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Destination: England : Near London, a royal forest gives protection to wildlife and polish to country living

June 25, 1995|LISA MARLOWE | Marlowe is a Malibu-based free-lance writer

BEAULIEU, England — A walk in an English wood has always had a mystical allure for me, and one exemplary specimen is most decidedly the sprawling, environmentally protected area near Britain's southeast coast known as the New Forest. During a trip to London last summer, my husband and I planned on a three-night New Forest getaway. But the region is so full of stately homes, historic cottages, castles and wild woodland that even a week would have been too short, although most sights are within an easy 30-mile radius.

For centuries the favorite haunt of English kings, the New Forest, or the Nova Foresta, as William the Conqueror dubbed it in 1079, is smack in the heart of Hampshire. Having survived more than 900 years as one of the largest stretches of undeveloped land in the country, in 1992 it was officially designated a Heritage Area, and an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, to be preserved under the auspices of the New Forest Commission.

Although the name conjures up nothing but woods, with trees of behemoth proportion, just under half of the New Forest's 145 square miles is actually forested, mainly with conifers, oak and beech.

More than 100 square miles of the area are still owned by the Crown and subject to the special and somewhat quixotic laws William created to protect the red deer for his hunting pleasure: Commoners in Norman times were banned from protecting their crops with fence or hedge from these foraging animals, and forbidden to take timber for houses or kill game for food. Grudgingly, the royals eventually allowed them to graze livestock on the forest wastes and this right survives to the present. About 350 commoners (yes, locals are still referred to this way) own land in and around the New Forest, and their cattle, sheep, pigs and donkeys--as well as thousands of undomesticated ponies and donkeys--wander freely in this almost completely wild state. During our July visit, every mare had a young carbon copy by her side. You couldn't stop yourself from blurting, "Awww, how cute," ad nauseam.

The New Forest is only two hours by car from London (one hour, 15 minutes by train from Waterloo Station, which is both a rail and Underground stop). A London friend recommended we anchor ourselves in Beaulieu, where he often takes his family cycling. Beaulieu is generally known as the most peaceful of the local villages. The name derives from the French for "beautiful place"-- beau lieu --but is pronounced "Bewley" by the British and any other pronunciation will be entirely disregarded. The village itself is no more than one dainty street--with tea room, general store and chocolate shop--which wends to the bank of Beaulieu River, where the currents stream into an estuary dotted at high tide by tiny sailing boats holding couples and dogs. Beaulieu Palace House and Beaulieu Abbey, a stone's toss across the river from the village, are the main attractions in town.

Knowing my penchant for being pampered, our friend suggested the Montagu Arms, a rambling three-star hotel of ancient brick, lead-glass windows and ivy-covered chimneys that sits on the village's main thoroughfare, the B3054 road. It's the best inn in the area, with 24 rooms and suites individually decorated in dollhouse-style Laura Ashley prints and muted pastels, with a handful of canopied four-posters in the larger rooms. The variance in room decor and size gives one a sense of staying at a wealthy pal's country house, except for the 24-hour room service and soft robes in the bathroom.. Early morning tea and home-baked biscuits (cookies) are served in your room if you desire, a civilized English practice that almost guarantees you get up on the right side of the bed.

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After checking into our room, which overlooked the terraced flower, fruit and herb gardens, we went for a short stroll around town before dinner--very short. The town is so tiny it barely exists, but we were stopped in our tracks by the sight of--you guessed it--a mare and her young one, drinking at the river. Twilight is the hour when the New Forest begins to reveal its secrets, and some of the best animal encounters take place just as the sun starts to sink.

The Montagu Arms is much respected for its haute cuisine; indeed, a brochure boasts that "Dining with us will leave you fond gastronomic memories for a long time to come." I will attest to the fact that I will never forget our dinners at the Montagu Arms, possibly the slowest restaurant in the United Kingdom.

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