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Ever seen a pig roaming freely through the woods?
It’s possible in the New Forest, where domestic pigs are set free each autumn to feast on acorns and other fallen treats. Ponies, too, can often be sighted roaming free, along with several species of deer. This is a woodland like no other.
The New Forest in Hampshire and Wiltshire is just a 90 minute train ride from London. Aside from its abundant wildlife and ancient trees, the forest also boasts a dizzying array of visitor attractions and experiences for families. Here, we round up some of the best -- perfect if you’re on a day trip, or staying for a family holiday in the New Forest.
If you’ve got children under 5, then you can’t stay in the New Forest without visiting Peppa. Leaflets and signs for Paultons Park, home of Peppa Pig World, are everywhere. You will be lobbied and cajoled until you give in. But why not? The attraction is consistently rated highly among Kidadlers, and was voted top UK theme park on Trip Advisor five years running.
Meet all your favourite characters and have fun on over 70 rides including Grampy Rabbit’s Sailing Club, Peppa’s Big Balloon Ride, Miss Rabbit’s Helicopter Flight and, inevitably, George’s Dinosaur Adventure. Find it to the north-east of the forest, near Southampton. Accommodation is available for those who want to make a holiday of it.
New Forest Wildlife Park
Not so much a zoo, but a sanctuary and conservation park for animals. Here’s the novel bit -- nearly all the animals are either native to Britain, or used to be native but are now scarce or extinct in the wild -- including wolves and lynx. The collection also includes a few animals from overseas, including wallabies, European bison and American otters. With a couple of adventure playgrounds thrown in, New Forest Wildlife Park near Ashurst makes an excellent family day out.
Cycle The Forest Tracks
Families with older children might consider hiring bikes (or bring your own). It’s the most efficient, and environmentally friendly way of getting around the forest. Over 100 miles of off-road marked routes make this one of the safest and most beautiful parts of the country for family cycling. You can find cycle hire in Brockenhurst, Burley, Lyndhurst and Beaulieu.
National Motor Museum
Also in Beaulieu is one of the country’s best museum’s devoted to another form of transport: motoring. Driving a car might be something you can only do when you reach 17, but that doesn’t stop the National Motor Museum from appealing to kids. Far from it. The place is -- and I don't apologise for the pun -- all geared up for families. Check out the novelty cars from Top Gear, Formula 1 racers and some of the world’s oldest cars. The newest exhibition, called Motoring in Miniature, looks at the toy cars we all played with in childhood. While in Beaulieu, don’t forget to stop by the new adventure playground, and take a trip on the monorail.
The New Forest is, of course, one of the country’s most cherished natural environments, but it also has excellent landscaped gardens to explore. Exbury Gardens, near Beaulieu, is the largest. A series of gorgeously planted gardens is set among 200 acres of woods, meadows and other landscapes. You’ll have no trouble finding a pleasant picnic spot. To keep the kids amused, the popular steam railway is one of the longest around, with a mile and a half of track. The journey will take you through a tunnel and into parts of the garden not accessible on foot.
Moors Valley Country Park
Seemingly combining the best bits of all the other attractions, Moors Valley is a vast country park with adventure playgrounds, cycle hire, a Go Ape treetop challenge and a miniature railway. An unrivalled place to burn off some energy. Find the park over to the west of the forest, near Ringwood.
At the southern extreme of the forest, jutting out into the Channel on a spit of land, stands Hurst Castle. The fortress was built by Henry VIII as an artillery position guarding the entrance to the Solent -- a role it continued to perform right up to the Second World War. Its fascinating history should captivate the kids, but the unique location -- on a shingle spit overlooking the Isle of Wight -- will feel like part of an adventure in its own right.
Go For A Guided Nature Walk
The New Forest can be a slightly bewildering place to the newcomer. It is so extensive that it can be hard to know where to start. One solution is to book onto a guided walk, available throughout the forest. Local experts will talk you through the forest’s history while showing you some of the natural wonders to be found at every turn. Photography treks are also available.
Or Just Follow Your Nose
With over 70,000 acres to explore, no visitor can see every corner of the forest. An infinite number of walking routes might be plotted. Pick up an official map, or use an OS map to plan out your own trek through the woods. It’s all out there, waiting to be discovered.
Long car journey ahead? Try these five games to keep the kids happy.
Although originally from the Midlands, and trained as a biochemist, Matt has somehow found himself writing about London for a living. He's a former editor and long-time contributor to Londonist.com and has written several books about the capital. He's also the father of two preschoolers.