The first night's sleep in the countryside can be disorienting. There's that feeling, if you happen to wake before dawn, of not knowing where you are, then trying to work out why the door has been moved to the other side of the bed. Then, as your brain performs a spatial volte face, there's the realisation that you're actually on holiday.
Here, I was woken before daybreak, disturbed in the unfamiliar peace and quiet by soft noises outside. Convinced that I was still in the city, I blundered to the window and saw two large shadowy figures shuffling around the car. One light, one dark; in my urban brain they were clearly up to no good. Then, in that fuzzy interval between my eyes becoming accustomed to the gloom and looking for the phone to dial 999, I remembered where I was: in a cottage in the New Forest, deep in wandering pony territory.
I had come to the tranquillity of Turnstone Cottage with my family, who were dozing, oblivious to my nocturnal brainstorm. The partly thatched cottage is on the edge of East Boldre, in a quiet south-eastern corner of the forest, where nature still has the upper hand. The largest section of the welcome pack – one I'd not read before tumbling into bed after dark – is given over to detailed advice on how to deal with ponies. Whereas in the city it's helpful to have the knack of discreetly enabling the central locking with your elbow while driving through suspicious neighbourhoods, in the New Forest different skills are required. Beware of a mother and foal, visiting motorists are warned – like all impulsive young, if they are on opposite sides of the highway from their mum when you approach, anticipate a last-second dash across the road.
Ponies wander around the area's minor roads as if they own the place. (At one point during the weekend, we saw a pony craning its head to nibble – it could almost have been pruning – the contents of a hanging basket.) It's partly a function of an environment where roads with no kerbs blend into closely chewed pasture, encouraging ponies to wander free. The same counts for two-legged visitors, as this lack of division between Tarmac and turf draws one naturally into Britain's newest National Park, granted that status in the spring of 2005.
In this spirit, having scoffed the contents of the welcome hamper for breakfast, I set out to explore with my eldest son, as my youngest daughter napped with her mum. I gave the car a passing glance and noticed that, if anything, it looked shinier than when we'd parked it the previous night, a result, perhaps, of a thorough nuzzling with pony hair. We wandered across scrubby heathland, past grazing animals and, within minutes, into woods of oak. Within their cover, sound was muffled and dappled light fell on primroses and bluebells. At the end of the woods, we re-emerged into the light and came across a lily pond, dotted with wide deep-green leaves and pink and white flowers. Louis and I spent a happy time skimming stones across the water, knocking imaginary frogs from their seat.
We returned for a late lunch – well, late for lunch would be more accurate. Eating in the garden, our own rhythms seemed to have fallen into step with nature. As the kids ate barbecued lamb chops and sausages purchased a few hours earlier from the excellent Saturday street market at nearby Lymington, we rose from the table to pinpoint the source of some insistent tweeting. As we chomped away, a pair of sparrows were feeding their own young in the nest box above a trellised arch. When we craned our necks for a closer look, we discovered a white-collared dove nesting behind.
It's an environment that rewards exploration. After lunch we drove to Beaulieu and, energised by a blueberry ice-cream, set off on foot for Buckler's Hard, an era-striding stroll of just over two miles, linking a village containing a museum dedicated to the development of the motor car at Beaulieu with another celebrating the building of Nelson's fleet.
Our walk began at the rear of the Montagu Arms Hotel, and followed a path alongside open fields by a warm breeze in bright sunshine. Before long, the path darkened, enveloped on either side by woods. Soon we were by the river Beaulieu, the roots of the trees on its banks exposed on the salt marshes. Timber from the trees here was used to supply the shipyard further upriver, and the expertise of those in the port was put to use in conflicts 140 years apart.
The village of Buckler's Hard was created in the early 18th century by the second Duke of Montagu. His intention was to build a "free port", to be known, immodestly, as Montagu Town, and whose prosperity would be built on the import and export of sugar from St Lucia and St Vincent. His grand plan was scuppered when the French claimed the West Indies, but years later, Montagu was to have his (indirect) revenge. From the 1740s, the shipyard was used to build around 50 wooden ships for the Royal Navy, three of which served at the Battle of Trafalgar. The boatyard is named after Nelson's favourite, the Agamemnon, although one could understand if he had mixed feelings about her. While serving as the Agamemnon's captain he met Lady Hamilton in Naples, and later lost an eye aboard the ship during the battle of Calvi.
Today, one can walk up the embryonic high street that runs down to the water, flanked on either side by the half-dozen period terraced houses that were intended to constitute the first – rather than final – stage of the town's development. At the top of the road, the fine Maritime Museum tells the story of Nelson, and how Buckler's Hard's transformation into a sleepy backwater was interrupted by World War Two. Some of the floating Mulberry Pontoons used in the D-Day landings were constructed here – of concrete, it should be said, rather than oak – and towed across the Channel.
We'd arrived by car, explored on foot, and learnt of the adventures of others on the water. Rising early, the family still asleep – there's nothing like exhausting the little ones the day before to guarantee some quality time alone – I set off to finish the weekend on my bike.
My destination was Brockenhurst, where, at the Balmer Lawn Hotel, the generals Montgomery and Eisenhower held many of their meetings to plan D-Day. In advance of the Normandy invasion, jeeps and tanks were hidden behind the town's great oaks. Today, you are more likely to come across the assault vehicles of the modern age, in the form of four-wheel drives and people carriers. This busy, wealthy town constitutes a less romantic element of the New Forest, where horses are ridden rather than allowed to roam free.
Standing outside the hotel, scruffy and sweaty on the gravel drive, my cleated cycle shoes crunched on the stones as I nosed around, trying to look inconspicuous as I imagined clandestine meetings of the great men. As couples on romantic mini-breaks walked towards their expensive vehicles, I felt, for the first time that weekend, out of place. Mine, I concluded, is the wild New Forest of nature unfettered, of wind-blown oak trees rather than manicured hotel gardens, of frogs and mischievous ponies. I was ready to go home. And at the back of my mind, I may have been wondering what our four-legged neighbours had been doing to the car.
Autumn in the new forest
The Knightwood Oak Trail is open throughout the year, and follows a quarter-mile path through ancient forest. A podcast telling you all about the golden hues you'll see is available from www.forestry.gov.uk/newforest.
The Child of the Wild event welcomes children and parents alike to explore the woods from an animal's point of view, collecting forest treasures along the way (£3 per child, booking essential).
Full Moon Fever: while those notorious ponies are sleeping, take the trail around the Blashford Lakes Study Centre in search of bats, moths and tawny owls (6.30pm–8pm, free).
Hallowe'en Stories: listen to tales while walking around blackwater Arboretum. Take your lanterns and torches for a darker woodland story-telling experience, suitable for over-eights (7.15pm, £3 per person).
For more information, ring 023-8028 6840 or visit www.thenewforest.co.uk .
Brockenhurst is on the South West Trains main line from London Waterloo, and has a shuttle service to Lymington. Fares and times: 08457 484 950; www.nationalrail.co.uk .
Turnstone Cottage, East Boldre, Hampshire can be booked through Cottages4You (08700 782100; www.cottages4you.co.uk ; ref 19687). It sleeps eight and is available for short breaks of two, three or four nights as well as weekly stays. Rental starts from £192.50 for a two-night break to £325.50 for seven nights.
At the Balmer Lawn Hotel, Brockenhurst (01590 623116; www.balmerlawnhotel.com ), a double room costs £140, including breakfast.
Buckler's Hard (01590 614 645; www.bucklershard.co.uk ) is a rarity: an English village that charges an admission fee. You pay at the Maritime Museum. Open daily 11am-4pm October-April, 10.30am-5pm Easter-September; admission £5.90.
New Forest Tourism: 01590 689000; www.thenewforest.co.uk