As part of our Green Traveller's Guide to the New Forest, Philippa Jacks gets a duck's eye view of the New Forest by canoeing along the Beaulieu River.
I admit, I am partial to a venison steak. But when my instructor Sam explains to me the difference between a canoe and a kayak, I wonder exactly what kind of river-borne I’ve signed myself up for.
"Canoes are designed for deer-hunting on rivers, and kayaks are better for hunting seals,” he says. “You can't carry a deer carcass on a kayak," he points out. I had rather hoped to avoid slaying any large mammals today. But it soon becomes clear that the only thing we're likely to do to deers on this tour is take photos.
Sam’s company, New Forest Activities, offers both canoeing and kayaking on the peaceful Beaulieu River. It’s easy to see how this little pocket of the New Forest earned the name of ‘beautiful place’. The water is cool and calm and the only noise is the splash of my badly-coordinated paddling, and the calls of moorhens and coots.
Sam is as much a tour guide as he is an instructor, and he gives us a crash-course in Beaulieu history and New Forest flora and fauna as we paddle gently up the river. I learn that Beaulieu was home to an important shipyard in the 18th and 19th centuries, even building warships for Admiral Nelson. During the Second World War, there was a large airfield here, and this sleepy village was to be the last line of defence if the enemy ever sailed up the river from the coast.
Beaulieu River is the only privately-owned river in the country, and Lord Montagu owns the surrounding countryside too. From my canoe, I can just about make out the bright red doors of those cottages that still belong to his estate. It’s a very exclusive stretch of riverbank, and the land here is some of the most expensive in the country.
You don’t need to be a millionaire to enjoy canoeing or kayaking though – a standard two hour tour costs £28 per person which includes equipment and tuition. All carcass-carrying aside, the key difference between the canoes and the kayaks used by New Forest Activities is that the canoes are open, while the kayaks have a closed-cockpit. The canoes are perfect for families and pairs to share, while the kayaks are paddled solo.
Where to stay
The four-star Montagu Arms at Beaulieu is one of the smartest hotels in the New Forest. With oak paneled rooms, log fires and ivy-covered walls, it’s the quintessential country house retreat. There are 26 individually-styled rooms, ranging from a standard double to a spacious deluxe suite with its own living area. I loved the chunky wooden keyrings that make it impossible to lose your room-key, and the fenced seating area at the front of the hotel which means you can enjoy a pint or a glass of wine and watch out for passing New Forest donkeys.
The Montagu Arms is a member of the New Forest’s Green Leaf scheme, and recently created a kitchen garden which now grows much of its own seasonal produce.
There is casual dining in Monty’s Inn, or fine-dining in the Michelin-starred restaurant called The Terrace, where I enjoyed a deliciously-rich roast saddle of venison (of course). The waiter even brought our petit-fours up to my suite so we could enjoy them tucked under the duvet on the sofa. If your budget doesn’t stretch to staying here, treat yourself to afternoon tea served in the pretty gardens or conservatory at the back of the hotel.