Belfast Telegraph

Monday 22 December 2014

Call of the forest

The New Forest has year round attractions

Buckler's Hard Maritime Museum, New Forest
Buckler's Hard Maritime Museum, New Forest
The Pig restaurant
Cottage Lodge, New Forest
Cottage Lodge, New Forest
Beaulieu National Motor Museum, Hampshire
Exbury Gardens and Steam Railway , New Forest
Foraging in the New Forest
New Forest, Hampshire

It’s an enigma, but there’s a fair chance that anywhere with the word ‘new’ in its name is actually very old. The point is, it was new at the time when it was named.

That’s true of Newcastle-on-Tyne, home of the first fortification built by William The Conqueror in the wake of the Norman Invasion. The same applies to Hampshire’s New Forest, whose rolling heather-clad heathlands and expansive oak-dominated woodlands became William’s favourite hunting grounds,

That all happened more than 900 years ago but, thanks to careful management as a designated national park, this haven of nature and the great outdoors remains unspoilt and a delight to visit,

Many ancient customs are still observed in these sun-dappled glades, such as the pannage, a right granted by the Crown to all commoners.

Staged each autumn, the ritual consists of turning out pigs to munch on the acorns that are poisonous to ponies and cattle but which produce superb hams and bacons. It’s an ancient practice that remains a vital component of the area’s agriculture.

You’ll find pork a prime ingredient on the menu at the area’s abundance of first-rate restaurants, pubs and hotels, such as the five-star Cottage Lodge (www.cottagelodge.co.uk), a boutique eco-B&B in Brockenhurst, a charming little town right at the heart of the forest.

Here they serve a sumptuous breakfast based on New Forest Marque branded free-range, organic ingredients. This delightful property’s 15 guestrooms have been individually designed and furnished to the highest standards, with a strong eco theme prevailing throughout. The furnishings, decoration, flooring and power supply were all specified for their environmentally friendly properties. One room even boasts a static bicycle to generate power for the TV!

It’s no surprise to find a property in these parts that is simply named The Pig in the Forest (www.thepighotel.co.uk), located in a woodland clearing five-minutes south of Brockenhurst – but there’s nothing mundane and run of the mill about the product.

It’s a brilliant transformation of a former pig farm that dates back to the 17 Century and was once owned by the Queen mother’s uncle.

Robin Hutson used to be general manager of the world-famous Chewton Glen Hotel and went on to be one of the founding figures of the highly successful Vin et Bistro chain. He now heads the Home Grown Hotels brand, of which The Pig is a component.

Featuring shabby-chic homely furnishings, fashionably muted colours, comfy chairs and roaring log fires, the interiors were designed by Robin’s talented wife, Judy.

Service is a paramount concern here and there’s a heart-warming welcome from the second you reach the end of the drive and step inside to register. Guestrooms have eclectic furnishings, great beds and oversized showers.

Featured in them all are larders stocked with snacks and drinks. There are also espresso coffee machines, big plasma TC screens, internet wi-fi and secure safes.

There are 16 rooms in the main house – a charming Victorian pile – and a further 10 in the stable yard. The latter are basically brilliant adaptations of former pigsties, though you’d never guess their original purpose.

Not surprisingly there’s a porcine flavour running through the hotel but the theming is carried out subtly and in the best possible taste: an ornament here, a painting there.

The Pig in the Forest is best described as “A restaurant with rooms”. Superb as the accommodations are, the real focus is very much on the cuisine – fabulous, taste-laden and uncomplicated home garden food, true to the micro-seasons and influenced by the forest. The emphasis is fair and square on simple, clean, fresh flavours,

What cannot be grown by the chef and his forager’s team in The Pig’s own spectacular walled garden or in its extensive vegetable and fruit beds is sourced as close by as possible – ideally within 15 miles: “From garden to plate” is The Pig’s trademark. A proportion of it – from hedgerow fruits and berries to wild herbs and salad leaves – is harvested by The Pig’s own eagle-eyed forager.

Beautifully prepared pork is prominent on the enticing menu but there is lots of other choice. Dependent on season, diners might be offered such delights as New Forest wood pigeon salad with cherry tomato dressing and walled garden leaves; Tatchbury Farm black pudding and Hampshire duck egg with English mustard dressing and borage flowers or Solent clams and marsh samphire with white wine and crispy sea lettuce crisps.

Strolling though the delightfully ordered gardens and vegetable beds, you’ll stumble on what looks like a simple potting shed but serves as The Pig’s treatment room, adding a spa element to a perfect short break destination. And now there’s also a sister12-bedroom – The Pig in the Wall venue in nearby Southampton. It serves charcuterie boards and salads in the comfy lounge but has no restaurant – though the Pig In The Forest is just 20-minutes’ drive away,

There’s certainly no lack of things to do in and around the New Forest.

Back in Napoleonic times, many of Lord Nelson’s hearts of oak ships were built from planks hewn from trees harvested locally and assembled at Buckler’s Hard – now a tranquil and exquisitely pretty little waterside village,

Even more picturesque is the village of Beaulieu (www.beaulieu.co.uk), which is home to Lord Montagu’s National Motor Museum, where more than 250 old, new and historic cars and motorcycles are immaculately displayed.

A year-round destination, the New Forest is a showcase for the four seasons – nowhere more so than at the Exbury Gardens and Steam Railway (www.exubury.co.uk), featuring within its 200 acres the Rothschild Collection of rhododendrons, azaleas, camellias, rare trees and shrubs, as well as a historic narrow-gauge railway.

The 12.25-inch track wends its way through the delightful Summer Lane Garden, which is only accessible from the train, passes through a tunnel, skirts the edge of the rock garden, crosses a viaduct and passes North Lake before reaching Exbury North Halt, in the American Garden, where the train stops briefly before making its return to Exbury Central Station.

Full of such delightful surprises, the New Forest is overflowing with nature’s bounty and a wealth of human history. To give yourself a taster of its magic, read Frederick Maryatt’s evocative English Civil War saga ‘The Children of the New Forest’.

A short flight from Belfast to Southampton and you could be exploring the place for yourself.

Southampton is the gateway to the New Forest. Flybe (www.flybe.com) operates 1-3 flights a day from Belfast, with a 1 hr 30 min flight time.

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