“Watching the ponies being bought and sold here in the New Forest…has made me realise how important it is that our National Parks don’t become museums or zoos, that they remain places we can use and benefit from and treasure.”
Actress and presenter Caroline Quentin visits three of Britain’s most popular National Parks in this new three-part documentary series, to celebrate some of the areas of outstanding natural beauty that are right on our doorstep.
Caroline immerses herself in every aspect of Park life, from taking part in an unusual race against a steam train through the valleys of Snowdonia, to spending the night counting bats on an island in Loch Lomond and catching wild ponies for auction in the New Forest. On her travels Caroline meets the extraordinary people who live and work in the Parks and witnesses some of the incredible wildlife that roams free. In doing so, she appreciates why so many people choose to visit these spectacular National Parks. Caroline Quentin’s National Parks is new and exclusive to ITV, Tuesday 21st May at 8pm.
This week, Caroline is in the New Forest for the final programme of the series. Placed between the counties of Hampshire and Wiltshire, William the Conqueror discovered the New Forest over 900 years ago. It is known for its ancient woods, open heaths, beautiful coastline and abundance of wild animals. Although at just 218 square miles, it is one of the smallest of the 15 National Parks.
Caroline joins Richard Penney for a spectacular hot air balloon ride over the Park and despite her initial nerves, enjoys the unique view: “Whenever I see balloons I always think, I wonder what they’re thinking those people, are they looking at what I’m doing in my garden and things like that? And the answer is, yes, that’s exactly what you’re doing.”
Assigned National Park status in 2005, the New Forest is one of the newest Parks. Some of the areas most famous residents are the New Forest ponies, which are born in the wild and are often completely untamed, even though they all have owners. Caroline meets agister Rob Maton, whose job it is to look after the animals in the forest. He explains: “We class them all as semi-feral. There are some ponies on the forest which are handled and there are some which have never been touched.” Rob has been asked to help catch a four month old foal and its mother, in order to tame it to be sold as a riding pony. Owner Lucinda gallops alongside the pony to tire it out before leading it towards a pen. Caroline and Rob wait at the pen, ready to stand their ground and holler at the wild ponies to prevent them escaping.
The area has one of the best-known country fayres in the land. The annual Romsey Agricultural Show started over 170 years ago and showcases the very best of British farming. With 90 different food stalls competing for best produce, Caroline is keen to sample as many as possible, including artisan chocolate, award-winning cheeses, pickles and chutneys and country fudge. Caroline is proud to present the winning Best Local Food stall before enjoying the much-loved dog show.
Some of the trees in the New Forest are thought to be 1000 years old. Caroline meets Jo Hedger, a tree surgeon who not only works in the trees but also uses them for sport, travelling the world competing in tree climbing tournaments. Jo has twice been crowned world champion and Caroline is up to the challenge: “I was rubbish at climbing trees when I was a little girl and I have absolutely no reason to believe I’ll be any better at it now I’m a middle-aged woman, but I’m prepared to give it a go.” But after pulling herself up using a harness wearing a hard hat, Caroline admits: “I’ve come this far up the tree, about 10ft to 20ft in the air maximum, and I’m feeling quite shaky and a bit peculiar but I’m suddenly feeling huge respect for Jo for this as a way of making a living because it’s pretty unnerving.”
In the heart of the New Forest National Park is the Pig Hotel and Restaurant, once a Royal hunting lodge. Gary Evely is a forager and it’s his job to gather the food that grows wild in the forest so that it can be served in the restaurant just a few hours later. Caroline joins him to search and they stumble across an unusual beefsteak mushroom. Caroline says: “It looks like a piece of bleeding flesh”. There are 3000 varieties of mushroom growing in the forest, although only 20 varieties are of interest to Gary. Caroline admits: “There’s something almost meditative about being out here in the woods and looking for mushrooms, concentrating so hard on the ground and looking for shapes and colours, it’s incredibly relaxing.” After her hard work Caroline joins the head chef to cook the mushrooms she found, along with a restaurant specialty of venison, in a wood oven.
The New Forest also boasts over 25 miles of stunning coastline and Marcus Webster has been paragliding on the coast for more than eight years, taking to the skies with a special co-pilot, his dog William: “He doesn’t look nervous at all so I think he’s enjoying it. He’s quite gutsy and doesn’t show any fear at all. I’m quite proud of him really because he’s good company, he does everything with me.”
As her time at the Park comes to an end, Caroline heads to the New Forest pony auction, where the ponies are still sold in traditional guineas rather than pounds, to see Lucinda’s pony be sold. Will he make his reserve?