As part of our Green Traveller's Guide to the New Forest, Philippa Jacks discovers there's more to this beautiful, natural region than just the National Park.
As the rickety, electric train rattles along the pier, I begin to wish I’d waited until after my train ride to hear the story of the night the pier was sliced in two. In 2003, a drunken skipper smashed his dredger right through the middle of the 640-metre long pier, destroying a wide section of its planks and putting the Hythe Pier Train out of action for two months. From my windswept seat in the open-sided train, the end of the pier suddenly looks a very long way away, and the sea an awfully long way down. As we lurch along the track, I keep a cautious eye out for any boats that might be heading our way...but we reach the other end of the pier unscathed. Hythe Pier opened in 1879 and lays claim to the oldest pier train in the world. This small town on the coast of the New Forest has lots of interesting history. A short walking tour with local guide Sarah gives me an insight into its Anglo-Saxon origins and maritime heritage. I also hear about one or two famous residents: Christopher Cockerell, inventor of the hovercraft, and even T.E.Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) for a short time. And as for what Hythe did with that drunken sailor: he got eight months in prison.
A ride on the tiny, old-fashioned train is a real novelty, especially for kids, but Hythe Ferry, which sails from the end of the pier, is a vital commuter link across to Southampton. The journey takes 15 minutes, and you'll stare up in awe at colossal cruise ships preparing to start their voyage from the port; the new QE2 might be docked at the Cunard terminal if you’re lucky. Because of its proximity to the New Forest National Park, Hythe is also a handy gateway to the forest for those travelling without a car. Green travellers can take the 15-minute ferry from Southampton to Hythe (£4.10 return), and bring their own bikes onboard (an extra £1) or hire bikes when they get to Hythe. Cyclists can then hop onto National Route 2 of the National Cycle Network, and pedal straight into the forest. You can be forgiven for thinking ‘trees’ when you hear ‘New Forest’, but the New Forest District in fact reaches further than the National Park, and has more than 60 kilometres of coast. As well as Hythe, the coastal towns of Barton-on-Sea, Milford-on-Sea and Lymington are popular daytrips, with beaches and marinas to explore. Twitchers should head to Lymington-Keyhaven Nature Reserve – a huge, rich area of lagoons and marshes which attract wildfowl like shoveler and tern, and migrant wading birds like whimbrel and curlew sandpiper. • To arrange a talk/tour about Hythe and its famous pier, call 023 8084 0722.
Where to stay Forge Place is a pretty B&B in the hamlet of Bockampton. Located on the southern edge of the New Forest, and to the west of Barton-on-Sea and Lymington, it’s a great base if you want to explore both the forest and the coast. The two double, en-suite rooms are like small studios, with their own fridge and kitchen area, and are in a self-contained cottage at the bottom of the garden. Cheery host Caroline bakes her own bread and makes jams and preserves to serve at breakfast alongside cereals and a cooked breakfast – including eggs from her very own hens. Don’t eat just before checking in, as you’ll be welcomed by a wedge of naughty chocolate cake that you won’t be able to resist. Forge Place is a member of the New Forest’s Green Leaf Scheme, and generates much of its own energy from solar panels. I loved the smell from my wood-burning stove, which I fed with eucalyptus logs. The Lamb Inn, which serves good food, is right next door, or three other pubs are within walking distance. Most guests tend to drive, and bring their bikes with them, but you can reach Forge Place from Christchurch on the bus, or from Ringwood on National Express coach. Rooms are from £60 per night, including breakfast.