Portsmouth, the Docks, The New Forest and more…

Do you know what’s on the doorstep?

As the euro becomes more costly and plane travel loses its appeal, British travellers are rediscovering the holiday locations on their doorsteps – and the big surprise is how much some of these locations have changed. The south?east coast used to be best known for its dockyards, but lately it has become a really attractive short-break destination. If you haven’t been for a while, you won’t believe the difference. Places where people used to go to work have become places where people spend the weekend.

Historically, Portsmouth grew up around the docks which equipped the Royal Navy, but Britannia no longer rules the waves and now these huge quays have been transformed. Grand old naval buildings have been converted into museums and galleries, and these tourist attractions have attracted all sorts of other leisure outlets. Wharves where warships used to dock have become leafy promenades.

In Portsmouth the navy was always a bit of a mixed blessing. It provided lots of employment, but it shut off the city from the water. Now these docks are open to the public, local businesses are beginning to realise the vast potential of the waterfront. Bars and cafes are springing up in once inaccessible sites. The riviera is no longer out of bounds.

Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth, and his birthplace is still standing – a charming little house, decorated in the style of his day. He moved to Medway as a boy, and it was here that he was happiest, roaming around the towns of Chatham, Gillingham and Rochester, gathering inspiration for his novels.

The reason Dickens lived on the Solent and then Medway was because his father worked for the Royal Navy in both of these historic dockyards, and in spite of all the changes, he’d still find his way around. It’s this close connection with the past that makes Portsmouth and Medway so appealing, not just for a family outing, but for a romantic getaway for couples.

PORTSMOUTH

In Portsmouth the revival of the waterfront has revitalised the entire city, symbolised by the Spinnaker Tower, Portsmouth’s answer to the London Eye. From the top of this new landmark you get a great view of the Historic Dockyard, and the people enjoying the reopened quayside. The Spinnaker Tower‘s lift takes just 30 seconds to reach the summit, leaving you with a full nine and a half minutes to drink in the seascape. If heights unnerve you, don’t look down; Europe’s largest glass floor is all that stands between you and Portsmouth Harbour 170 metres below. www.spinnakertower.co.uk

The Spinnaker Tower, Portsmouth

The Spinnaker Tower, Portsmouth

Like Chatham, Portsmouth’s Historic Dockyard used to be off limits, but now it’s become the cultural centre of the city. At its heart is HMS Victory, the iconic battleship in which Nelson won the battle of Trafalgar (and died while doing so). It’s an unmissable attraction, but there’s lots more to see while you’re here, including HMS Warrior 1860 and the Mary Rose Museum. What’s even more impressive is what’s sprung up around it.

A short walk away is Gunwharf Quays, an upmarket shopping centre with a cinema and lots of lively restaurants. Unlike most modern shopping centres, it’s not noisy or claustrophobic. It’s open to the elements, with a bracing sea breeze off the Solent, and older dockyard buildings are scattered all around. One of these, the Vulcan Building, has been converted into a stunning modern art gallery called Aspex, which is known for its challenging exhibitions.

From Aspex you can follow a walking trail (marked with a chain motif across the cobblestones) through the atmospheric fishing port and into the old town. Here you’ll find Spice Island, where the first trading ships used to unload their strange wares from the new world. You can walk along the battlements that protected this vital harbour from marauders, and on to Southsea, Portsmouth’s very own seaside resort.

Like most traditional seaside towns, Southsea used to be a bit shabby, but now it’s going from strength to strength. The old seafront houses have been spruced up and the streets behind them are home to some remarkably good gourmet restaurants, like Montparnasse and Restaurant 27. There are also two great boutique hotels, the Retreat and the Clarence, both offering supreme comfort and a warm welcome.

However, my favourite spot in Portsmouth is the City Museum, which does everything a museum ought to do – and more. It has a fine array of modern art, including work by Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, and the world’s largest collection of Sherlock Holmes ephemera – fitting, since Arthur Conan Doyle wrote his first Sherlock Holmes stories while working as a doctor here. He also played in goal for Portsmouth FC, but that’s another story. Why not make the trip, and find out for yourself?

STEAL SOME TIME FOR YOU

During the week, general life has a habit of getting in the way of spending time with your better half, which is why weekends are so important. If you’re looking for the ideal short-break destination, consider the south-east. Here are a few weekend ideas:

• Brighton. Packed with arts, culture, and a great nightlife, this vibrant city is ideal for couples. An extensive events calendar means there are always new things to do. It’s just 40 miles or an hours drive away from Living Elements, or you could relax and go by train!

The NEW FOREST

Iin spite of the crowds that flock every summer, its rural beauty and unique atmosphere have pretty much remained unchanged.

Not that its unspoilt nature is accidental; originally created as a hunting forest by William the Conqueror in 1079, the ancient system set up to protect and manage the heath and woodlands is still in place. History, rather than progress defines the forest, from the maritime village of Bucklers Hard, where ships for Nelson’s fleet were built using local oak trees, to grand stately homes such as Beaulieu and medieval villages such as Burley, once famed as the haunt of smugglers and thieves, brooding with atmosphere and legend.

If you can leave the car at home when you visit, so much the better – roads can get horribly congested in summer. Better to hire a bicycle and wind slowly between the villages (try AA Bike Hire in Lyndhurst), or simply ramble off on foot into the forest itself. The Forestry Commission has over 100 miles of cycle tracks and a number of waymarked trails, with downloadable maps available from the website. If you’re a first-timer to the forest, the New Forest Bus is a great way to see the main sites, and there are four walking routes that tie in with the bus route.

But there’s more to explore than just the forest itself. When I fancy more urban pleasures, I head to the lively port town of Lymington on the southern edge of the forest, where pretty fishermen’s cottages run down to the sea and the waters are filled with hundreds of yachts and pleasure boats. Saturday morning is my favourite time to visit, when the streets are filled with market stalls selling everything from local meats and cheeses to clothes, plants and gifts made by local artists. There’s a strong art scene in Lymington with several galleries that are perfect for browsing; a stroll along Thomas Street brings you to Carlsens (no 8) and Robert Perera (no 19) while the St Barbe Museum and Art Gallery combines exhibits on the history of Lymington and the New Forest coastal area, with galleries that display a changing programme of works by local and contemporary artists.

The other great pleasure of the New Forest is its food. The New Forest Marque is a scheme set up three years ago, to bring local food and drink producers together and help visitors to recognise products made within the forest area. If you’re camping or self-catering, there are excellent farm shops; try Warborne Organic in Boldre or Danestream in New Milton, and don’t miss a tasting, or two, at Setley Ridge Vineyard where wines are grown, produced and bottled on site. There’s also some fabulous gastropubs; I always find time for a sticky toffee pudding at the Rose and Thistle in Rockbourne, and on a sunny day there’s no better spot for lunch than on the terrace at the Masterbuilders, overlooking the tranquil Beaulieu river.

The forest is a huge family destination of course, largely because it still offers old-fashioned pleasures: tree climbing, nature rambles, hide and seek. Kayaking down the Beaulieu river is a glorious way to spend a sunny afternoon, and if the lack of screens becomes an issue, twin it with a visit to the Beaulieu Estate: part stately home, part amusement park and part motor museum. Even the grumpiest teenage boys will cheer up at the sight of the Best of Top Gear exhibition, and the new show ProMotion, set to open at Easter 2010, showcasing unusual vehicles that have been used to promote products – a Creme Egg car and a Worthington Bottle delivery truck, among others.

But the greatest pleasures of the forest are, to my mind, old-fashioned ones. Pottering around gift shops in Fordingbridge or Burley, a half of local cider in a pub garden, stopping for a slab of cake and a pot of tea in a proper, chintz-lined tearoom. Creating the perfect tearoom is something of a competitive sport in the forest; take your pick from a converted station house in Holmsley (newforesttearooms.co.uk), a thatched farmhouse in Burley (oldfarmhouseinburley.co.uk) or the Perfumery (newforestperfumery.co.uk) in Christchurch.

The forest is not the place to come if you want a ravy, upscale holiday visit, but it’s not all about families, either. There’s something intrinsically romantic about the shady forests and the open moorland; a place to cosy up for early nights and earlier mornings, to take a stroll together before the daytrippers have arrived, while heartier walkers are still cooking eggs on their one-ring gas stoves and poring over their maps. When I think back to the clearest memories of the New Forest, it’s always the mornings I remember; pulling back the zip on my tent just as the sun is starting to break across the sky, and marvelling that somewhere so well known, so popular, has managed to retain its unspoilt nature and a unique sense of magic.

The New Forest is just a 75 minute drive away along the A27 and will transport you to another world!


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Sidlesham, Chichester
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