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Enchanted forest on our doorstep
N ever mind going to America for the Fall, have you ever seen our very own New Forest decked out in all its autumn glory? It is a magical vista of yellows, oranges and reds, and quite breathtakingly beautiful.
When my children were small we had a mobile home on a site near Christchurch, so we got to know the New Forest really well, but only during the spring and summer months as, come October, the mobile home turned into an icebox and we closed it up for the winter.
So when I had the opportunity to revisit the area at the beginning of November, I never gave it a thought that the forest would be in all its autumnal splendour. It was the most wonderful spectacle and a real treat.
The New Forest, however, is a great holiday destination whatever the time of year, offering peace and tranquility for those, like myself, in need of a real chill-out, or a more upbeat break with lots to see and do for those with young families. And the best thing is that it is all completely free.
You can walk for miles just taking in the beauty of the trees, the grazing ponies, the babbling brooks and the open moorland — and the children will love it if you take a picnic too. Get them to sit quietly — a bit of a tall order — and they may see deer, squirrels and rabbits too.
Out on the roads criss-crossing the forest you will drive past all kinds of animals — sheep, cows, donkeys and, of course, ponies — grazing on the verges and all seemingly unaware of the traffic, which can be a bit unnerving sometimes!
You can walk for miles just taking in the beauty of the trees, the grazing ponies, the babbling brooks and the open moorland — and the children will love it. Get them to sit quietly and they may see deer, squirrels and rabbits too
We stayed for two nights at The Montagu Arms in Beaulieu, a cosy traditional English country house hotel that is just the place to snuggle up when the cold weather and dark nights set in.
In fact, we didn’t drive into the New Forest National Park until about 6pm, so it was dark, and if there is one thing that is difficult in the New Forest, it is finding your way around when it is dark, because there are no street lights and, on the smaller roads, a sad lack of road markings or signposts either. Thank goodness for satellite navigation!
The National Motor Museum at Beaulieu is a national tourist attraction, but the village of Beaulieu itself is tiny.
Apart from The Montagu Arms, and its adjoining Monty’s Bistro, there isn’t much there at all apart from a few gift shops.
But that really didn’t matter as everything we needed could be found at the The Montagu Arms.
Dating back to 1742, it offers traditional service and high standards, which is always appreciated. In the depths of winter who could resist the allure of delicious Michelin-starred food cooked to perfection, or flopping on a squashy sofa in front of a roaring fire with a glass of Champagne.
There are acres of authentic oak panelling, beautiful terraced gardens, and views out across the estuary. The staff were pleasant, there was not a single child in residence when we were there (always a plus for those who want real peace and quiet) and it offered everything for the perfect weekend.
Our room — there are 22 in total — was really cosy, and 1930s-style (I absolutely loved the retro doors) with up-to-date touches like the big lamps, fine linen and top class fixtures in the bathroom, which had a fabulous shower. A good shower is always a bonus!
As well as the bedroom and bathroom, we had a separate lounge too.
After settling in we went down for dinner and began with drinks in the lounge. A Champagne cocktail for me and a G&T for my husband, in front of the log fire, perfect.
I was looking forward to trying the food in the highly-rated The Terrace restaurant, which has just been awarded its first Michelin star. Head chef Matthew Tomkinson achieved the accolade within six months of arriving at The Terrace, having gained a Michelin star previously in Oxfordshire, at The Goose in Britwell Salome.
The restaurant is large and chintzy and comfortable, with excellent service — all totally in keeping with the traditional feel of the hotel.
I started with the most delicious butternut squash risotto, oozing and unctuous and topped with very strong New Forest blue cheese, a sprinkling of hazelnuts and a sliver of black truffle.
My husband had the hand-dived Scottish scallops, three juicy ones which were excellent, served with braised Lymington cuttlefish (he wasn’t keen on this) and a green cradle of lettuce, broad beans and peas. We both chose fish for our mains — sea bass for me and halibut for him — and both were fresh and flavoursome.
I finished with the hot raspberry souffle, which at the table the waiter pierced a hole in and poured a slug of raspberry sauce into. I ate it with an unusual rice pudding ice cream and it was just fantastic — and it is not often I say that about a pudding!
Hubbie can never say no to chocolate and, predictably, went for the milk chocolate mousse with a variety of lovely things including lavender ice cream, burnt orange syrup and cocoa crisp. Appreciative sighs all round.
It’s always a mystery to me how I can feel so full the night before but find myself able to tackle a full English breakfast the next morning. We both tucked in as we planned our day, though my husband had already been out for a stroll and it was freezing cold and pouring with rain!
So it was into the car, avoiding two hefty cows lumbering down the village high street, and off to revisit some of the places we remembered so well from previous holidays in the New Forest — a drive down the Bolderwood and Rhinefield ornamental drives, resplendent in their autumn colours, and then to Hythe, where a train takes you to the end of the pier to catch the ferry across Southampton harbour, to Calshot spit for a blowy stroll along the pebbles, and then, damp and bedraggled, to Lymington for a comforting cream tea and a look round the shops. You may be asking why we didn’t visit The National Motor Museum at Beaulieu — well, we have been before, so we preferred to utilise our time elsewhere.
Our hotel room was a welcome refuge from the weather on our return and we enjoyed dinner that evening in Monty’s, the adjoining pub/bistro. This informal meal had its good bits, like my smoked duck and water melon starter, but was a bit uninspiring otherwise — I definitely preferred the refined gastronomy of The Terrace restaurant.
Sunday dawned, and time to check out. Unfortunately, it was still raining, which was annoying as we never did get the opportunity to go for a proper walk, well unless we wanted to get soaked through anyway.
We were told there was a lovely four-mile walk along the river to Bucklers Hard, a pretty spot popular with tourists, but it was out of the question. Instead, we dropped off at the forest’s capital, Lyndhurst, for a walk round the shops and noted with sadness the absence of the butchers which had been famous for its venison — the shop had been given over to cut-price tat, a sign of the times perhaps?
We made for the A34 and home — but we will be back, perhaps next autumn for that unmatchable display of colour.