The M3 motorway provides a direct link from London to Southampton and this historic transatlantic liner terminal is also a major stopping point for cruise ships. So, however you find yourself in Southampton it is just a short journey west to find yourself in the delightful New Forest National Park. Just leave the port, containers terminals and freight yards behind you by driving from the docks west on the A33, bearing left to the A35, crossing the estuary of the River Test on the Redbridge Causeway and into this historic and beautiful area, heading towards the first of the forest villages, Lyndhurst.
There is nothing new about the New Forest! It was granted National Park status in 2005, but it has been a royal hunting forest since its creation by William the Conqueror in 1079. Royal Forest wasn't just woodland as one can see as you drive around the area. Quite often open heath and moorland could be classed as forest. The King had set aside vast areas for hunting, and commoners had to obey the laws of forest, especially regarding enclosing land or cutting down trees. For example, estover was the right to collect wood that had fallen naturally and pannage was the right to graze pigs, but these privileges would be at the King's discretion.
This particular National Park is 219 square miles in size (566 square km) but the New Forest itself is a little smaller in size and fits within the boundaries of the park. The A35 soon gives way to open heath and pockets of woodland as you arrive in Lyndhurst, "the Capital of the New Forest". Being just 9 miles (14 kilometres) from Southampton the town is busier than most with a bustling main street with plenty of shops to grab provisions. The word "hurst" means wooded hill, a place name often used in this part of the country, Lyndhurst meaning wooded hill of lime trees. A nice side trip while in the town is to visit St Michael's Church. Although a 19th century structure, the graveyard is where Alice Liddell is buried, as a 10 year old girl at Oxford she was the inspiration to Lewis Carroll and his Alice in Wonderland stories.
Continue out of Lyndhurst on the A35 and after a couple of miles make a left turn onto the bucolic and scenic Rhinefield Ornamental Drive, a real feast for the eyes as you meander down a narrow country lane of Rhododendron bushes, oak, ash and birch trees and in Spring time a landscape of colour with blossom and new flowers. This road will take you to the town of Brockenhurst, famous for its horses and donkeys which often can be seen wandering about the edge of town and sometimes within it. As one cannot enclose Royal Forest the cattle and horses graze freely, that's why you'll be crossing cattle grids over and over again, just as you do when you enter Brockenhurst. However, one way out of the town is via Brookley Road which gives you the chance to splash through a shallow ford. Turn round and splash back again then pick up a few savouries from the local bakery on your right as you return, then take Mill Lane out of the village, heading east on the B3055 to Beaulieu.
The openness of the forest itself is very evident on the drive from Brockenhurst to Beaulieu. The road passes through areas of grazing land, populated by the famous New Forest ponies then dives into heavily wooded areas with silver birch and oak then back out into open heath again. Beaulieu is reached after a few moments and most visitors descend on its famous motor museum, stately home and former Abbey.
The motor museum was established in 1952 by the 3rd Baron Montague of Beaulieu in honour of his father who had introduced Edward VII to motoring when he was Prince of Wales in the 1890s. The original small collection of historic cars was on display in the house but as the collection grew, along with the number of visitors, a purpose built museum was constructed in 1972. It is now considered Britain's premier museum of historic and classic cars, vehicles from famous movies and other notable modes of transport. Alongside the museum is the former Cistercian Abbey and Palace House, both dating from the 13th century.
If one returns to Beaulieu village and turns left onto Lodge Lane, it is a short drive to Buckler's Hard, a traditional ship building village of 17th and 18th century houses lining a large open jetty out towards the waters of the Beaulieu River. Here one can explore the village, visit a Shipwright's cottage and take time out to see the Maritime Museum.
To continue circling the New Forest, leave Buckler's Hard towards St Leonards Grange and follow country roads towards Norleywood and finally on to delightful Lymington, by far the most peaceful, shortest and least used crossing over to the Isle of Wight. The town was once known for yacht building and salt manufacturing and most of the houses in the town date from the 18th century and early 19th century with a wide main street rising up above the town with more narrow cobbled streets and alleyways around the waters edge. Nowadays the town boasts two large marinas as well as a number of cafes, pubs and tearooms.
From here one can drive up to Lymington Pier. Ferries sail throughout the day, every hour for the short journey over to Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight.
Once the ferry arrives in Yarmouth, at the estuary of the little River Yar, one can see the old Victorian timber pier on the left and the new marina on the right and a collection of 18th century houses huddled around the water's edge. Drive off the ferry up to the roundabout and take a right on the A3054 and onto the B3322 towards Alum Bay and The Needles.
You are now travelling on England's largest island at 380 square kilometres (147 square miles), made up largely of chalk in the south and clay soils in the north. The high white chalk cliffs are made from the remains of single cell animals that died over 60 million years ago when the area was the seabed of a warm tropical ocean. Nowadays visitors who see this white island rising from the ocean might be forgiven for thinking its name comes from the bright white cliffs that rise above the beaches and sea shore, but it is more likely to have been derived from the Roman name for this island, Vectis. This is taken from the Latin for island, which later in old English was Vicht or Wiht, which became Wight.
One of the best places to view these tall white cliffs is at Alum Bay and The Needles. Follow the B3322 right to its end at the parking area above Alum Bay. You can then walk down to the little amusement park and see the multitude of gift shops selling glassware filled with multicoloured sands which the local beach and cliffs are famous for. Perhaps the most popular of the gifts to buy is glass formed into the shape of the island itself, then filled with a rainbow of sand colours.
Within the amusement park is a chair lift that can take you over the edge of the cliff and down to the beach. There is also an alternative footpath but this is quite steep with lots of steps. While down at the beach you can view the spectacular chalk rock formations, known as The Needles. Chalk stacks up to 30m high leading off the island into the ocean with the 1859-built Needles lighthouse at the end. An optional boat ride in the summer months can take you even closer. Alternatively you can walk from the amusement park to the Needles Old Battery, in use by the military from 1860 to 1954 for a view from the clifftop looking down.
Before leaving Alum Bay a walk further along the clifftops is recommended. This time heading eastwards along Tennyson Down, named after Alfred Tennyson, former Poet Laureate who lived at nearby Farringford and frequently walked up here. Pass the site of Marconi's early radio experiments to the highest point on the downs to the Tennyson Monument, a large granite cross, for fine views across the area.
Leaving Alum Bay join the B3322 briefly then make a turn right onto Alum Bay Old Road then via Pound Green, Moons Hill and Bedbury Lane head to the village of Freshwater to see the delightful and much photographed church of St Agnes. Although little more than a hundred years old, its unusual thatched roof, a rare thing for churches, makes for an ideal stopping point and snapshot. Follow the A3055 out of Freshwater along the old military road to Blackgang Chine. Here, the road sweeps across the southern edge of the island with vistas stretching far and wide. Arriving at Blackgang Chine the one thing that is absent is the chine itself. Chines are steep sided coastal gorges, commonplace on the island but also suffering from erosion. The one here has long since gone, but its name survives in Blackgang Chine, the UK's oldest amusement park!
Opened in the 1840s, the park has obvious pirate and smuggler themes with a rollercoaster, water slides, sea based attractions, fun house and pirate caves. Lots of activities for the children here!!
Leaving here and heading eastwards along Blackgang Road to Whitwell one can turn left and head inland to the charming and pretty village of Godshill with its collection of thatched cottages, medieval church of All Saints and its intriguing model village of Godshill itself. This will of course feature a model village within the model village, and another one within that!!
If one turns right at Whitwell you can continue along the coast to the resorts of Ventnor, Shanklin and Sandown each with its own chines, beaches, seafront cafes and attractions.
There are direct roads from either Godshill or Shanklin to the central northernmost point of the island where one can find the town of Newport, the second largest on the island. A bustling but rather uninspiring place but a means to get to Carisbrooke Castle which lies at the edge of the town.
There is evidence of Roman occupation here at Carisbrooke but most of the structure is 13th to 16th century. Climb up to the top of the Keep, the central stronghold of the castle for fine views of the surrounding countryside. Visit the Great Hall, Great Chamber and Isle of Wight Museum and discover the story of the castle's most famous prisoner, King Charles I, learn of his failed escape in 1648, his living conditions and his later trial and execution in London the following year.
From Carisbrooke Castle head back into Newport then take the A3054 towards Ryde, the island's largest town, however two miles (3 km) down the A3054 before reaching Ryde, branch off left at the roundabout on the A3021 towards majestic Osborne House, home of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.
The house was built from 1845 to 1851 as a summer residence for Royal family. Prince Albert employed Thomas Cubitt as architect although the Prince had a colossal input himself. The Italianate style proved very fashionable and many smaller homes in London and elsewhere started to copy this design. The grand rooms are open to view and walk around, as are the gardens with spectacular open views down towards The Solent and the mainland. There are 21 miles of walks throughout the estate and a popular stroll is to walk over to the fabulous Swiss Cottage built for the Royal children as a playground.
After Prince Albert's death in 1861, Queen Victoria spent a lot more time away from public life, either at Balmoral in Scotland or here on the Isle of Wight. It was here at Osborne House that the Queen passed away on the 22nd January 1901. Her son, the new King Edward VII had no need for the house and donated it to the nation upon his coronation in 1902.
When leaving Osborne turn right towards East Cowes, famous for having the oldest and largest annual sailing regatta in the world, usually running for 8 days from the end of July. Here there is a direct car ferry to Southampton. The journey will take just under an hour and sail across the Solent and along Southampton Water right up alongside the cruise terminals at the main docks.