Secrets of the New Forest

In Hampshire and Dorset in the south of England, we explore the country's most visited national park. It's a wild and beautiful place where the locals, ponies, cattle and even pigs roam free under obscure common laws that date back to feudal times.

Hosted ByPeter & Felice
New Forest

Photo: © thenewforest.co.uk

Peter Welcome to our travel podcast, we’re specialist travel writers and we’ve spent half a lifetime exploring every corner of the world.

Felice So we want to share with you some of our extraordinary experiences and the amazing people we’ve met along the way the way.

Peter This week we’re in Hampshire and Dorset in the south of England, exploring the country’s most visited national park. It’s a wild and beautiful place where the locals, ponies, cattle and even pigs roam free under obscure common laws that date back to feudal times. I have to say, it comes as a huge surprise to discover that not only is the New Forest not new, but originally it wasn’t a forest at all. Indeed, even today, only about a third of this vast expanse of countryside and seaside is covered by trees. To find out more, we met up with Anthony Climpson, who, as the boss of the tourist enterprise, Go New Forest, is a popular modern-day king of this region, once ruled by William I of England, better known, of course, to many as William the Conqueror. Anthony, welcome to our podcast.

Anthony Thank you very much, Peter. It’s a joy and a pleasure.

Peter So when did it become the New Forest? Quite recently?

Anthony Now, that’s precisely why I thought I’d just tell you a little bit about what the New Forest is, because A it’s not new, and B it is not what most people think whet forest is. And the reason for all of this is that in 1079, when William the Conqueror had sorted the English or should I say the Saxons, and started to introduce his parliamentary structure and his law across the whole country, he had time to relax. And he sat on his seat in Winchester, cast his eyes around and looked for his new foret. In those days, foret was an area, French or Norman, depending on which way you want to call it was the description of an area managed for hunting. And he was a keen hunter, a keen drinker and a keen wencher, if we’re allowed to say that sort of stuff now. And he looked for his New Forest, in modern language Nova Foresta his new hunting area. So in 1079, William created a range of laws in the New Forest to ensure that the local people kept their animals off the forest so that he could hunt.

But in exchange for that, when he wasn’t hunting, they were allowed to graze the New Forest. And those laws still operate today in a slightly modern form, but nevertheless exactly the same. As such, the New Forest is neither new, nor is it a forest. The other thing is if you try and hunt on horseback through woodland, you’re not going to last very long. You’re going to get knocked off your horse. So the forest was also much more open in those days. The spaces, the trees were much less in number. But since those areas for hunting weren’t hunted quite so much, more trees grew. The idea in the English language is that forest means trees, not an area for hunting. So that’s a rather lengthy explanation of what the forest is – and why it’s called new – very old. And so we actually would say that the New Forest actually was the first official designated tourism destination in England because William created it and in those days, the only people that could afford leisure were royalty and aristocracy.

New Forest

Peter How big is the New Forest?

Anthony The New Forest is about 330 square miles. It’s the area basically between Bournemouth, Salisbury and Southampton, and it is the last vestige of landscape which can find its roots two, three, four, five, six thousand years ago. So it is a landscape that would have been the case in England and northern Europe 5,000 years ago. It’s the last piece of landscape left in that condition.

It’s England’s smallest national park. It has the highest density of visitors of any national park, but it was only created a national park in 2006. It is on the one hand perceived as being visited to death but on the other hand, even on a busy bank holiday, I could take you to places in the New Forest where you won’t see anybody. And the other thing that I would say generally about tourism is that we’re of a certain age where, you know, we’ve seen the devastation that tourism can wreak on culture and environment all over the world. And I would say that the tourism industry is probably the third biggest destroyer of habitat and culture on the planet. But the tragedy is that tourism actually is also, I think, the answer to world peace, because it’s the only activity where we pay money to understand the difference between people, whereas in all other walks of life, you fight over or compete over it.

So it’s an interesting dichotomy, tourism. It’s also one of those things that you can easily export onto the side of an island, bleed it dry, destroy it, and then simply take it away and put it somewhere else. It’s interesting and the one thing when we came to start working in tourism in the mid-eighties, we were very quickly introduced to the idea that local people hated tourists. So my very first policy paper was called Living with the Enemy? and since then we’ve learned that the best way of dealing with the problem is to take it head on. And if the problem is concerns about stresses on capacity and damage to the environment, then you adopt a responsible attitude towards it. So we’ve been doing responsible tourism without calling it that for about 30 years, because that demonstrates and justifies our ability to do it.

Felice Are there any restrictions? Do people have to pay or are they free to go wherever they want?

Anthony They’re free to go wherever they want. The basic New Forest area is still pretty much the general area created by William in the past. Therefore, it’s owned by the Crown and even before it became a national park, was able to be visited by the common folk of the country who could enjoy air and exercise without charge and without any restraint on access. But slowly, over the last 50 years, various physical restrictions have been put in place to stop cars driving all over the forest. Because in the ’60s you could drive wherever you wanted in the forest, all over the land, everything. Car parks, ditches, dikes have been put in place to restrict the car, but visitors on foot can gain access across the whole area.

Felice Because cars are a problem in summer, I assume?

Anthony I think cars are a problem wherever you are. The fact that there’s more obviously a problem in the forest is something which has always annoyed me a bit because cars are a problem in the middle of Bournemouth, but no one kicks off about it. So going back to your point, cars are only a problem because we don’t have the proper management rules in place to manage them effectively. And I personally would close lots of roads in the forest; I would get rid of vehicular access; I would try and bring the forest back to some semblance of connectivity because roads, in effect, separate each of the areas that the roads surround. And from a visitor experience point of view as well as a place to land manage, it’s much harder.

Peter Tell us a little bit about the semi feudal laws that exist. So if you own property, am I right in thinking you are then a commoner?

New Forest

New Forest pigs. Photo: © thenewforest.co.uk

Anthony If you own land that have common rights attached to it, there is a register of rights stretching right the way back to the Doomsday Book and those portions of land give you the ability to use or take advantage of the laws in place. There are six basic laws. The most obvious is the right of common and that is to graze your animal. There are others. There’s the right of pannage, which is for pigs to go in the autumn. The acorns, which are poisonous…are not poisonous, but they give animals colic, the other animals colic…the ponies for instance, and therefore someone a long time ago worked that pigs love acorns and if the pigs eat all the acorns, the ponies don’t. One of the offshoots of that is that pigs who eat acorns are actually rather tasty. So pannage pork is a New Forest delicacy, but mostly only available in the autumn.

Peter Where do all these ponies come from? If you are a commoner and you have a few fields, you have a smallholding of some type, you then have a common law right to graze your ponies?

Anthony You do. If you have common rights, you have the right to graze animals. It doesn’t mean that people that have common rights necessarily graze animals, but that tradition is still happening in some scale in the forest. And it’s the only part of the country that this is still happening. You don’t, for instance, see many ponies on Dartmoor any longer or Exmoor, which is a shame but that’s a different issue. In the forest we have around 500 practising commoners who turn out an ever-increasing number of animals because at the moment the payment schemes from Europe, which are now coming to an end – and soon from the central government in England – they basically reward you for the number of animals you have and therefore there is a tendency for commoners to put more animals out rather than less, which is not necessarily a good plan. I think it needs changing and so do a lot of other people. But at the moment there are around anything between five and seven thousand ponies out on the forest, which is a lot.

Peter They could just graze anywhere and presumably there’s some sort of tagging, marking system?

Anthony We have a thing called drifts in the autumn. The commoning regime is basically managed or overseen by the Verderers Court, which is the second longest-running court in the country after the Coroner’s Court, and that oversees the commoning regime. The adjusters of the Verderers Court are, in effect, the police of the commoning regime, and they, along with commoners, go out and round up the animals in what is called a New Forest drift in the late September, early October and through to November.

All over the forest, you’ll see little corrals or pounds where these animals are driven to and enclosed by, at which point they’re dewormed, their tails are cut to demonstrate what part of the forest they come from – different cut marks to show which part of the forest they are in. They’re also marked, checked and branded. So at that point in the year, that’s when they mark all the animals, collect the marking fees for the number of animals we have in the forest and it also identifies whose animals is whose.

New Forest

New Forest ponies at Bolton’s Bench, Lyndhurst. Photo: © thenewforest.co.uk

Felice Are they actually all ponies or horses as well?

Anthony No ponies are only small horses, really. But the bloodline got really messed up until recently. And the pony breeding society in the forest has become very, very clear about trying to bring the bloodline to much purer stock. And therefore, at the moment, just recently, literally a couple of weeks ago or a week ago, the stallions, –the chosen stallions with good blood and good bloodlines from forest stock – are allowed out on the forest to cover the mares and create a stronger bloodline. That’s been going on now for a number of years and therefore, you see less and less weird ponies and more and more regular ponies.

New Forest ponies are defined basically by their stockiness and their large jawline, a very deep jawline from the natural grazing, because unlike ponies in captivity or in domesticity and horses generally, they graze in the open forest. Therefore, their ability to crunch the material they graze on requires eating gorse – something a horse couldn’t do. Only a New Forest pony could graze, because it’s very, very prickly, and even holly. So the New Forest pony is a very unique bloodline and a very unique breed.

Felice What about pigs? How many of them are there?

Anthony It’s really hard to say. There aren’t any wild pigs, there’s no wild boar. There was someone who thought to be a good idea to introduce wild boar recently. It’s a silly idea, because they’re monstrously aggressive and would be a danger to not only human beings, but also to other animals on the forest. So luckily, that hasn’t come to pass. They are all domestic pigs of one breed or another. There are some breeds that were better, and I’m not equipped enough to really tell you about the differences. The problem with counting pigs is that they basically go on the forest if there are enough acorns, for some years we have no acorns and there are very few pigs out. But they are kept out domestically and let out – as opposed to the ponies who’re out all of the time – the pigs only go out during the period of pannage in the forest.

Peter If you’re wandering around the forest as a tourist, you’re going to see quite a lot of wildlife and a lot of real wildlife, so to speak. Natural wildlife like deer, I guess?

Anthony Yes. I mean, I think the real majesty and the real unique nature of the New Forests as a visitor destination is: it is perhaps an area that has the greatest scale of biodiversity in nature that you can have in this country. There is nowhere else. I mean, most of our countryside has been depleted of its biodiversity to such an extent that it’s almost non-existent and that includes a lot of the national parks. In the New Forest the absolute opposite is the case. Whether it’s insects or whether it’s mammals or whatever it is, there is a greater biodiversity in the New Forest than anywhere else in the country. There’s all sorts of very unique flora and fauna in the New Forest as well. If you know what you’re looking for, you will find it here and nowhere else.

New Forest

Photo: © thenewforest.co.uk

Peter What about mushrooms? I know that’s always a tricky problem because people see the New Forest as being a wild area with no restrictions. People come from restaurants tend to over-harvest?

Anthony Yes, and that has been a problem and there are very strict rules in place to manage that. Basically, you are still able to harvest personal amounts, but we don’t promote that; I haven’t told you that. And you’re absolutely right. We used to, not so much now because we’ve made it clear we’re not going to put up with it, but we used to have chefs coming down from London with bakers’ trays just cleaning the place out. Fungi, it’s not just mushrooms it’s also the other fungi in the forest, which is edible. With a lot of fallen trees, they don’t clear the trees away, the trees lie around and decompose, as part of the biodiversity promotion that Forestry England team are invoking, there is fungi all over the place, but we’re very, very clear now that it should not be picked.

Felice How big is the biggest tree?

Anthony The traditional answer to that question is the Knightwood Oak which is a pollarded oak tree recently measured by some electronic gadget which suggested it was well over 600 years old. That stands on the ornamental drive to Bolderwood and has a car park and a walk attached to it. Unfortunately, because it’s so old, the top part of the tree has been cut back now, but it’s a huge tree and it’s been pollarded, which means it was cut just over head height and the main boughs come out. If you don’t cut an oak tree, it just goes straight up. You have one big trunk with smaller boughs coming off of it…well, not even boughs they’re branches, whereas if you pollard an oak tree just over head high, you get really big boughs coming out of it and you get more wood per tree that way than you would if you just allowed it to grow straight. That was a traditional way of harvesting it in centuries gone.

New Forest

Lymington. Photo: © Visit Hampshire

When they started harvesting oak for the ships at Buckler’s Hard, Nelson’s favourite ship, Agamemnon, was built at Buckler’s Hard just down on the Beaulieu River – the oak trees used were straight oaks, stronger pieces of wood from long, tall oaks rather than pollarded oaks, which were twisty and turny and not in straight lines. So if you look around the forest now, very few pollarded trees; a lot of beech trees are pollarded, but most of the newer oaks are all straight up.

Felice And trees are very good for the environment.

Anthony Yes, they hoover up an awful lot of carbon and they push out a lot of good oxygen. But interestingly, the forest actually isn’t that forested. My guess: about a third of the forest has got trees in it, if that. So there’s a lot of open spaces, a lot of heathland, and one of the joys of the forest, really, is that it’s not just solid oak, solid beech. I mean, I’m not a fan of conifer. Conifer were brought in 100 years or so ago, just before the First World War. I mean, there are natural conifers in the forest; there’s a lot of Scotch pine all the way along the coast, but the plantation conifers are so cold and they kill everything below it because they don’t let any light in. So that that type of plantation growing in the forest has been on the way out for a long time and there’s less of it now.

Peter For the visitor, there’s an awful lot to see. Where do you begin?

Anthony Where do you begin with a place that’s got so much to see and do? Yes, the most popular activity is walking. The second most popular activity is cycling. And then anything else you’d want to mention, because there’s pretty much everything going on in the forest. One of the biggest surprises for many visitors to the New Forest, which I myself am surprised about, is that we have 43 miles of coast. We have one of the prettiest coastal towns in the country at Lymington, and we have some really nice beaches. A lot of the coastline is not accessible because we also still have a lot of landed estates that own quite a lot of the coastline. But we do have a wonderful coastline and therefore water sports.

As an exercise in marketing brand lines, I came up with a comment that the New Forest was everything except mountains. We perhaps don’t have multicultural cities, that’s for sure, but we certainly don’t have mountains, and it is pretty flat. But we have pretty much everything else from quaint villages, the coastline, the seaside, farming areas, and this wonderful natural habitat, which gives visitors the opportunity to experience an England which has long disappeared elsewhere.

New Forest

Dogs enjoying one of the New Forest beaches. Photo: © thenewforest.co.uk

Peter So if you’re coming from overseas and most people listening to this podcast are American, the majority just marginally, about 50 percent are American. So you’re coming here. Where would you begin? Where would you stay?

Anthony The forest historically until probably just after the Second World War, where there was a huge outpouring of walking and hiking and camping, was pretty much until the sixties, predominantly campsites with the odd hotel. Interestingly, most of those hotels were in former hunting lodges, which some of whom can trace their way right way back to William’s time. So there is a sort of nice, virtuous circle there, in that relationship. But basically nowadays, when you come to the New Forest, you can have a five-red-star hotel, Chewton Glen, which American audiences who are travellers will know Chewton Glen, often voted by Conde Nast readers, as the best hotel in England.

Recently I was very involved with helping Limewood come into operation. That’s a five-red-star hotel, but rather different to the tune plan. The Chewton Glen is a high quality English country house experience hotel, whereas Limewood is more like a country house, house party hotel, much more casual than the Chewton Glen. But nevertheless, both hotels are high quality.

We have a number of four-star hotels which provide you a little bit more informality, but nevertheless the quality and cuisine that you expect from top market hotels, right the way down to little self-catering cottages, B&Bs, pubs and inns with rooms, and campsites and glamping. So we have a complete range.

The one thing I’d say about the New Forest visitor economy is that it’s still mostly owned by local people. Therefore, there is a very proprietorial input and therefore a high quality and standard of service and business generally. And this is what we’re working hard to maintain and indeed even grow, so that the quality of experience is always really good.

Felice Glamping must be one of the newest types of accommodation?

Peter Can you explain glamping here?

Anthony Well, really, it depends what you want to go for, but basically it’s high-quality facilities and service in a more informal campsite setting. So anything from a yurt. And nowadays in the forests, we have yurts and big tents with five-star interiors, baths, showers, king-size and queen-size beds and all sorts of things with a floor in and heating, all of those sorts of mod cons you suspect in a hotel, but in the middle of a field.

New Forest

Sandy Balls Holiday Park

Felice How many glamping sites are there?

Anthony Um, one of my first ums and the reason I um a bit is because informally people can put it on anywhere, so it’s very hard to count the number. Most campsites now have…any campsite with any intelligence has a range of provision. You know, long gone are the days where you just have a tent or a touring caravan or a chalet. Most campsites nowadays have a mixture of all things, and even our holiday parks now have glamping areas in them.

I mean, up at Sandy Balls, which is the most quaintly-named holiday park you could imagine, and I know causes some amusement in Texas when it was discovered as a name of a place in the UK. But it is a holiday park. And the balls, by the way, are a geological formation of a glacial movement down the Avon valley. There are black balls and sandy balls all the way down the Avon Valley. The Sandy Balls estate is an amazing holiday park in a privately-owned area overlooking the Avon valley; wonderful views of the river Avon. There you can have everything from a five-star chalet experience right the way through to a glamping experience based on Bedouin tents. They are just stunningly high class. Each year they are launching new products to cater for new demands in the marketplace; they are just amazing. When I think that only 30 years ago, Sandy Balls had basically chalets and caravans and that was it, and now the range of opportunity and difference in the choices of places to stay, so that’s why I hedge my bets when you say glamping, because, you know, glamping comes in a very basic form, are very high class form, but generally it’s glamorous camping.

Felice You mentioned cycling as well. Are there cycle trails?

Anthony One of the joys of it being an ex-plantation forest is the fact that there are what they call ‘rides’ all over the forest. These rides are where they drank the timber. It was basically a route through the forest for the purpose of management. And over time, these have become gravelled and therefore make the perfect off-road cycling network. We don’t quite yet have the comprehensive network I would like to see, linking up all of the meaningful parts of the forest and we’re working very hard with a verderers to try and persuade them to give us the permission to allow us to do that. But we still have 120 miles of glorious off-road cycling that is safe for every age group and every style and quality of cyclist. That is by far the best way to enjoy the New Forest, because you can travel from each of the different styles and types of location in the forest much more quickly than you can on foot.

Felice Can people rent bikes?

Anthony Yes, there’s bike hire, there’s some really good bikes hire businesses. I remember a lad coming to see me in my office in 1990 I think it was with a Prince of Wales check, as a young man setting up a business supported by the Prince of Wales. And he said that the planning authority, of which the council I worked for, had just closed his business from his father’s garage in Fordingbridge. And did I have any ideas of where he could set a cycle hire business up? At the time I was trying to link car-free travel with the railway line and was setting up a cyber hire business on Brockenhurst railway station. I suggested he took it over. Cycle Experience is a fabulous business based at Brockenhurst with an information centre, all mod cons cycle centre, where you can hire everything from a high-class electric bike to the old traditional form of bike, with a map, with a pick-up business where you can drop it off and pick it up. That is at Brockenhurst Station right in the middle of the forest. You can arrive by train, pick up a bike and cycle into the forest country.

Peter Arrival by train – tell us if you’re coming from London, how do you get to the New Forest?

Anthony Actually, not just London. The New Forest is one of the most connected locations in the country because we also have a cross-country service from all over northern England and Scotland. So you can actually get to the New Forest by train from I think you can probably get from Inverness to the New Forest by train on the cross-country system, which comes through the Midlands into the New Forest. But the most regular route into the New Forest by train is from Waterloo. There are at least two fast trains an hour from London, so it’s very, very easy and they all stop at Brockenhurst.

Felice Ok, I was going to ask, is Brockenhurst the main station?

Anthony Brockenhurst is the main hub. We have seven stations in the New Forest and there is a slow train, which you can catch and it stops at the other stations, so that’s pretty good as well. Yes. All of the trains that come through cross country or from London or stop at Brock.

New Forest

Donkeys in the New Forest. Photo: © thenewforest.co.uk

Felice Where’s the best place to start in the New Forest?

Anthony How long’s a piece of string? I would suggest that really Lyndhurst is probably the best place to start. There’s a car park, a big car park there, and there is also a Heritage Centre there, which will tell you everything you need to know about the New Forest. It’s free to enter and it’s a marvellous historical, educational and information-based experience and therefore, I would always suggest that the visitor comes into Lyndhurst, goes into the Heritage Centre.

The other place to start your visit to the forest is TheNewForest.co.uk which is our website. There is no information you cannot find on that website, there is absolutely nothing. It is an incredibly comprehensive website and it has everything you need to know to enjoy anything in advance…knowledge. And during your stay, have a look at that website. I’ll give you everything you need to know.

Peter Can you book hotels on it?

Anthony You can not only book hotels direct. One of the things for your American listeners, go straight to the New Forest.co.uk Not only will you get a better deal, you will get better service. You will introduce yourselves to your host on a personal level and in the New Forest we do personal relationships very well. If you book direct, you might even get a little extra teaser like a free breakfast or a bottle of champagne on arrival. So book direct the New Forest.

You can also book your experience and your activity now on our website this year, a new feature. You can book tickets to activity and experiences anything from canoes on Beaulieu River to bike rides, cookery experiences, all sorts of things that you can book online on our website,

Peter One final tip, something you haven’t mentioned so far that you would have to do if you came as a first-time visitor?

Anthony There is lots I’ve not mentioned so far. There is so much I could tell you about it. There is so much it has to offer. It’s sort of a bit like one of those places where you interact with it the way you wish to and you get the outcome you wish as well, because it will respond to your desires, whether it’s to escape in medieval space, to enjoy nature, or whether it’s to have an activity or an experience in the more traditional tourism sense, the New Forest has very English countryside, rural elements to it that offer you all the experiences that you want.

The one thing that you must do, I think, is probably if you’re able, get on a bike cycle through the forest and then you will yourself come across what you wish and you can stop and enjoy it unfettered by vehicle noise or crowds of people bustling and hustling you all over the place. Even on the busiest day, there are lots of open spaces to get peace and quiet in the New Forest.

Peter Anthony Climpson, thank you very much for appearing on the show. And we wish you a very happy summer this year with lots and lots of visitors to the New Forest.

Anthony Thank you very much indeed. I’ve enjoyed it.

Felice That’s all for now. If you’ve enjoyed the show, please share this episode with at least one other person! Do also subscribe on Spotifyi-Tunes or any of the many podcast providers – where you can give us a rating. You can subscribe on SpotifyApple Podcasts or any of the many podcast platforms. You can also find us on TwitterFacebook and Instagram. We’d love you to sign up for our regular emails to peter@actionpackedtravel.com.

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