The New Forest is simply one of the best places to go in Britain for an outdoorsy walking and cycling family holiday. Miles and miles of footpaths through woodland, over heather and by the sea, as well as safe cycling without a car in sight!
The New Forest is a haven for walkers. You can hop off a bus or train, or park in one of the many forest car parks, and set off armed with a map in pretty much any direction for a great walk. Parts of the area are occupied by farms and almost a quarter by enclosures of heavy conifers, but it is the remaining areas, well over half the New Forest, made up of mixed woodland and wide expanses of pony-grazing heathland, which are the places to go for the best walking. This is a really well-maintained National Park and you’ll find plenty of walks that you can do with a pushchair, or take a baby sling or backpack for even greater freedom.
Some of my family’s most memorable walks with toddlers have been in the forest: collecting leaves, picnicking in the shade of a majestic oak and spotting the ever-present wildlife. It’s a really varied landscape so you could find very different walks to do each day, from views over the heathlands to coastal walks or quiet ambles through silent leafy glades. There’s lots of information on walks at the Tourist Information Centres in Lyndhurst, Lymington and Ringwood. They all stock walking books, maps and a wide range of leaflets with good routes (some free, many costing from £1.50). You can also pick up a copy of the free Forest newspaper, Forest Focus, at any of the centres. This offers a selection of walks and trails starting from half a mile for a tottering toddler who likes to be out of the buggy!
There are over 100 miles of waymarked cycle routes in the New Forest. Look for signs with green and white disks on gravel roads and follow the paths which link all the main villages and sights right across the National Park. Don’t worry about having to cross the busy A31; there’s an underpass near Bolderwood, which means you can cycle safely and peacefully right around the New Forest without being concerned about traffic. You can start cycling from just about anywhere and go your own way, but if you’re looking for a more structured cycling plan then pick up a copy of ‘Cycling in the New Forest’ (£1.50 from the local Tourist Information Centres) or purchase one of several ‘Cycle Trails’ leaflets for £2. The Forestry Commission advises cyclists to keep to the waymarked trails and to give way to walkers and horse riders.
You can hire bikes, baby seats, attachable infant trailers and tag-alongs from several places around the New Forest, many of which also provide route guides. Go to www.thenewforest.co.uk then follow links for cycling for a full list of bike hire locations.
As you’d expect in an area famous for its wandering ponies, there are lots of opportunities for horse riding in the Forest. Many stables offer lessons for children from the age of four. You can pick up a comprehensive leaflet giving details of all stables in the New Forest from the Tourist Information Centres.