A strict 40km/h limit covers New Forest roads, protecting wildlife and calming traffic to the beat of a bygone era, fitting perfectly with the ancient buildings, narrow streets and sense of timeless history.
So what better way to explore the 219 square kilometers of former royal hunting grounds made up of pastures, heaths, woodlands – and plenty of free-ranging 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 looking to relive the motoring pleasures of a lost age. It’s the highlight of the country hotel’s luxurious ‘Classic Car Break’, which includes a night in a sumptuously appointed room, breakfast, a seven-course tasting menu at the award-winning Terrace restaurant, entry to the magnificent National Motor Museum – and a replica. by Classic Motoring magazine.
The trip back in time to the automobile begins when visitors check in at the antique desk in the 200-year-old hotel’s wood-paneled entrance, before their luggage is carried by a 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 pleasures in the New Forest, proclaimed a royal hunting forest by William the Conqueror and featured in the Domesday Book .
Three beautifully restored engines line up on the starting grid for the Classic Car Break, in association with New Forest Classic Car Hire, based at the traditional Beaulieu Garage, a minute’s walk from the hotel.
So enticing is the selection of four-wheeled beauties for sale here that visitors sometimes stop and wander into the showroom, cameras in place, thinking they’ve found the famous motor museum. “It happens quite a bit – we have to tell them that the museum itself, which is significantly larger, is just around the corner,” says sales manager Adam Gorgeon.
Our car of the day is something of a dream: two-tone paintwork, steel wheels, convertible roof, chrome trim and a 3-litre straight-six petrol engine producing 148bhp, good for 120mph and 0-60mph in 9.8 seconds. .. not that that type of driving is welcome 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 using the choke and overdrive switches, how to attaches hood – and a warning that she ‘spits and coughs a bit’ when warming up.
Then we’ll get started. You forget how direct, how tactile, how visceral driving used to be. The big, thin, non-motorized steering wheel needs a good tug, the tiny, remote-controlled wing mirrors take a while to adjust, the long-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 jerks and rattles over bumps and heat – especially on a hot day – blows through the engine bulkhead to toast our toes.
The feeling – under a clear blue New Forest sky and on gently undulating roads – is pure bliss. Performance from the engine is strong, the exhaust pipe emits a sparkling, crackling soundtrack rarely heard on a modern car. There’s nowhere to plug in a smartphone or nav, so we rely on a dog-eared road atlas and enjoy getting lost as we search out towards the coast at Lymington.
We could have gone for a 1966 Jaguar E-Type or a Gardner Douglas 427 Cobra, but the delicate Healey does the trick. It’s fun to drive in the open, 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 was given an enviable spot in Beaulieu. It is beautifully situated on a bend of the B3054, a stone’s throw from the tranquil Beaulieu River, in the heart of the New Forest.
Set in its own large gardens, it’s a 20-minute walk to the National Motor Museum – some of it adjacent to the busier B3056. Villagers wander the hotel’s gravel driveway and mingle with the New Forest ponies, ideal for photo opportunities.
The hotel is also a 15-minute drive from lively Lymington and the coast with views of the Isle of Wight and approx. 20 minutes from Lyndhurst, the ‘capital’ of the New Forest.
English country hotel is the vibe, enhanced by the paneled reception area, soft red brick, creeper-adorned facades, Gertude Jekyll-inspired gardens, croquet lawn and sense of calm.
Discreet seating areas adorn the terrace, near the pond and splashing fountain, encouraging guests to relax with drinks from the bar.
It’s not all old English though, with elegant, fresh, tastefully modernized rooms at the back, some rooms have their own little terraces and sitting areas.
Food and drink
Montagu often sells itself on 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’, at the hands of Executive Chef Nathan Eades, offers a real fine dining experience which is a great way to top off a day in a vintage car.
The tasting menu includes beautifully judged treats such as the Old Winchester Cheese Tartlet with Roscoff onions, 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 fried monkfish with Dorset cauliflower, nasturtium and pink peppercorns. The sommelier advises on the best wines for each course, with an unerring eye and nose.
Discretion and mysterious invisibility are probably the watchwords at the Montagu Arms. The staff are very attentive – but at a distance, always ready to offer assistance with luggage, advice or directions, always with a smile. They appear out of nowhere at just the right time. It’s not easy to find the right balance, but 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 exactly how to please the crowds.
Beautifully landscaped on sprawling grounds, they don’t just cram rows of old cars; they showcase 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 you visit before the end of October when it closes – you should get right in front of ‘Bond In Motion’, to celebrate No Time To Die.
With over 280 vehicles, there is something for everyone, including Edwardian ‘palaces’ on wheels, motorhomes, F1 cars and other racing stars, early pioneering vehicles and a mouth-watering selection of motorbikes.
After all the excitement, Montagu Arms guests can unwind again by enjoying complimentary access to the luxurious facilities of its smart Brockenhurst sister hotel, Careys Manor & SenSpa, a five-star Thai spa and leisure club, also set in its own attractive grounds. . Facilities open to guests – with free transport from the Montagu Arms for those without a car – include an indoor pool, jacuzzi, steam room, sauna and gym, with treatments and access to the hydrotherapy pool available at an additional cost.
Exbury Gardens, 200 hectares of informal planting in an enchanting landscape along the Beaulieu River, should not be missed. Neither should its great little narrow-gauge steam railway, which winds 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 reflecting the country house feel – moves things forward with a fresh, vibrant, contemporary interpretation. The decor is sharp but calm and is said to be inspired by the flora and fauna of the New Forest. There are soft wooden floors, large sofas and bespoke ‘stripped’ wooden furniture.
Fixtures and accessories maintain a very high standard, and the same is hand-picked objectsnext to the ‘vintage’ radio, oversized freestanding bath in the opulent marble bathroom and – of course – a handy wooden bath stand with bookend, on which to place the classic car mag.
Other goodies include a complimentary carafe of seasonal gin, a Nespresso machine, minibar, 52-inch TV and full-sized SenSpa toiletries to take home afterwards. There are also beautifully manicured outdoor seating areas, for outdoor 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 degustation dinner at the end of the game, 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 who are totally uninterested in the car environment.
How to get there
Reaching this peaceful New Forest hideaway from central London by car takes approximately 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 remember to respect the 40 mph 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.