A week in the New Forest

The New Forest is more-or-less on our doorstep; it’s only an hour and a half drive from our home. With lockdown easing, it seemed like the perfect choice for a last-minute holiday. Luckily, we found a lovely cottage just on the edge of Lymington, so we packed the car and headed into the forest.

It’s a strange thing: taking a holiday during a global pandemic. It felt almost perverse to seek out fun and relaxation when humanity is facing a threat. I have to admit I didn’t dwell on this for long, and the urge to get away took over. Still, there are constant reminders everywhere: the masks; the one-way systems; the ever-present black and yellow signs that yell “remain apart!”

Having young children meant that most activities were designed around them. Well, mainly designed around Roo, who’s five. RooTwo isn’t yet a year and doesn’t much care what we do. Give that boy something to destroy, and he’s happy.

Cars and other environmental disasters

On Sunday we visited the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu. It was a bit of a shame that their vast new “Little Beaulieu” was closed, but understandable given current restrictions. Despite this disappointment, Roo had a brilliant time riding on the monorail and looking around the cars. There wasn’t quite enough time for me to see all the exhibits in the Secret Army exhibition due to a little voice moaning that it was “boring”.

Beaulieu had gone all-out in their Coronavirus mitigation. There were hand sanitiser stations galore. We chose to eat in the café, which was bizarre. Led along a sticky-tape walkway, we were shown to our table by a lady wearing full PPE. Food was served in plastic containers with shrink-wrapped cutlery. Throwing all that away gave me pangs of guilt—this virus is undoubtedly bad for the environment.

Overall we felt extremely safe at Beaulieu—maybe a little overprotected. Still, it was a fun day without unduly worrying about the virus.

The wolves weren’t social distancing

We spent Monday at the New Forest Wildlife Park. Actually, we liked it so much we went back on Friday, too. Unlike Beaulieu, the Wildlife Park hadn’t gone crazy on the social distancing. This made for a more relaxed day. That’s not to say we didn’t feel safe, we just didn’t feel as patronised.

The best thing about the New Forest Wildlife Park is the vast adventure playground. Roo loved climbing the giant cargo nets and sliding down the zip wire. RooTwo had a blast in the sandpit shoving sand into his nappy and mouth.

They also have wolves. Honest to goodness, real-life wolves. They hide until feeding time; when a keeper chucks fish heads, baby chicks and dog-food over the fence. The wolves appear nervous at first, but soon seem to forget about the humans and enjoy their snack. They really are beautiful creatures.

All aboard!

On Tuesday, we met up with Katie’s mum at Exbury Gardens. It’s a sign of my increasing slide into middle age that I love a garden. Exbury is among one of the best. They have a miniature steam railway; thank goodness! Roo quickly tired of walking around the gardens and the train was a welcome distraction.

Like Beaulieu, Exbury had put in place a raft of social distancing measures. The timed, ticket-only entry meant that the gardens were eerily quiet. In fact, this was true of most of the place we went—a general lack of people. I think this improved our experience. Fewer people and more space is always a good thing in my book.

Me, Katie and our children posing on the Japanese Bridge at Exbury Gardens.

Like pigs in a pen

No visit to the New Forest with small children would be complete without a visit to Paulton’s Park. Home to Pepper Pig World, we’d visited with Roo a couple of years ago. She didn’t stop talking about it for weeks—so we knew it was a going to be a hit.

I didn’t disappoint. Although, one factor we hadn’t considered was the crowds. We were assured by gate staff that due to the virus that this was, in fact, a quiet day. Queuing time was an average of 20 mins per ride so we would not have enjoyed a “busy” day.

We found it difficult to maintain social distancing. There were just too many people. We’d promised Roo she could buy a toy from the colossal shop on site. This was ridiculous, people almost clambering over each other. This could have been much better managed.

Still, Roo had a lot of fun. RooTwo even managed both naps in his buggy.

The beautiful New Forest

The real highlight of the holiday was the forest itself. A short walk from our cottage was the heath. Horses, cows and donkeys wander free—unimpeded by fences. Only cattle grids or gates at the entrance to each property keep them from invading people’s homes.

They are, of course, wild animals but seem entirely unfazed by the presence of people. Horses are curious, and we’d often see them at the gate of our cottage. The donkeys were equally inquisitive, one even sticking its head into our car window when we stopped to admire them.

A panoramic shot of the lowland heath in the New Forest. Katie and Roo can be seen in the middle distance.

The forest is stunning, and I was grateful for some time to explore on a hire bike. We also found a giant rope swing on one of our walks. Roo was very brave, wanting to be pushed higher and higher.

We were sorry to go but left feeling incredibly fortunate to have been able to take a holiday during this crazy time.