The New Forest is a vast area of heathland and woodland in the south west of Hampshire which became a designated National Park in 2005. William the Conqueror claimed the New Forest (Nova Forestra) as his Royal hunting ground over 900 years ago. In more recent times the Forest was a source of timber for the forces during both World Wars. Today it is one of the largest expanses of heathland in Europe, famed for its ponies and one of the most popular places for walking, cycling and horse riding in the country.
Family cycling holidays are particularly popular and there are many sites of historic interest within the National Park. A great place to start is the New Forest Centre in Lyndhurst where you can pick up the New Forest Tour and the Beach Bus. Visit during the autumn walking festival and enjoy a host of top family attractions including Beaulieu, home of the National Motor Museum, and Paulton's Family Theme Park near Ower. On the New Forest coast you'll find beautiful villages like Georgian Lymington, a sailing centre with stunning marinas and boat trips to the Isle of Wight.
The New Forest ponies can be seen all over the National Park. Often you'll see them alongside the roads, so take care when driving. The New Forest ponies come from native wild horses although they have long been semi-domesticated. Wild horses were recorded as being present in the New Forest as early as 1016. The New Forest Ponies are hardy animals able to withstand all weathers as they roam freely to graze the commons. They are owned by the commoners who retain rights to graze the forest as they did in William the Conqueror's time. The horses are renowned for their strength and gentle nature which make them popular with visitors.
The New Forest was originally ancient woodland that was first inhabited by Stone Age man. This is when areas of the native forest started to be cleared for settlements which continued through to the Bronze Age. Heathland became established in these forest clearings and you can find both ancient woodland and heathland throughout much of the New Forest today. There are hundreds of scheduled ancient monuments throughout the National Park including round barrows and boiling mounds although these are not often easy to find amongst the trees and gorse.
In the eleventh century the New Forest was designated a Royal Forest by William I, more famously known as William the Conqueror. This meant that the forest was protected and reserved for hunting by the royals and those they chose to entertain. William the Conqueror devised the system of Forest Law which issued stiff penalties to those damaging the forest habitat or poaching game in the Royal Forest which at that time included deer, boar, hare and wolf. This had significant impacts on those living in and around the forest who depended on it for their own survival. Forest Law was upheld by Verderers (judges) with Agisters (stockmen) and commoners (land users) managing the land.
These terms are still used today and a Verderers Court still meets quarterly in Lyndhurst. The King's son William Rufus, William II, was killed while hunting in the forest in 1100. The Rufus Stone, just off the A31 near Minstead, marks the spot where Rufus was accidentally killed by an arrow launched by Sir Walter Tyrell at a stag on 2 August 1100.
The Forest changed little over the years although boar became extinct by the thirteenth century and wolves by the late fifteenth century. The next great change came about when broadleaved trees were felled and replaced with non-native conifers for timber required by the Royal Navy in the eighteenth century and then again during the First and Second World Wars. This drastically altered the character and wildlife of the New Forest and current forest management is now trying to reverse the negative impacts that this has had on such an important ancient woodland site. However, this didn't prevent it being designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest in 1971 and it is now protected as an internationally important wildlife site due to its wet and dry heathlands, bogs and beech and oak woodlands.
In 2005 the New Forest was designated a National Park due to its unique history and landscape and for being the most intact example of a medieval hunting forest and pastoral system in England. Today the New Forest is one of the most popular places in the country for all forms of recreation. A network of footpaths, cycle trails and bridleways run through the National Park making walking, cycling and horse riding easily accessible.