LYNDHURST, England - At daybreak in the New Forest fog curls eerily upward from bracken and fern, then drifts in vaporous swirls in the uppermost branches of a 93,000-acre spread of ancient oak, beech, and pine. Out of the mist, ghostly shapes of ponies materialize as they graze on patches of heath.
The New Forest, which became a national park in 2005, is not only ecologically important, but also steeped in a history both fascinating and violent.
Almost 1,000 years ago William the Conqueror, accompanied by his invading Norman army, swarmed England's southern shore. One of his earliest decrees as England's new king was to claim this vast tract of land as a royal forest. In those days thundering hooves, the excited calls of men on horseback, and the panicked gasp of a fleeing stag were the sounds most often heard.
Today the jubilant cries of the hunter have been replaced by gentler sounds. Pregnant sows snuffle as they root in soft earth. Squirrels scamper among last year's acorns, and badgers venture cautiously from deep earth burrows. All creatures, domesticated and wild, mingle peacefully with the forest's 1,500 fallow deer.
There is no better way to learn the New Forest's secrets and experience the magic of this 900-year-old natural habitat than to join a guided walking tour. Donning comfortable hiking shoes for an informative stroll across heath and woodland with a volunteer ranger will reveal much of the forest's folklore, history, and its unique biology.
In the Bolderwood area of the forest the massive Knightwood Oak overshadows its arboreal companions. Leaning on a protective fence surrounding this giant oak, Richard Daponte, a Forestry Commission ranger, remarks casually, "In 1510 when Henry VIII rode through this forest and possibly past this tree, it was already 100 years old."
There are those who will be tempted to drive and tour. This will undoubtedly get the urban explorer from A to B without muddying footwear, but in the confines of a motor vehicle the visitor-in-a-hurry will probably miss the haunting call of a nightjar, the close-up scary glimpse of an adder curled lazily on the heath, or the sight of a New Forest Pony foal nudging its browsing mother for its first milky drink.
Throughout the forest, the country's newest national park, a series of small villages attest to its fascinating past. A Burley legend tells of a dragon with a taste for sheep. The only way to keep this voracious creature at bay was for the villagers to feed him a pint of milk each day. Tiring of his insatiable appetite they beseeched a brave knight, Sir Maurice de Berkeley, to rid them of this ever-present bane. Donning a smelly "armor" of slime and broken glass the knight sallied forth with his two hounds and slayed the dragon.
The villagers of Burley have long been dedicated to old-time culture and customs. In the 17th-century Queens Head pub, once a popular smugglers' haunt, a hoard of pistols and coins was discovered stowed in a secret room beneath what is now the Stable Bar.
On nearby Pound Lane is the home of New Forest Cider. A sign at its entrance describes the dubious pleasures within: "Drink strong cider as much as yer please / Loses yer teeth and bows yer knees / Sours yer guts and makes yer wheeze / Turns yer blood and kills yer fleas / Drink strong cider as much as yer please."
All tastes are catered to in this ancient forest: upscale dining at Le Poussin at Parkhill in Lyndhurst, sipping ale and exchanging gossip at The Hare and Hounds in Sway, or in one of the other forest pubs. My favorite was The Mad Hatter Tearooms in Lyndhurst, where I enjoyed a steaming cup of fragrant Earl Grey accompanied by hot scones covered in butter, mounds of clotted cream, and strawberry jam.
Lyndhurst, the New Forest's largest town, is the central point from which to board an open-top bus for a tour of the forest's most popular sites: Exbury Gardens, famous for its rhododendrons; Lymington on the coast; or Beaulieu, with its world-class collection of vintage cars. If a day trip to the Isle of Wight is your fancy, the bus also stops at Hythe Ferry Terminal.
Buckler's Hard, another historic village, is a brief walk from Beaulieu. This tiny hamlet on the Beaulieu River was from 1745 to 1822 home to a thriving shipbuilding industry. Thirty ships of Admiral Horatio Nelson's fleet were built in Buckler's Hard using timber from some of the forest's finest oaks.
As our tour drew to an end, Daponte stopped beside a wooded valley at Highland Water. He described the buildup to D-Day when this valley was the hiding place for thousands of soldiers as they awaited their orders for the Normandy invasion in World War II. Then overnight, the dynamics of the forest changed. "The tanks and thousands of troops were there one day; the next they were gone," Daponte said.
On June 6, 1944, 3 million troops, many of them leaving by way of the Beaulieu River, sailed secretly from the shores of southern England. Arriving in France before dawn aboard close to 5,000 ships, they were part of the largest invasion by sea in the history of warfare.
Today life seems to spin slow and sweet for the folk in this tranquil paradise, where the Norman invasion and the invasion of Normandy can seem equally remote in history.
Anne Gordon, a freelance writer in Ontario, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.