In early March, my mother and I took a short vacation to the south of England and spent a day visiting the New Forest National Park. This large tract of reserved land, mostly in Hampshire, is home to the famous New Forest pony breed. Soon after we entered the park, we turned unto a scenic drive and found the three ponies, above, standing right beside the road. They grazed peacefully and showed minimal interest in our presence.
The park is largely common ground and is grazed by the ponies, and by cattle, wild deer and at certain times of the year by pigs. This grazing of grassland and shrubs helps to keep the land open rather than thickly forested. The landowners within the New Forest have the right to graze their animals in the common areas.
The animals are given the right of way in the park and the speed limit is 40 mph. It is not unusual to come around a bend or over a hill and find one or several ponies in the road. Driving slowly saves the lives of animals and people.
The New Forest comprises 145 square miles according to the Forestry Commission of England. It was created in 1079 by William the Conqueror as royal hunting grounds. The land was maintained for production of deer to satisfy the hunting requirements of the nobility. Commoners faced grievous punishment for tampering with the deer.
The modern New Forest contains many acres of low-land heath, rivers, wetlands, sea coast and woodlands. This area has some of the biggest remnants of primeval forest. Here grow oaks believed to be as old as 800 years and yew trees of 1000 years. Broadleaf deciduous, various conifers and birch are the primary trees. The most obvious landscape is the open heath: land of low rolling hillsides covered with grass, heather, bracken fern and gorse bush. The soil is sandy and acidic.
For our visit, we drove up from Bournemouth on the busy A35 and turned onto scenic Bolderwood Ornamental Drive. This is where we first saw ponies. The scenic drive passes mainly through forest that is cut by narrow swaths of grazing land. We went on to Lyndhurst where there is a very helpful visitor’s center. From Lyndhurst we traveled across heathland for several miles toward Beaulieu. We spotted many wild ponies and some cattle roaming loose. In one place a couple male pheasants were having a wrestling contest in the middle of the road and could barely be bothered to move aside for traffic.
After, we went along the Rhinefield Ornamental Drive to the Blackwater Arboretum. This area is planted to towering Douglas fir, and contains species of trees from around the world. A pair of giant Sequoia trees from the northwest US flank one of the wide grassy avenues maintained for easy passage and grazing of animals. The arboretum is a small area surrounded by a high fence to protect the trees from animal feeding. Outside the fence, huge trees abound and can be viewed from a 1.5 mile graded trail so well maintained that it is wheelchair accessible.
The New Forest is an extensive area impossible to fully enjoy in one day, or maybe even a whole week. Walking and biking trails lace the park. Small hamlets with thatched-roof cottages wait to be explored. Roadside inns beckon, promising pub lunches and liquid refreshment. Narrow roads, barely passable when two small cars meet, wander over miles of scenic open land populated only by wild animals. This is a place I would like to visit again one day.