A strict 40mph limit covers roads in the New Forest, protecting wildlife and calming traffic to the pace of a bygone age, fitting in perfectly with the antique buildings, narrow lanes and sense of timeless history.
So what better way to explore the 219 square miles of former royal hunting ground comprising pasture, heathland, forest - and lots of free-range wildlife including donkeys, pigs and ponies - than at the wheel of a vintage car?
A new offering from the historic Montagu Arms hotel has put a ‘fleet’ of venerable old cars at the disposal of visitors seeking to revive the motoring pleasures of a lost age. It’s the highlight of the country hotel’s luxury ‘Classic Car Break’, which includes a night in a sumptuously appointed room, breakfast, a seven-course tasting menu at the award winning Terrace restaurant, admission to the magnificent National Motor Museum - and a copy of Classic Motoring magazine.
The trip back in automotive time starts as visitors check in at the antique desk in the 200-year-old hotel’s wood-panelled entrance hall, before their luggage is conveyed by smartly-dressed porter to their suite, built in the former 1920s chauffeur garages, accessed through manicured gardens.
From here it’s luxury all the way as - for a price - guests are encouraged to enjoy the hotel’s facilities including the nearby sister hotel’s spa, while branching out for further-flung pleasures in the New Forest, proclaimed a royal hunting forest by William the Conqueror and featuring in the Domesday Book.
Three beautifully-restored motors are lined up on the Classic Car Break starting grid, in partnership with New Forest Classic Car Hire, based at the traditional Beaulieu Garage, a minute’s stroll from the hotel.
So beguiling is the array of four-wheeled beauties for sale here that visitors sometimes stop and wander into the showroom, cameras poised, believing they’ve located the famous motor museum. “It happens quite a lot - we have to tell them that the actual museum, which is considerably larger, is just around the corner,” says Sales Manager Adam Gorgeon.
Our car for the day is the stuff of dreams: two-tone paint job, wire wheels, convertible roof, chromed embellishments and a 3-litre straight-six petrol engine producing 148 bhp, good for 120mph and 0-60mph in 9.8 seconds... not that that kind of driving is welcomed here.
“It’s more of a grand tourer than a sportster,” explains Adam, who gives a ‘tour’ of the ‘big Healey’, covering facets lost to a modern generation of motorists including use of the choke and overdrive switch, how to fasten the hood - and a warning that she ‘spits and coughs a bit’ on warm-up.
Then we’re off. You forget how direct, how tactile, how visceral motoring used to be. The big, thin, non-powered steering wheel needs a good tug, it takes an age to adjust the tiny, remote, wing mirrors, the wide-spaced gearbox requires a deft touch and - even in a straight line - the steering requires a steady hand. We sit low to the ground, the ancient chassis jolts and rattles over bumps and heat - especially on a hot day - blasts through the engine bulkhead, to toast your toes.
The sensation - under a clear blue New Forest sky and on gently undulating roads - is sheer bliss. Performance from the engine is strong, the exhaust pipe emitting a scintillating, crackling soundtrack seldom heard on a modern car. There’s nowhere to plug in a smartphone or sat-nav so we rely on a dog-eared road atlas and enjoy getting lost as we seek out the coast at Lymington.
We could have chosen a 1966 Jaguar E-Type or a Gardner Douglas 427 Cobra but the dainty Healey does the trick. It’s fun to drive in the open air, hood down, and I’m sure we’re the envy of other motorists, in their modern lookalike runabouts.
Where is it?
The handsome, 200-year-old family-run Montagu Arms bagged an enviable spot in Beaulieu. It sits very prettily on a bend on the B3054, a stone’s throw from the placid Beaulieu River, in the heart of the New Forest.
Set in its own extensive gardens it is a 20-minute stroll to the National Motor Museum - some of it alongside the busier B3056. Village donkeys wander across the hotel’s gravel driveway, mingling with the New Forest ponies, ideal for photo opportunities.
The hotel is also a 15-minute drive from buzzing Lymington and the coast with its Isle of Wight views and about 20 minutes from Lyndhurst, ‘capital’ of the New Forest.
English country hotel is the vibe, reinforced by the panelled reception area, mellow red-brick, creeper-adorned facades, Gertude Jekyll-inspired gardens, croquet lawn and sense of calm.
Discrete sitting areas adorn the terrace, close to the pond and splashing fountain, encouraging guests to relax with drinks from the bar.
It’s not all old-English however, with chic, fresh-looking, tastefully modernised accommodation at the rear, some rooms having their own small terraces and sitting areas.
Food and Drink
The Montagu often sells itself on the strength of its culinary offerings and the exquisite seven-course tasting menu that accompanies the Classic Car Break - with paired wines - makes it clear why.
The award-winning three AA Rosette ‘Terrace Restaurant’, under the hand of Executive Chef Nathan Eades, offers a true fine-dining experience that makes a great way to top off a day in a vintage car.
The tasting menu includes beautifully-judged treats such as Old Winchester Cheese Tartlet with Roscoff onion, pickled walnuts and yeast flakes, while the exceptional Crispy Duck Egg is accompanied by English peas, smoked bacon and Montagu Chard.
Many of the ingredients come from the hotel’s own garden, with other organic produce from the surrounding Hampshire countryside. Possibly the jewel in the crown of the tasting courses - each meticulously presented - is the Lymington Crab with Isle of Wight tomatoes, pickled cucumber and basil. Or possibly the Roast Monkfish with Dorset cauliflower, nasturtium and pink peppercorns. The sommelier advises on the best wines to accompany each course, with unfailing eye and nose.
Discretion and mysterious invisibility are probably the watchwords at the Montagu Arms. Staff are highly attentive - but at a distance, ever ready to offer assistance with luggage, advice or directions, always with a smile. They emerge from nowhere at just the right time. It’s not easy striking the right balance but the Montagu has it down to a T.
The big draw at Beaulieu is - of course - the National Motor Museum and, after all these years (it celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2022) it still knows just how to please the crowds.
Beautifully laid out in extensive grounds, they don’t simply cram in rows of old cars; they display carefully handpicked beauties in enticing groups, each telling a compelling story.
Current highlights in an ever-changing rota include ‘The Story of Motoring in 50 Objects’. If visiting before the end of October when it closes - you should make a beeline for ‘Bond In Motion’, celebrating No Time To Die.
With over 280 vehicles there’s something for everyone, including Edwardian ‘palaces’ on wheels, motorhomes, F1 cars and other racing stars, early pioneering vehicles and a mouth-watering selection of motorcycles.
After all the excitement, Montagu Arms guests can wind down again by enjoying complimentary access to the plush facilities at the smart sister hotel in Brockenhurst, Careys Manor & SenSpa, a five-star Thai spa and leisure club, also surrounded by its own attractive grounds. Facilities open to guests - with free transfer from the Montagu Arms for those without cars - include the indoor pool, jacuzzi, steam room, sauna and gym, with treatments and access to the hydrotherapy pool available at additional cost.
Exbury Gardens, 200 acres of informal planting in an enchanting landscape alongside the Beaulieu River, should not be missed. Neither should its great little narrow gauge steam railway, curving its way through a tunnel, over a bridge and past exotic plants.
Guests enjoying the Classic Car Break stay in a spacious, beautifully appointed Courtyard Suite which - while echoing the country house feel - moves things forwards with a fresh, vibrant, modern interpretation. The decor is crisp but calm and said to be inspired by the flora and fauna of the New Forest. There are mellow timber floors, big sofas and bespoke ‘stripped’ wooden furniture.
Fixtures and fittings are all to a very high standard, as are handpicked objets, alongside the ‘vintage’ radio, oversize freestanding bathtub in the lavish marble bathroom and - of course - a handy timber bath rack with bookstand, on which to perch your classic car mag.
Other room treats include a complimentary decanter of seasonal gin, a Nespresso machine, mini bar, 52-inch TV and full-size SenSpa toiletries to take home afterwards. There are also beautifully-tended outside sitting areas, for al-fresco drinking or dining.
Celebrating a ‘special’ event, perhaps a milestone birthday. Even non-petrolheads should enjoy gliding around the New Forest in a convertible classic with the prospect of a seven-course tasting dinner at the close of play, and a treat or two at the nearby spa, while the National Motor Museum offers a superb, nostalgic trip down memory lane with draws even for those totally disinterested in the motoring scene.
How to get there
Reaching this peaceful New Forest hideaway from central London by car takes about two and a half hours, either along the M3, or depending on your departure point, perhaps the A3/M27. The Montagu Arms offers free parking and the route in - once you arrive in the New Forest - is magical. But do remember to respect the 40mph speed limit, which is strictly enforced.
The Montagu Arms, Beaulieu, New Forest, SO42 7ZL
Tel: 01590 612324
The Luxury Classic Car Break at The Montagu Arms starts from £997 in a Courtyard Deluxe Room.