I'm a Victorian freelance writer & photographer living in the Macedon Ranges north of Melbourne.
Published September 10th 2013
William the Conqueror's Hunting Ground
The first thing I noticed about the New Forest was that large parts of it weren't forest at all but low, scrubby heath, the result of clearing vegetation from generally poor quality soil.
Today New Forest Ponies graze where William The Conqueror once hunted deer
Taking in a large portion of Hampshire the New Forest was originally created as a private hunting ground, a royal forest, by King William 1, William the Conqueror, way back in 1079.
One of 60 or so Royal Parks scattered throughout England at the time the New Forest was first recorded in the Doomsday Book in 1086, the only English forest mentioned in any great detail.
Common Rights which were made law in 1698 still allow ponies and other livestock to wander freely throughout the New Forest
History records that William evicted peasant farmers and burnt their homes and churches in order to establish the royal forest and local folklore suggests that the deaths of two of his sons and a grandson in the forest whilst hunting was punishment for those crimes.
The Common Rights exercised over the New Forest, where land owned by one person is subject to the traditional rights of others, such as grazing rights, were made law in 1698.
Much of the New Forest is not forest at all
As well as a park the forest has for centuries been an important source of timber, first with massive plantings of oak during the 18th century to build ships for the Royal Navy, many at nearby Bucklers Hard, and again during the First and Second World Wars to meet the huge demand for wood.
Today the New Forest remains one of the largest expanses of unenclosed pasture land in England and the Common Rights entered into in William's time remain in force.
New Forest Ponies on the common in the village of Beaulieu
The grazing of commoner's cattle and ponies today is an essential part of managing the forest. Their owners pay an annual 'marking fee' for each animal which then has its tail trimmed in a distinctive pattern. As well as the tail trimming ponies, and cattle, are branded with their owners mark. Ponies, cattle, donkeys and pigs wander freely throughout the forest and villages perpetuating the common rights. These combine with evidence of Bronze and Iron Age history, quaint thatched villages, the natural beauty of the place and a host of modern amenities to attract large numbers of visitors from far and wide.
There are a number of villages dotted throughout the forest, each unique in its own way.
Lyndhurst, the most centrally located, is frequently referred to as 'the capital of the New Forest". When out and about in Lyndhurst look-out for the local Forestry Commission Headquarters. Officially named Queens House this is a fantastic 17th century building constructed on the site of a 13th century Royal Manor House.
Nearby Burley is well known for its Memorial Cross in the main street, honoring locals lost in the Great War of 1914-18.
In the late 1950's Burley was also considered to be an important part of the British witchcraft movement, home to the renowned white-witch Sybil Leek.
Burley is one of a number of picturesque and historic villages scattered throughout the New Forest
Beaulieu, home to the British National Motor Museum, is dominated by the magnificent Palace House and the adjacent tidal mill pool with a mill thought to have existed on this site continuously since the 13th century. High Street, the narrow main thoroughfare is lined with predominantly 17th to 19th century buildings the majority of which are owned by the Beaulieu Estate.
Beaulieu village in Hampshire's New Forest
The New Forest offers something for everyone. Historic houses, museums & gardens, quaint villages and the opportunity to walk, bike or horse ride in one of England's great and historic Royal Parks are all good reasons to pay a visit to this beautiful part of the United Kingdom.