Team Wunderdog greeted 2020 in the New Forest. Despite being only two hours by car from London, its rugged beauty with free-roaming ponies seems a secret destination. Here is why you and your pooch should go for a dog-friendly break very soon
Just an hour after the signs for Heathrow Airport, the satnav told us to turn left. We were still on a reasonably busy A road, the dogs still asleep in the back, not assuming anything. The turn took us straight over a kettle grid – and what do you know, there was a pony right by the road! Free-range, free of any care, munching along together with his friends amid weathered trees and bushes on the heathland.
Our dogs shot up like meerkats in the back. What just happened? Why are we in walkies paradise when our petrol-station coffee hadn’t even gone cold yet? We arrived in the New Forest, the perhaps best-kept secret within easy reach of London.
When we went for New Year’s, it was our third trip in seven months to this area, set on England’s south coast between Southampton and Bournemouth. The New Forest comprises the national park and a ‘site of special scientific interest’, and with its total area of 340 square miles this is one of the largest unsown, open pastures of heathland, wetland and forest in England. The area’s rich history dates back to the 12th century, and landmarks tell of kings and commoners (who have the right to let their ponies, cows and pigs roam freely here), navy timber traders and war spies.
Our dogs, alas, couldn’t care less for memorials: there are ferns and heathers, Knightwood oaks and giant redwoods, gentle streams and muddy puddles, beaches and an arboretum, and smells of animals you’d never encounter in the city. Our dogs were in seventh heaven. And so were we.
The New Forest offers a strange mix to us city-based dog-people: it is near enough to London to warrant a weekend trip, and most pubs are dog-friendly and very good, even by spoilt towners’ standards. But it is also hardly busy, and if you find the odd full parking lot (the Blackwater Tall Trees Trail is certainly popular), drive five minutes to a smaller parking space to walk across the heathlands and you won’t see another human for ages.
We love in particular the area between Brockenhurst and Burley for walks. Park pretty much anywhere and explore. We love staying on the western fringe of the New Forest towards Fordingbridge (a posh dog-friendly Airbnb is this one and our favourite is this coach house – both have beautiful walking trails right behind the properties). One of our favourite pubs, The Forrester’s Arms, is a short drive away. Never mind the locally sourced ingredients for its menu, this pub is incredibly dog-friendly with water bowls everywhere and dog-loving staff who gave us tips for nearby walkies (just drive past the pub to the Frogham car park and walk into any direction).
(Note: we asked a local dog-walker and -groomer about Alabama rot, which has been reported in the New Forest. She said she had only heard of two instances six years ago. To be safe though, Wunderdog recommends washing your dog’s legs and paws after each walk.)
Also near Fordingbridge is the dog-friendly Hockey’s Farm shop. The café, plant shop and deli also has chickens, pigs, alpacas, donkeys and exotic birds for visitors to see. (If you need one more push to go vegetarian, check out the happy pink pigs.) And for your fix of picture-perfect thatched cottages and an Inn at the heart of the village, head to Minstead. We love The Trusty Servant pub, although it took us a long time to walk there, having to stop every few steps to marvel at thatches and ponies.
Talking of ponies, they were here first, so treat them with respect. While dogs are by and large allowed off lead, don’t worry the locals – hooved or otherwise. Wunderdog’s Tara and Goldie didn’t take long to get used to the gentle inhabitants and now walk past them without so much as a “How do you do?”.
With so much to do on the heath- and wetlands and in the forests, we don’t head to the coast much. But a final tip is the walk across Hengistbury Head near Christchurch. The cliff-or-beach walk can be extended with an amble along the colourful beach houses on Mudeford Sandbank.
We drive back with two tired, muddy and very happy dogs on the backseat, surrounded by plants we bought at Hockey’s. When the dogs get a shower, I usually find some leftover fern in Goldie’s tail. And then we all dream of our next trip to the New Forest.