By Terry Willey

Despite having lived on the Island for over 50 years and travelled to many places throughout the UK, particularly in the South East and South West, it was only this year that I finally ventured into the New Forest.  And what a delightful trip it proved to be!

Extending across some 220 square miles, over half of the Forest is covered by trees, and there are more than 200 miles of public footpaths that attract over 13 million visitors each year.

We based our stay in the village of Brockenhurst, basing ourselves in a historic hotel where Theodore Roosevelt once stayed. We learned that the New Forest was created as a Royal forest by William 1st in the 11th century, this being for the Royal Hunt, mainly of deer. Many of the small hamlets within the Forest were originally recorded in the Domesday Book.

Due to the general risks of fires, campfires are not allowed in the Forest, but there are specific barbeque sites provided for hire and overseen by the Forestry Commission.

And as protection for the animals that roam throughout the Forest area, there’s an enforced maximum speed limit of 40 miles per hour, particularly on the unfenced roads, and fortunately the majority of drivers observe this restriction.

The New Forest is a National Park and, not surprisingly, designated as an area of outstanding natural beauty. It was wonderful to observe the sights, sounds and smells of ancient woodland and unspoilt coastline. Many of the New Forest ponies had foals and it was very special to see them protecting their young. There are strict bylaw regulations to prohibit any feeding of the livestock which, if not observed, could leave you with a £200 fine and a criminal record. It was good to note that the Forest was open to walking dogs, on condition that they are kept under strict control and within sight of their owners at all times. It was clear to us that the management of the Forest throughout was very efficient, with specific areas designated for camping, caravanning and picnicking.

Once in the New Forest, you are not far from the villages of Lyndhurst, Brockenhurst, Sway and Beaulieu. Apart from a visit to the infamous motor museum located at Beaulieu, the village itself is well worth a walk through, and from there, on to the village garden centre.

It was interesting to note that foals are born in the Forest every Spring, and can often be seen with their mothers helping to bring life to the woodland at a colourful time of the year. The breeding usually takes place between Spring and July with a mare’s gestation period lasting around 11 months. However, breeding is very tightly controlled by people called Verderers, who decide which stallions can be released to breed with the mares. At other times of the year the stallions are kept on private land, and for the most part the ponies you will see across the Forest are females.

The Forest has a wonderful array of holly and gorse with wide areas of grazing that the forest ponies seem to relish, and clearly is most beneficial to them.

We found it quite extraordinary that there are as many as 37 parishes and towns within the National Park, with over 34,000 people living within the boundaries. The New Forest is so popular because of its beauty, serenity and unique flora and fauna, coupled with authorised ponies and farm animals roaming unfettered.

The Rhinefield Ornamental Drive is a must to view when visiting the Forest, to appreciate the numerous rhododendrons – best seen, of course, when in bloom.

Many people are curious to know who actually owns all the ponies, donkeys, pigs, cows and other roaming animals. They belong to local people called “commoners” who have the right to graze the animals in the New Forest throughout the year – or part of the year in the case of the pigs.

It is fact a myth that the New Forest ponies are completely wild. They are only wild in the sense that they are able to roam freely around the National Park and are in fact owned and cared for by the New Forest Commoners. The principle of commoners dates back many centuries to when the New Forest was first established, and refers to someone who owns land to which rights of common are assigned. As part of their rights, the commoners must pay an annual marking fee for each pony and ensure that each freely roaming pony has its own mark registered by the Verderers. They also employ so-called Agisters who take care of all day to day issues involving all livestock throughout the Forest.

Whether you are seeking a restful period away or wanting to observe nature and animals at close quarters, the New Forest offers so much for so many.   We will undoubtedbly be returning for another stay, and observing the changing seasons in such a magical Forest.