We spent the month of February in The New Forest in southern England, known for its heathland, forest trails and beautiful coastline. The New Forest is certainly not new. It was once the royal hunting grounds for William the Conqueror, the first Norman King of England, who ruled from 1066 to 1087. I know you’re not here for a history lesson, but I’d say that’s pretty old – and it was a hunting grounds even before that. The New Forest is in Hampshire, about an hour and a half southwest of London and includes England’s newest National Park. We didn’t think it felt much like a forest in the way we think of a forest. There were places where there were beautiful trees – even big trees like redwoods and sequoia – but mostly the trails were flat and went through some wooded areas but there were lots of open areas as well. It just wasn’t forested in the way we anticipated; we sort of had to adjust our expectations of the area to get the most out of it. We ended up having a great experience.
We were there on another WorkAway, this time at The Thatched Cottage in Brockenhurst, right in the middle of the New Forest. Our experience there was interesting for many different reasons. These are a few of the things we learned while volunteering at a B&B/Tea Room/Gin bar in the New Forest for a month in exchange for room and board:
1) Ponies are everywhere and they literally stop traffic!
The New Forest ponies have been roaming freely throughout the woods for about 2000 years! There are around 3000 of these ponies. They are wild in the sense that they wander freely but they are actually owned by New Forest Commoners, people who occupy land and have certain rights, including the right to graze ponies, donkeys and cattle on the Open Forest. There is a whole system set up to make sure they are well taken care of but mostly they take care of themselves. It is really fun to walk down the road and see ponies or donkeys just walking down the street or nibbling on the shrubs and trees anywhere and everywhere.
2) Volunteering with other WorkAwayers can be incredibly rewarding and humbling
Our tasks included making up guest rooms (think: changing beds and cleaning toilets), serving breakfast, working in the tea room, doing handyman jobs around the property (full disclosure – this was all Greg…. I am not very handy) and working the Gin Bar. I will say that it was quite humbling to be cleaning toilets in exchange for my lodging. It gave me lots of time to think about this kind of travel experience. It wasn’t that big a deal to clean the rooms – I mean, I cleaned my house (when I had one) and that was much harder because I didn’t clean it as frequently as you clean hotel rooms. But I have much more respect for housekeeping staff now. It is a very physical job. It also feels odd that we are in our 50s and we have graduate degrees but we were cleaning guest rooms. In that sense, it was humbling. But it’s all about the total experience and the thing that really made it all rewarding was working with the other WorkAway volunteers. They were all in their 20s (like our own children and many of our students) and they were incredible – from France, Italy and Germany, all there to improve their English language skills. How courageous! It’s hard learning a new language, but they understand the importance of knowing English and made it happen for themselves. We enjoyed working with these people so much. It was very communal. At the end of every day, we traded off making a meal for all the others and then we all cleaned up together. These are remarkable, well educated, hard working young people with amazing attitudes. They give us confidence in our future.
3) The New Forest villages have a real sense of community
Because we were in Brockenhurst for a month, we got to participate in the life of the community in a way that we would not have been able to do by visiting as a tourist. We went to the butcher and the baker, we saw school children getting lunch at Tesco, and we participated in the pancake flipping race on Shrove Tuesday. It was so much fun! It made me think of Stephenville and all the community and school events we have participated in over the years. Shrove Tuesday is the day before Ash Wednesday and is a day to clean out the cupboards before lent begins, so you make pancakes with all those ingredients. Our cook at the hotel made us pancakes (really lovely and delicious crepes – American pancakes would have been easier to flip) and there were different teams, mostly made up of children but we were “competing” against another hotel in town and members of the local Women’s Institute. Our team was in a relay. Members of the team ran the length of the street and flipped their pancakes at the marked spot and then kept on running and turned the skillet over to the next member of the team. It was a riot! There was a young boy there who desperately wanted to participate but he had no team so he ran in my spot. He was adorable. We came in 2nd! Silver medal winners of the pancake race in Brockenhurst. What fun! Who knew we would get to do anything like this?
4) Everyone should visit Winchester and The Isle of Wight
We had 2 days off each week so we were tourists on those days. We absolutely loved visiting Winchester, which was the capital of England before William the Conqueror moved it to London. Winchester Cathedral was amazing – it has its roots in the 7th century. Many Saxon kings are buried here and jumping ahead many centuries, so is Jane Austen. We also visited the “Great Hall” which is the largest unrestored medieval banqueting hall in the country, built by William the Conqueror. “King Arthur’s Round Table” is on the magnificent wall of the hall and makes quite an impression, even though carbon dating shows it to be from the 1400s, too new for King Arthur’s time. Winchester College, one of the oldest private schools in England, is incredible to walk through. We will have to go back to take a tour next time.
The Isle of Wight is absolutely gorgeous. We took the train and then the ferry and then a bus to get to Newport where we stayed overnight so we could really spend some time on the island. Hiking from the Needles to Freshwater Bay was fantastic even though the weather was grey. The next day was better and we went from Brighstone along the coast facing the chalky cliffs, then inland to the Long Stone at Mottistone and then down to the Sun Pub for a pint. We could have easily spent a week hiking on the Isle of Wight.
5) We like gin
Greg and I got to work the Gin Bar at the Thatched Cottage and we had so much fun. The owners also have a yachting business and were in the Caribbean at the end of our time in Brockenhurst so we got to run the Gin Bar. There were over 70 gins on the bar and we made gin and tonics and served flights of gin so guests could try several gins at a time. We learned so much about gin and about serving while working the Gin Bar! We loved it! One night we got slammed and it was so much fun to have all the other WorkAwayers come help us out even though it wasn’t their shift. It was team-work in action and I think all our guests left very happy with their service. We loved it – and we know a LOT more about gin than we did before we arrived!
We spent the next 5 days in London and had an amazing time. We got to see 3 shows: The York Realist (starring our friend from the cruise in October, Lesley Nicol), Long Day’s Journey into Night starring and Jeremy Irons and Hamilton! We also went to multiple museums, ate great food, visited historic and new wine shops and walked and walked in the snow and ice. We love London and never seem to get enough of it.
So, it was a rewarding time in the New Forest. An unexpected place to be for a month, made truly special by the people we met, as is the case with travel, wherever we go.
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