When I moved to Southampton a little more than twenty months ago, one of the clear advantages of my new location was its proximity to the widely-admired (if inaccurately named) New Forest. Given that it lies little more than half-a-dozen miles away (as the crow or drone flies), I could regularly partake of its arboreal delights. Prior to last Wednesday, the number of trips I had taken to the Forest could be counted using the fingers of one foot (a foot, I should emphasise, unaffected by radiation-based mutation).
Finally, last Wednesday as the temperature soared in a series of events we may come to look back on as The Summer™, I decided the time had come to visit the hunting grounds of William the Bastard (or Conqueror as I believe he preferred). So, packing up a few essentials into a spotted handkerchief (OK, a messenger bag) I cycled down to the Town Quay to seek passage across Southampton Water. There is a regular ferry that will take the traveller over to Hythe, but as I discovered, it is very much a no-frills operation. This lack of frills extends to an almost total lack of any signage (there was in fact one sign, but someone was standing in front of it, totally obscuring it). The potential user will also be well-advised to carry a lot of change as one’s ticket is purchased from slightly modified parking machines which do not take credit cards, notes or even the current ten pence piece. I lacked suitable change, but luckily the ferry company will exchange your notes for small bags of change acceptable to the machines – at a very competitive 1-1 exchange rate. Such formalities out of the way, my cycle and I boarded the MV Great Expectations and made the short crossing over to one of this country’s many Hythes.
In Hythe, the cyclist can join NCN 2 which promises to transport you to the New Forest and thence to Brockenhurst and probably beyond. I will admit that it does do this… eventually. The routing through Hythe and Dibden has clearly not been optimised for either speed or distance and the signage is a little thin on the ground, but patience (coupled with a little luck, an A-Z and a 1:25,000 map from the Ordnance Survey) did eventually deliver me to the edge of the New Forest. Entering the forest proper required my bicycle to make its first ever crossing of a cattle grid – which it handled like a pro (though it was less comfy for the rider).
The first thing you notice about the New Forest is the relative scarcity of trees – or at least on this eastern edge, where gorse-covered heathland dominates the scenery. The second thing you notice is that New Forest ponies are not rare – there are loads of them, and (in common with most motorists, some cyclists and a few pedestrians) they clearly believe that they own the road. I am generally quite nervous cycling near horses (or ponies – though the Shetland variety might be OK) given that they are larger and heavier than me and tend to the unpredictable – but luckily, most of the ponies seemed more interested in taking on four-wheeled opponents than a middle-aged cyclist. Otherwise, cycling around the heathland in the balmy weather was really very pleasant (the scenery is of a type more associated – by me -with a holiday then a short troll from home). Seeking refreshment I stopped off in the village of Beaulieu and eventually used the Montagu Arms Hotel as it seemed to be the sole provider of a stand to secure my bike (though the stands may have been provide to secure a four-footed form of transport). This was a long way from the cheapest option for tea and cake, but I felt they should be rewarded for their bike (or horse) stands and they did provide a lovely garden for the refuelling. They were also very generous with the quantity of tea (nearly enough to refloat the MV Great Expectations) and the parkin (the only cake on offer) was excellent – also very nice facilities to purge some of the tea before continuing on my way.
I then cycled back to Hythe, using my own route through Dibden Purlieu to the ferry terminal which was substantially more efficient then NCN 2 (though did require navigation of a rather busy roundabout). With a few minutes to kill before the ferry (actually, more than a few as the timetable seems more a suggestion than a rigid commitment) I stumbled upon an excellent greengrocer which provided me with local tomatoes and rhubarb – if only I could find one nearer to home.
All-in-all an excellent afternoon out, and probably my longest cycle ride since moving to the south coast. My body held up rather well to the rigours, though I was reminded why – when I used to cycle such distances daily – I wore padded boxer shorts. Still, I have no real intention to pass on my genes and the contents of my under-crackers seem to be healing nicely. I shall have to obtain a map of the cycle routes in the Forest and try and allow less than 20 months to elapse before my next visit – perhaps next time I shall take my bike on the train and delve deeper into the Nova Foresta (as the Domesday Book would have it).