There is always a new way to see an old favourite, as BRITAIN magazine’s editor discovered when she explored the New Forest’s extensive cycle routes for the first time…
As you drive into the New Forest the shades of green change and become more vibrant and varied, a wonderful earthy and fresh smell fills your nostrils, and even the temperature seems to alter noticeably, the effect of which is all rather delightful. The New Forest covers more than 300 square miles of woods and open moorland. It is littered with charming towns and villages, miles of wonderful coastline and activities ranging from romantic walks to full-on family-fun excursions. Already a fan of the area, the New Forest became all the more enjoyable when I discovered a range of mountain bike routes that I could navigate easily, without looking like I should still use stabilizers.
Cycling is a wonderful way to explore some of the prettiest and quietest spots in the New Forest. There are more than 100 miles of way-marked cycles routes, which create a spider web of off-road journeys through ancient and ornamental woodlands or across open heathland with superb views. In addition to the way-marked, off-road routes there are several hundred miles of sheltered country roads, the combination of both surfaces making ideal all-round cycling territory.
My first cycling experience began in Lyndhurst from where I hired a couple of impressive looking mountain bikes from the very knowledgeable and equally friendly owner of AA Bike Hire, which happens to be the longest running cycle hire company in the New Forest. AA Bike Hire operate on a first come first served and do not take advance bookings – but after a five minute wait, the owner had bike, map, helmet and rucksack (containing puncture kit should I need it) ready so that I could head off on a full day excursion. Following advice, I followed an easy 10km round-trip at a leisurely pace, passing all ages and levels of ability along the way.
There are days worth of cycling from Lyndhurst alone. I made a weekend of it, staying in the nearby and lovely Chewton Glen Hotel & Spa, a pretty 20-minute drive away (read my separate report on the hotel here).
Having had a wonderful weekend cycling the woodland routes I returned the following month to further my new-found cycling skills and attempt the more challenging heathland tracks.
Heading south west of Lyndhurst, on the edge of the New Forest, I opted for more rustic (but still luxury level) accommodation in the form of a woodland lodge at Sandy Balls Holiday Centre. These pretty wooden cabins come fully equipped with comfortable furniture in the living areas: large kitchen/diner with French doors opening on to one of two decked patios, two-bedrooms, a bathroom with free-standing claw-foot bathtub and separate shower cubicle. The cabins are centrally heated and have flatscreen TV and DVD. The lodges have their own patio and barbecue areas, and some even come with a private hot tub too.
I pre-booked mountain bike hire from the on-site Cycle Centre, which also hires tandems, children’s tagalongs and even doggy trailers. It is the perfect way to indulge in a day’s cycling on the forest trails or quiet lanes in and around Fordingbridge. There are lots of cycle routes available to suite all abilities. If it is your first time in the area you can opt for one of the guided mountain bike safaris led by the expert cycle centre instructors.
After a full day of cycling, the spa at Sandy Balls was a welcome sight. The Holiday Centre has a fabulous range of facilities. As well as the spa there’s Sandy Balls Leisure Club – a well-equipped gym and both an indoor and outdoor pool, a Jacuzzi and sauna.
There’s also a traditional pub, The Woodside Inn, which serves home-cooked food and a great range of local ales, including Ringwood Forty-Niner, guest ales, lagers, ciders, stouts and spirits. The Italian Pizza in the Piazza is a family-friendly restaurant with pretty al fresco dining area. Opposite, is The Country Store, a fully stocked supermarket where you can buy anything from a newspaper to warm bread. A gift shop sells home-brand chutney and jams and range of New Forest souvenirs to take home from your Sandy Balls’ break.
The name Sandy Balls often prompts a snigger. In fact, the unusual name can be traced as far back as the reign of Henry VII. It appeared on maps and other documents of the time as ‘Sandyballas’, which is the description given to the dome-shaped sand and gravel outcrops on the western boundary, which you can still see today. Funny name or not, it is well worth a visit.
For more information and accommodation ideas visit www.thenewforest.co.uk
AA Bike Hire, Fernglen, Gosport Lane, Lyndhurst, Hampshire SO43 7BL. Visit www.aabikehirenewforest.co.uk
Chewton Glenn Hotel & Spa, New Milton, Hampshire BH25 6QS. Visit www.chewtonglen.com
Sandy Balls Holiday Centre, Godshill, Fordingbridge, Hampshire SP6 2J. Visit www.sandyballs.co.uk