The New Forest – just lots of trees, right? Well, although there are plenty of trees in the New Forest, it's primarily an area of open heathy badlands; sand, gravel and thin acidic soils left behind by the titanic rivers that flowed at the end of the last Ice Age. Basically, the Forest is the gritty sludge at the bottom of the British Isles tank, and nothing much thrives in it except gorse, heather, snakes, deer, and scrawny semi-wild ponies. Oh, and caravan and camping sites. For some reason a lot of people favour the New Forest as a holiday destination.
I don't know why, but – despite its attractions and despite being situated just the other side of Southampton Water – it's just not an area I've visited much in recent years. Perhaps it's because we visited so often when the kids were small. There are various child-oriented wildlife centres in the Forest, and it's full of quiet corners where you can spend a relatively safe but adventurous afternoon among the trees and heather-covered dips and rises. I suppose I ended up thinking of the area as little more than a handy recreation ground, despite the occasional somnolent snake, one strewn with natural sandpits and climbing frames, and threaded with shallow streams to dam and paddle in, watched over by huddles of sullen ponies.
Looking towards Bolton's Bench, Lyndhurst
But last week I had reason to visit Lyndhurst, the administrative centre of the Forest, where curious bodies like the Court of Verderers and the gender-fluid Queen's / King's House are situated (the name of the latter changes, depending on the reigning monarch). It was a beautiful day so, while I was there, I thought I might as well take the opportunity to further break in my new boots, bought to replace a venerable but now leaky pair in anticipation of a visit to an old friend living in the Scottish Highlands in May.
I was reminded of how fortunate we are, to live within a short drive of holiday destinations like the New Forest, the South Downs, the Hampshire and Dorset coast, not mention the Isle of Wight, another place we used to visit frequently – mainly on fossil-hunting expeditions – but now never do. Providing small children with a memorable and instructive childhood is a wonderful stimulus to getting out of the house. I resolved to recapture some of that spirit – two parts fun to one part duty to one part desperation – that got one poring over the map and thinking, where shall we go today?