Having a few days to spare and in need of a break with not too much driving involved, my daughter and I plumped for the New Forest. In the past, Ive decided on a good area to go to and then fixed up the eating arrangements later. Nowadays, I find the vegetarian guest house or restaurant first and then organise the break around it. Since Richard and Sheila's Barn is the "only veggie establishment in the New Forest", it was not difficult for us to make this our choice. Because they also offer a three course evening meal, we would only have lunch to fret over.
As soon as we arrived, I knew we were in for a treat. The owners are naturally friendly and you would be a real frosty old crust not to be bowled over by their warmth. Our room was immaculate and the eco friendly toiletries got the thumbs up from my daughter. She almost squealed with delight when she realised that the hot water and electricity came from solar power. The Barn's website is also powered by renewable energy. These people are putting into action what most of us only murmur about.
The home cooked vegan three course evening meal we had each evening was delicious. Home made bread rolls baked with flour from a local mill were an added bonus. If there are a couple of other guests, you sit together at the same table which makes for interesting and enjoyable conversation.
Although she resembles a stick insect, my daughter can put away her own weight in food at one sitting and she polished off the Barnstormer full vegan cooked breakfast with aplomb. Also on offer were organic cornflakes, home made fruit compote and more delicious bread in the form of toast. Ending with a large pot of Fair Trade coffee, one is set up for the day.
The first attraction we visited (Richard's suggestion - first name terms from the start) were the Exbury Gardens. My idea of gardening is a quick whizz round the lawn with the mower and a few Busy Lizzies in pots to show willing so it might appear an odd choice for us but we were told the views were lovely and the gardens spectacular. And so they proved to be. My daughter leapt onto an electric trolley affair with driver waiting at the entrance - the sort used by lazy golfers - and for £7.00 we had a 40 minute personal tour of the grounds with live commentary. One of the Rothschilds sent plant hunters all over the world to collect rhodedendrons (known affectionately as "roddies" according to our expert) and planted hundreds of them. I'm sure we were driven up to inspect every one. I thought they were just purple plants that sprawled either side of the A24 but my ignorance was corrected as I learnt how they love an acid soil and come in as many hues as you can imagine from yellow and pink through to mauve and scarlet red. We took in the huge rock garden covering several acres, the meadow with daffodils dipping down to the river, the three ponds fed by natural springs; nature at its loveliest - the only sound being birds and running water.
Although it was early spring and the sun was out, there had been an overnight frost and we felt quite cold so felt we deserved a hot drink in the tea room before we went on the steam train. Youngish children in tow are sometimes a wonderful excuse to do un-adult things like riding on miniature trains. All that deja vu - the ticket being clipped by the guard, the whistle being blown before departure and the green flag being waved. And the final thrill - the smell and sound of the coal and steam as the journey commences.
Afterwards we drove into Lyndhurst which has a Visitor Information Centre and a permanent traffic jam. There are several very average sorts of cafes - nothing of note. We managed to have a "cheesy" lunch.
The next morning saw us at the Otter, Owl and Wildlife Sanctuary. This is immaculately kept and has plenty for you to see. As well as otters, with a glass viewing panel to see them swimming, there are ferrets (ugh), owls sitting motionless on their tall poles, foxes, wild cats, deer, badgers and boar. We easily spent two hours here. Later on we drove to a parking area and found a sunny and sheltered spot where we were able to just read our books and listen to the birds. Places such as this are dotted all over the Forest.
The weather started to cloud over the next morning so we decided a more town based option would be in order. We would leave Buckler's Hard for another time. We first visited Beaulieu with its pretty old buildings and wonderful view of the river that gives it its name. A donkey had parked himself outside the front door to the main hotel. Later on he had moved to the sweet shop. The old tea room in the High Street provided warm and cosy cover from the spots of rain and the drinks were pleasant enough, but my scone and jam were disappointing. On then to Lymington - there is something about this place that never disappoints. Parking is relatively easy, the shops are varied - the Saturday market takes over the High Street and people come from miles around - and the cobbled steep descent to the Quay is lined with more interesting tourist traps - oh, Betty Barclay, my favourite - and ends up at the Bluebird Restaurant. It was here we decided to have lunch. If fish upsets you, perhaps best to avoid it. However, my son had tagged along and could not resist the freshly caught cod on offer. The soup was vegan which had my daughter sorted and I had mushroom risotto cakes with fresh vegetables, which were very good. The use of free range eggs meant we felt able to enjoy the pancakes with butterscotch sauce - really tasty. All their food is home made - they advise to phone first to check the veggie choices meet with your approval. Excellent coffee rounded off the meal admirably.
The New Forest is an ideal choice for cycling as it is so safe and the area is relatively flat. Bicycles may be hired at several locations or you may bring your own. If you arrive by bike, Richard at The Barn gives you a 10% discount.