. Even under grey skies, the scenery is lovely. We hardly see another soul. In a normal year, the New Forest gets around 14 million visitors, but I imagine that number is way down in 2020. Arriving in the centre of Burley, we ponder the number of shops devoted to magic and witchcraft. In the 1950s a famous ‘white witch’ called Sybil Leek lived here, and used to walk around the village with her pet jackdaw on her shoulder.
Unfortunately the villagers didn’t approve of Sybil, and she ended up moving to America. It seems they are happy to cash in on her legacy nowadays! At the Queen’s Head, there’s an enthusiastic welcome and our first Christmas crackers of the year. The husband doesn’t let me pull the bangers, and cheats when I try out the Mystery Calculator gift that pops out of mine. He’s such a Grinch!
For our second day of walking, the world is transformed. Cold, yes, but with glorious sunshine. This time we head east along Bisterne Close and happen upon a busy car park where lots of tracks converge. This is where the locals bring their dogs to walk, so Lizzie is in pooch heaven. ‘It’s beautiful out there’ a cheery dog walker tells us. The husband looks unconvinced – his extremities are freezing.
This is my favourite type of weather, bright and crisp. If you’re not enjoying it then your clothing is inappropriate, that’s all there is to it. The vistas stretch out around us, brightened up by the purple heather and yellow gorse. The ponies graze peacefully, as well they might – they live in a lovely part of the world. Every so often we meet a prancing dog with a smiling owner. We exchange greetings and Lizzie dashes around in the undergrowth with yet another new friend. Henry just plods along smiling. I can’t think of a better way to spend a morning.
It’s time for home. The dogs are tired and we’ve eaten way too much (as usual). But we’re all happy, and, dare I say it, feeling much more festive and ready for the run up to Christmas. Actually, that might be just me – the husband probably needs a bit more encouragement.