Can you really take small children on an outdoor activity holiday? We sent Rebecca Gamble to stay at the Balmer Lawn Hotel in the New Forest to find out - as they all get back to nature in the great outdoors
I’ve always loved the idea of being an ‘outdoorsy family’ but felt a bit lost about how to go about it, so when I was invited to go on a weekend away in the New Forest to try a range of outdoor pursuits with my husband Paddy and sons Fergus, five, and Rafferty, two, I jumped at the chance.
The New Forest National Park is an ideal location for city-dwellers to find their country feet; not only is it a spectacular expanse of forest, with thousands of ponies grazing freely, but the park is completely open to visitors so you can walk or horse-ride pretty much wherever you like – so there’s no need to worry about taking maps and compasses and sticking to set routes.
And I was pleasantly surprised that just because we were getting back to nature by day didn’t mean we had to rough it by night – quite the opposite, our base was the 4-star Balmer Lawn Hotel in Brockenhurst, Hampshire, a luxurious former hunting lodge, which is set in the heart of the New Forest.
LIKE DUCKS TO WATER
My children have been on boats before and absolutely loved the experience so I couldn’t wait to try a family canoeing trip on the Beaulieu River. We met our instructor from New Forest Activities at Bailey’s Hard, a spot just down river from the pretty Hampshire village of Beaulieu and soon we were wading in the shallow waters to embark on our trip in a 16-feet long Canadian canoe.
After a short instruction session in a sheltered creek to explain to my husband and I how to steer our craft, we were off and making our way up the mighty Beaulieu river.The session was 90-minutes long and I was a bit concerned my children would either get bored or want to get off! But Fergus enjoyed dipping his paddle in the water and helping propel us up the river, while Rafferty was so overwhelmed by the excitement and the fresh air that he managed to fall asleep, nestled in between my knees while we were still on board!
The wildlife-spotting along the way was fantastic, as we pulled into the riverbank, our guide pointed out a Kingfisher, with its distinctive blue and orange colouring and we also saw an enormous Osprey nesting platform. Swans glided up the river alongside us and buzzards and kestrels are often spotted, according to our guide. There was a lovely sense of achievement of having done such an exhilarating activity as a family; we will definitely do it again.
ON YOUR BIKE!
Many people are attracted to the New Forest because it has more than 100 miles of approved cycling trails. Keen to explore the area further, we hired bikes, with a carriage for Fergus and Rafferty, and set off down the ‘Riverside route’, a 4.5 mile trip from Beaulieu, hugging the river’s path down towards Bucklers Hard, an 18th century village and ship-building yard.
The path had some views of the river and took us past animals grazing in fields as we traced our way down the track before we entered a more densely wooded area. Pulling the trailer was hard work but it was worth it find such a tranquil area to enjoy with the children.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW New Forest Activities offers a full day’s bike hire for your family including helmets and trails of the local area to complete and a 90 Minute guided family canoeing trip on the Beaulieu River. £30 Adults, £25 8yrs - 16yrs, £90 Families (2 Adults & 2 Children)
LEARNING ABOUT WILDLIFE
The following day, on a perfect autumnal morning of sunshine, blue skies and frost on the ground, we met Sally Mitchell, who spent ten years as a Forestry Commission New Forest Ranger and who now owns Wild Heritage, hosting guided walks.
The session was perfect for Fergus and Rafferty, Sally gave them each a little furry toy mouse to hold and a laminated sheet with pictures of different things mice eat in the forest, such as acorns, hawthorns and sweet chestnut, and we set to work to find as many as we could.
Fergus was thrilled when he spotted some brilliant pink rosehip berries and acorns and proudly put them in Sally’s collecting basket as we set off to scavenge for more.
To give my children a sample of the forest’s delights, Sally offered them some sweet Rosehip cordial she had made from foraged berries and let Fergus and Rafferty try some ‘crab apple tree leather’ a tangy snack she had made at home.
During our walk Sally spotted a tiny goldfinch and Fergus was over the moon that he spotted a Red Admiral Butterfly. While they loved exploring and learning about the nature around them, it was also a lovely reminder of the beauty of just being in great outdoors and spending time together as a family with no other distractions.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW For families, Sally offers The Guided Forest Experience – an introductory walk about the New Forest, themed activity walk and fungi identification (no collection of fungi to eat). (£50 for 90 minutes). Suitable for all ages.
Our base for the weekend was the 54-room Balmer Lawn Hotel, which has recently undergone a multi-million pound refurbishment and definitely feels ‘country-chic’. I loved the deer motif theme that ran throughout the hotel, from light-fittings designed to look like they were made from antlers and paintings to a striking silver decorative deer head mounted on the wall of the grand staircase.
We were staying in a Superior Family Room, it was generously proportioned and had an enormous super-king size bed, soft bathrobes and two huge windows which overlooked a cricket pitch and the forest beyond. But the real beauty was that it had an interconnecting room, with a bed for Fergus and a travel cot for Rafferty which meant we could spread out. And as I’m often up with the larks looking after early-riser Rafferty, I was thrilled that we had a Nespresso machine to give me my morning caffeine fix!
Dining at the hotel was superb; the hotel’s Beresfords Restaurant holds 2 AA rosettes for fine dining and it was a delight for the tastebuds. I sampled the delicate and sweet hand dived Shetland scallops, roasted cauliflower puree, yuzu gel and comb dressing, followed by perfectly cooked and gamey venison steak, spiced beets puree, sprouts and shallot gel. I also sampled the pan-seared halibut, rarebit, Dijon mash, spinach and sauce verge - which was delicious.
There were hearty options for children, like sausage, mash and onion gravy or grilled chicken, peas and new potatoes but after my boys tried the fish fingers, fries and baked beans on our first night, they demanded them for every meal – and as they were shattered from all the outdoors activities I let them get on with it!
INDULGING IN SOME ME-TIME
Like many mums I rarely get a minute to myself so an ESPA aromatherapy massage at the Saltus Spa was a huge treat. Before my treatment I went for a swim had a soak in the Jacuzzi, then headed to the relaxation room to chill out on a super-comfy lounger.
For the massage, my therapist used a warming ESPA oil called Fitness, made from clove bud, lavender and West India bay, designed to release tension and it certainly did the trick. As she worked away on each knot in my back that I have given myself by carrying a hefty two-year-old on my hip once too often, I felt my stresses slipping away. Afterwards, I felt relaxed and energised, and ready to face another day of looking after two boisterous boys!
HOW TO DO IT
Balmer Lawn Hotel offers standard twin/ double rooms from £149 B&B, superior twin/ doubles from £199 B&B, standard family rooms from £189 B&B, and superior family rooms from £299 B&B
Balmer Lawn Hotel has indoor and outdoor swimming pools, sauna, gym, tennis and squash courts. The hotel also collaborates with local providers for horse riding, sailing, golf, shooting, fishing and paddle sports.