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The beautiful coastal views on offer when walking along the southern fringes of the New Forest National Park

PUBLISHED: 16:25 16 April 2014 | UPDATED: 16:35 16 April 2014

The walk heads along the shoreline passing the lighthouse (or Beaulieu River Millennium Beacon) which was built to help seafarers navigate in The Solent (at high tide you may have to use the parallel road instead) © Steve Davison

The walk heads along the shoreline passing the lighthouse (or Beaulieu River Millennium Beacon) which was built to help seafarers navigate in The Solent (at high tide you may have to use the parallel road instead) © Steve Davison

© Steve Davison

Walking along the southern fringes of the New Forest National Park offers lovely coastal views, picturesque villages and a fascinating history, writes Steve Davison.

Beaulieu River at Buckler’s Hard – a great place for waterfowl and boats © Steve DavisonBeaulieu River at Buckler’s Hard – a great place for waterfowl and boats © Steve Davison

Thanks to William the Conqueror, who set it aside as a royal hunting ground in 1079, the New Forest, or Nova Foresta as it was known in the Domesday Book, has been protected and nurtured by ancient laws for over 900 years. Situated in Hampshire on the south coast of England, it was given National Park status in 2005, helping to further conserve and enhance the natural beauty of its captivating landscape for future generations.

Although it is Britain’s smallest national park, the New Forest offers a lovely mix of ancient woodland, empty heather-clad heath and a fascinating coastline as well as historic churches, ancient sites, colourful gardens, peaceful rivers and pretty villages with thatched cottages, pubs and tea rooms.

The New Forest may not be a very hilly landscape and there are no sweeping mountain views, but a walk throughout takes you into a part of Southern England that William the Conqueror would probably still recognise. Couple that with the fleeting glimpses of wildlife – a deer suddenly stops to look before magically disappearing in the blink of an eye, birdsong mingles with the rustle of the wind in the trees or calls out across the coastal marshes, wildflowers add splashes of colour, the commoners’ stock grazes the land as it has done for centuries – and you have all the ingredients that make walking in the New Forest such a unique and rewarding experience.

The main market town along the coastline – home to Britain’s oldest sea water lido – is Lymington, which nowadays is a thriving yachting centre. The area has a long history stretching back to the Neolithic and Bronze Age, and just to the north of the town centre is Buckland Rings, the remains of an Iron Age fort. For several centuries Lymington flourished on the export of salt from the salt pans that stretched along the coast to Keyhaven.

Sea water was allowed to flow into the salterns – areas of land divided into small shallow ponds only about 3 inches deep – where it was left to partially evaporate, forming a strong brine solution (a mix of salt and water). This was then pumped by windmill into storage tanks before being dried in large metal boiling pans to produce salt crystals. During its heyday, there were numerous salt workings along the five mile stretch of coastline, with each salt pan producing around three tons of salt per week.

Moses Dock, one of several narrow inlets along the coastline, was constructed to allow barges to dock and off load coal for the boiling houses and to export the salt. The old brick buildings on the eastern side of the inlet are the last two remaining salt boiling houses that used to house some of the boiling pans. Cheaper, mined salt, forced the closure of the last saltern in the 1860s.

To learn more about Lymington’s history visit the St Barbe Museum just off the High Street (01590 676969; www.stbarbe-museum.org.uk).

A few miles to the west is the picturesque coastal village of Keyhaven; from here a long, curving shingle spit leads to historic Hurst Castle, with some wonderful views across to the Isle of Wight. Built by Henry VIII in 1544 to defend the western approach to The Solent, the castle is one of a series built to defend the coastline. Just over a century later Charles I was imprisoned here before being taken to London for trial and execution. The building was extended during the Napoleonic Wars and again in the 1870s when the large armoured wings with 38-ton guns were constructed. The castle remained part of Britain’s coastal defences until 1956. The original lighthouse was built in the 1780s to help guide vessels through the hazardous western approaches to The Solent between The Needles and the Shingles Bank; the current lighthouse was built in 1867 (castle information, including the ferry: 01590 642344;
www.hurstcastle.co.uk).

To the east of Lymington, situated at the mouth of the Beaulieu River, is Lepe, once a favoured haunt of smugglers until the Coast Guard Cottages and Watch House were built in the 19th century. Lepe played an important role in the D-Day landings, both as a departure point and for the construction of some of the Mulberry Harbours. It was also the mainland base for PLUTO (Pipe-Line-Under-The-Ocean), a 3-inch welded steel pipeline built to provide a ready supply of fuel for the advancing army; the pipe crossed The Solent and Isle of Wight and then went under the channel to France.

Inland, a short way along the peaceful Beaulieu River is the captivating 18th century hamlet of Bucklers Hard, which was once a bustling shipyard. The Master Builder’s House, now a hotel and bar, was built in 1729 and was the home of the Master Shipbuilder. The most famous tenants were Henry Adams and his sons Balthazar and Edward, Master Builders of ships for Nelson’s Navy, including three which fought at Trafalgar – HMS Swiftsure, HMS Euryalus and Nelson’s favourite, the 64-gun HMS Agamemnon. Inside St Mary’s Chapel, created in the front room of one of the cottages, is a wooden plaque to Sir Francis Chichester who set sail to circumnavigate the world in 1966-7 aboard Gipsy Moth IV. Slightly further upstream is Bailey’s Hard where the first naval ship, HMS Salisbury, was built on the river in 1698 and historic Beaulieu, ancestral home of Lord Montague.

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Four waterside walks

Best for wildlife and pub lovers…

Keyhaven and Pennington marshes (5¼ miles)

From the car park in Keyhaven beside The Gun Inn follow the lane eastwards and after passing a house take the right-hand fork following a slightly inland route along tracks and lanes heading towards Lymington. At Woodside (The Chequers Inn is a short walk to the left) the route passes Moses Dock to reach the sea wall path. The return route follows part of the Solent Way – a 60-mile long distance coastal walk from between Milford-on-Sea and Emsworth Harbour – along the coastline with views across the Pennington and Keyhaven Marshes nature reserve back to Keyhaven. Keep a lookout for birds such as little egret, common tern, shelduck and reed warbler, and don’t forget your binoculars and camera.

***

Best for bracing sea breezes…

Hurst spit and castle (2 miles each way)

From Keyhaven head south-west along the coastal path (Solent Way) before turning left just after the footbridge for a breezy 1½ mile walk along the top of the shingle spit to reach Hurst Castle (English Heritage) and lighthouse, situated less than a mile from the Isle of Wight. To return, either retrace your steps or take the easy option using the small passenger ferry back to Keyhaven (castle information, including the ferry: 01590 642344; www.hurstcastle.co.uk).

***

Best for dog walkers…

Lepe loop walk (4½ miles)

From Lepe Country Park head west alongside the road and continue along the coastal path, later passing Inchmery House (at high tide you may have to follow the parallel road) before turning inland towards Exbury. Turn right through Cump Copse to a junction at Burnthays Copse and turn right heading past East Hill Farm and then south back to Lepe.

While in the area visit the world-famous Exbury Gardens with their colourful collections of rhododendrons, azaleas, camellias and rare trees; the gardens were developed by Lionel de Rothschild who bought the Exbury Estate in 1919 (02380 891203; www.exbury.co.uk).

***

Best for maritime history…

Beaulieu River and Bucklers Hard (5 miles)

From the car park in Beaulieu head east, cross the High Street beside the village shop and follow the waymarked route between the houses. The walk heads south-east along tracks and riverside paths to arrive at Buckler’s Hard; return along the same route. Most of Beaulieu village forms part of the Beaulieu Estate and on many of the properties you’ll see the three vertically aligned red diamonds on a white background displayed – part of the Montagu family crest. To find out more about Buckler’s Hard, visit the Maritime Museum (01590 616203; www.bucklershard.co.uk), or during the summer take a 30-minute boat trip along the river. While in the area, visit the National Motor Museum, Lord Montagu’s stately home and the remains of the Cistercian abbey (01590 612345; www.beaulieu.co.uk).

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