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Hike With Ponies, Shop for Magic Spells, and Stay in a Charming Manor House in England’s New Forest

For an enchanting trip spent walking beautiful forest paths and exploring the witch shops and teahouses of a small English village, Burley Manor is the perfect base.

“Excuse me,” I said to the concierge at Burley Manor, a charming hotel in southern England’s New Forest. “I wasn’t sure who to report this to, but there are some ponies on the loose just outside on the street.”

The lobby turned uncomfortably silent, the crackling of the fireplace the only sound.

“Oh, that’s not an issue here, but thank you for letting me know,” she politely responded after taking a beat. 

My partner, Alex, and I made our way up the staircase to our room, barely shutting the door before bursting into laughter. Alex is from South Wales and grew up vacationing in the New Forest, a fairy-tale of a place where ponies graze among the trees and stroll the streets of town.

Fairy shop and wild ponies in New Forest, Southern England

Here, it’s standard to bump into a small herd on the way to the witch shop (yes, witch shop), or find a pair lingering outside a market in hopes of meeting a patron with a carrot or apple to spare. Over a pint at The Burley Inn down the road, feeling inspired by my awestruck reaction to my first visit, Alex had dared me to play the role of oblivious American tourist, and I obliged.

Although I had done a bit more New Forest research than I let on in that moment, I truly was an incredulous tourist at every turn; I simply had never been anywhere like it. It was early December, and deep red leaves littered the forest floor, with walking trails starting just steps from the village high street.

Wild pony and dog along walking path in New Forest, Southern England

About 80 miles from London, the New Forest encompasses 193,000 acres of countryside in the county of Hampshire, including a national park and six major towns and villages. Its ponies are not technically wild — they belong to local residents — but they are allowed to freely graze and wander. 

We were in Burley, a village with an ancient history full of colorful folklore that involves smuggling and witchcraft. As recently as the 1950s, Sybil Leek, a self-proclaimed witch, brought attention to her hometown of Burley before moving to the U.S. and becoming a famous psychic, astrologist, and author. Multiple witch shops still dot the town today, the most popular of which is Coven of Witches, where visitors can browse spells, books, crystals, and wands. 

Pony up close and exterior of Burley Manor in New Forest, Southern England

After dipping our toes in some white magic, we explored the town’s cozy tea rooms and antique stores and popped into Burley Fudge Shop for a sweet energy boost. Once we finally ventured into the misty forest, our Barbour-clad golden retriever in tow, it wasn’t long before an auburn pony stepped out of the fog and stopped us in our tracks. It was just the four of us in this damp, quiet corner of the world, observing each other and sharing in the magic. 

We would encounter many more ponies plus a few donkeys on the walk back to our hotel, hanging out in casual clusters beside thatched cottages draped in Christmas lights. Back at Burley Manor, the enchantment continued: We drew a bath in the clawfoot tub in the corner of our room and sipped pre-dinner gin and tonics near our picture window overlooking the gardens. We then made our way to the drawing room for dinner, where rustic wood furniture and oil paintings set the scene for a warming meal of locally sourced, roasted meats (think lamb shoulder and pork belly) and seasonal vegetables.

Exterior of Burley Manor in New Forest, Southern England

Burley Manor overlooks a deer sanctuary, and guests can spot plenty of them without leaving the hotel. We were blessed with sunshine the following day, however, so we decided to get outside with their resident caretaker and spent hours exploring the land, learning about the animals, and stalking a giant stag.

Man and dog watch sunset in New Forest, Southern England

For the final leg of our journey, we drove about 20 minutes north to Sandy Balls Holiday Village in Fordingbridge, now owned by Away Resorts — a nostalgic stop for Alex, who spent the Boxing Day to New Year’s Day holiday there in his family caravan in the ‘90s. We stayed in a brand-new cabin with a living room, kitchen, dining room, and master bedroom with a deep soaking tub. Some units come with hot tubs. After a day of old-fashioned fun playing the 10p machines at the arcade, walking alpacas, and cheering on a Christmas pageant, we headed out for our final nature walk of the trip. 

Interior of Sandy Balls in New Forest, Southern England

One thing I learned quickly about a British walk: It’s actually a hike by American standards, but it almost always ends at a pub. This time, our destination was The Horse & Groom, about two and a half miles away. To get there, we’d need to cross a field of cows, hop through multiple cattle-blocking stiles, and climb a steep hill to the main road. All was well until the hill, where mud soaked by the previous night’s rainstorm had taken on the qualities of quicksand. Using vines like ropes to scale our way up the incline, our boots thick with mud, we finally made it out the other side, the only casualty a designer dog leash. 

As we turned the corner, we heard the click-clack of hoofs that I should have expected, but still couldn’t wrap my head around. A family of ponies, foals and all, was making its way down the street as if they, too, were late for a dinner reservation in town. I gasped and stopped to stare, still the same stunned tourist as when I arrived. Alex did the same, though whether he was more amused by me or the ponies remains unclear. Either way, it was obvious in that moment that once the New Forest casts its magic spell on a traveler, it doesn’t wear off — whether they’ve been visiting for three days or 30 years.

Source : Travel and Leisure