As a small herd of donkeys cross the road in front of us we stop the car. I wind down my window and as the group wanders by, one sticks it head in to say hello. We’re nose-to-nose. He’s completely unfazed by our giggling and cooing but soon moves on when he realises no food is on offer. I whip out my phone to take photos of the cutest, shaggiest donkeys I’ve ever seen. Driving through the New Forest in Hampshire supplies no end of subjects to photograph. Ponies, cows, sheep and, in the autumn, even pigs roam freely, munching up the acorns in this unique region of southern England made up of some 150 square miles of heathland, grassland and woodland where the residents have retained the rights to graze their livestock freely for hundreds of years.
You’ll find no cities here, just a few picturesque small towns and villages dotted around the countryside. I’m here to review the Bell Inn near Lyndhurst and I’m delighted to have the excuse to visit the New Forest National Park, a place where time seemingly stands still.
Christchurch Food Festival
We’d heard that nearby Christchurch, to the west of the forest, is holding its annual food festival. What better place to start? We park a little way out of town and walk the rest of the way in, which proves to be a good decision. With some roads closed for the festival, the remaining roads are a traffic jam. We pass a green where a jazz band is playing in front of the picturesque cricket pavilion. Emily’s Fudge Kitchen is all too tempting, but after a little taster we move on and discover stall after stall of delectable treats in the town centre.
Highlights include Clark’s Kitchen’s halloumi fries with chilli jam, roasted nuts from the Bavarian Nutman, Crow Farm Shop champion Pork Pies, The Garlic Farm’s Wight Little Pickle and Gilly’s Original Balsamic Dressing made from aged Italian balsamic and infused with French garlic, Madagascan black pepper, caramel, onion, herbs and spices. Down by the waterfront the Festival Village is in full swing and it’s hard to resist the temptation to stuff our faces but a three-course dinner at The Bell Inn is waiting for us, so resist we must!
The New Forest
Heading back through the New Forest we wander around as the mood takes us, stopping to photograph ponies by the roadside, the villages of Lyndhurst and Beaulieu (pictured below), more donkeys and more ponies, before heading to the Bell Inn, a couple of miles west of Cadnam, for dinner.
The Bell Inn, New Forest
This 18th-century coaching inn has been owned by the same family for over 200 years. It’s conveniently located in the north of the forest not far from the motorway, so is easy to get to, even in the height of summer when traffic bottlenecks are frequent in other parts of the forest.
The inn is a Grade II listed building with plenty of old-world charm seamlessly combined with modern comforts. The flagstone floors, large open fireplaces and wooden beams are teamed with an eclectic mix of furnishings and ornaments, creating inviting communal spaces that are both light and cosy. Our room, one of 28 ensuite bedrooms at the inn, was tastefully furnished and comfortable, with all that we might need to hand (with the exception of an iron, but I’m sure we only had to ask).
Dining at The Bell Inn
The bar has a welcoming atmosphere. I was torn between trying a local ale or something from their extensive selection of gins. I settled on the local Lymington Gin, served with red peppercorns and a slice of lime and a Double Dutch Tonic with pomegranate and basil. A winning team. I’ve only recently discovered Double Dutch tonics and I’m looking forward to getting better acquainted with their full range. Thanks to barman Scott for the recommendation as well as the excellent service.
For dinner, we moved to the Oak Room. Selecting from the menu was a tough decision but, in the end, I went with two familiar favourites – scallops to start, followed by steak. The 10oz Hampshire rib-eye steak was excellent, but the scallops-with-a-twist particularly stood out for me. They were succulent and moist and, rather unusually, served with a tasty curried cauliflower puree, mini shallot bhajis, toasted coconut and coriander oil – a cracking combination that I would love to try again. The dessert menu was tempting too but, in the end, I opted for a cheese platter, with a fine selection on offer. To be honest, while it was again excellent, I really should have skipped the last course as I was simply far too full already.
Breakfast the following morning was spot on too, with everything you might expect, including a hearty full English breakfast with bacon and sausages from Swallowfield Farm just 3 miles away and free range eggs from Fluffets Farm, also in the New Forest.
The fine quality of the food on offer at the Bell Inn is due not only to the skill of the Head Chef Mark Young and his team, but also to the quality of the seasonal local produce they use, much of which is sourced from the family’s New Forest estate.
Recommended for you: Handcrafted chocolates in the heart of the New Forest.
Golf at The Bell Inn
Owning two 18-hole golf courses, The Bell Inn is not just a food lover’s dream it’s also the perfect choice for golf enthusiasts. Right next door you’ll find the traditional Manor Course and, just a short walk away, the Forest Course. Originally built in 1865 the latter is the oldest golf course in Hampshire and encompasses woodland, streams and heathland. Sharing the greens with the ponies and other livestock that roam freely through the forest, it offers a greater test of a golfer’s skill!
New Forest Walks
The next morning, we drove along Bolderwood’s Arboretum and Ornamental Drive and Rhinefield Ornamental Drive, parking in Blackwater Car Park. From here there are some lovely New Forest walks through the trees including the Tall Trees Trail – a glorious way to spend the morning. Lastly, we stretched our legs along Hurst Spit and enjoyed the views of the lagoon and out to sea. If there had been time I would have loved to have stopped by the historic maritime town of Lymington or one of the forest’s excellent breweries. Ringwood Brewery has a particularly good reputation but ideally, I’d like to visit them all, including the home of Lymington Gin, the Dancing Cow’s Distillery and Brewhouse. A return visit is called for, don’t you think?
Where to find bluebells in the New Forest?
Britain’s favourite wildflower, the bluebell, is a highlight of every spring in England in late April / early May. We found some in the woods adjacent to the Manor Golf Course (thanks to a tip-off from a groundsman at the golf course). Other places in the forest include Pondhead Inclosure, Bank, Roydon Woods, Sandleheath and Exbury Gardens.
Good to know
The Bell Inn, Brook, New Forest, Hampshire, SO43 7HE
Tel: 023 8081 2214
Dinner, bed and breakfast for two at The Bell Inn starts from £159 per night.
Getting there by car: The Bell Inn is just over a mile from the M27, so couldn’t be easy to reach by car. It is 11 miles from Southampton, 23 miles from Bournemouth and 85 miles from central London.
Getting there by train: The nearest railway station is Ashurst in the New Forest, which is 6 miles from the Bell Inn. Ashurst station can be reached from London Waterloo or London Victoria in just over 2 hours. From Ashurst you can take a taxi, New Forest Taxis ATS Tel: 023 8017 2184.
Do’s and don’ts: Never feed or approach the ponies or donkeys. Some human food can be bad for them and feeding them will lead to them developing a habit of pestering for more. They can bite and kick so don’t get too close. If planning a picnic, please use the fenced picnic areas found at Bolderwood, Blackwater and Wilverley. Never pick, dig up (it’s a criminal offence) or trample wild bluebells.
Love it? PIn it!
Disclosure: Our dinner, bed and breakfast at The Bell Inn was complimentary for review purposes. As always, I retained the right to write whatever I wish and I will always share with you my honest opinions.
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