It’s a cliché to say that there’s something magical and timeless about the New Forest, but that’s only because it’s so true. We left London on Thursday morning, frazzled by six weeks of non-stop police sirens and terror alerts, and as the train pulled out of Waterloo and sped through the countryside and we cracked open the picnic, it began to really feel like a holiday.
We alighted at Brockenhurst and walked to the guest house, a large detached building at the end of a gravel drive. It had only two guest rooms: ours was lovely, with mahogany antique furnishings and a giant bed, and curtains printed with kissing parrots. The bathroom was big and our hosts had provided large bottles of shampoo and body lotion, cotton buds, lots of towels and a big bar of soap. So different from all the miniatures you usually get in a B&B. We unpacked all our clothing (to make it feel like we lived there), and went to pick up our bikes. Rather than gangs of hoodie-wearing youths, Brockenhurst has groups of wild ponies hanging around on street corners or loitering by the post box. And like hooded youths, you need to give them a wide berth as they’re unpredictable and can be violent.
We decided to do a 14.5 mile ride, which was a bit optimistic seeing as neither of us had cycled since we were kids. The route was mostly off-road (at our request), and took in dark, dense forests, a pond surrounded by ponies and donkeys having a paddle, and a pub. Standing on a rough path, under a canopy of giant conifers, we could have been in the 11th century, when the forest was founded by William the Conqueror. We stopped and let the silence wash over us, the forest quiet save for the twitter and rustle of its thousands of inhabitants. The ride was free of mishaps, but I did get a bit anxious riding along a winding country lane with trucks overtaking us. As we’d burned off a lot of calories with all that exercise, we went for dinner at the Rose & Crown, a pub with a huge, lush garden, where we ate burgers that appeared to have been deep fried, bun and all, and were all the more delicious for it. Then we went back to the hotel and I fell into a deep, fatty sleep.
Friday we’d reserved a couple of horses, and sloped off to the stables after a fry-up consisting of egg, bacon, sausages, hash brown, tomatoes, beans, mushrooms, and toast, preceded by a big bowl of fruit (for health). We had to borrow coats from the stables, and the barn they were kept in was full of spiders, and a giant rat. We dusted down a couple of cobwebby jackets and mounted our steeds: Freckles (Steve’s fearsome beast) and Pie (my aptly-named mount). Pie was a lazy old thing, requiring a jab with my heels just to stay moving. We walked across heath and went into the forest, and when we trotted S realized why he was the only male on the ten-person ride. Saddle-sore, we waddled off to the Buttery, an olde worlde café, for some lunch: broccoli and stilton soup, and home-made cakes to take back to our room. I don’t know what the Buttery put in those cakes, but I think it was Mogadon. We ate them and the next thing I remember was fuzzily waking up on a drool-covered pillow several hours later, S snoring next to me. He went for a walk to clear his head (and cos he likes to have ‘alone time’ on every holiday we take – I do too, but it usually involves shoe shopping), while I watched a programme about the very lovely Dr Mo Mowlam. I’d arranged to meet Steve at the Rainbow Fish Bar for a spot of dinner, and, for the third time that day, as soon as I set foot outdoors, it started to rain. Luckily he had an umbrella, and I’m sure we provided amusement for tourists and locals alike as we shared a fish supper on a bench, huddled under a National Trust golf umbrella.
On Saturday we took a heritage train (basically an old slam-door train painted dark green) to Lymington, a freakishly quaint town on the Solent, just across the bay from the Isle of Wight. It was market day, so we inched along behind senior citizens before heading off to the harbour and taking the one hour ‘cruise’. I’m still bitter about this (and I think Steve will take his anger to the grave). The ‘cruise’ entailed going to the Isle of Wight, dropping off some passengers, and coming back. We were going to ask for a refund, but on reading the board again it did say that the trip ‘provides good views of the Needles and Hurst Castle in the distance’. It’s only the last three words that count: the Needles and the castle were specks on the horizon. And I would argue that the views were not ‘good’. Disgruntled, we cheered ourselves with sandwiches made with fresh crab, and a Cornish pasty we nearly came to blows over (it wasn’t even nice – Steve just gets really, really mad when I take giant bites).
In the afternoon we saw Steve’s family, and went for a walk in the forest before getting a lift to Lyndhurst to look at St Michael and All Angels, after which we had one of the worst, slowest meals I’ve ever eaten. Did you know bruschetta and a pizza takes an hour and a half to make?
On our last day we hired bikes again, this time following the ‘Tall Trees and Deer’ route, and taking a picnic. We did indeed see deer, and used Steve’s new binoculars to watch some buzzards and spy on other cyclists. Again, no major accidents, except for when, after a pint of bitter shandy, I veered into a ditch and got horseshit on my jeans. We stopped in a field and lunched on quiche, crisps, a sausage roll, raspberries, cereal bars and ginger beer. It was a lovely holiday; I only wish we’d been there for a week.