It’s no secret that the New Forest is teeming with natural history. But did you know that it’s also awash with real history, too? From shipyards which served Nelson, to fortresses built by Henry VIII, to a Roman villa and one of the UK’s most infamous unexplained deaths, the magical New Forest has something for everyone who’d like to experience our amazing past.

Check out some of our most fascinating heritage facts here...

  • The French Connection. Strange, but true, we have a French king to thank for the New Forest. It was in 1079 that William The Conqueror named the area his ‘new hunting forest' and the ancient system he established to protect and manage it is still in place today, through the efforts of Verderers, Agisters and Commoners. You can catch the Verderer’s Court at work once a month at the Queen’s House, Lyndhurst.

  • Iron Age fort. The New Forest is peppered with the remains of ancient earthworks, villages and farmsteads. One of the most impressive is Buckland Rings near Lymington. In its day – around 400BC - it would have been an impressive fortification, with three banks and two ditches, which can still be seen.

  • Tudor times. Built between 1541 and 1544 by Henry VIII as one of a chain of artillery defences protecting the south coast, the forbidding fortress at Hurst Castle later became the brief and miserable home of King Charles 1, who was dragged there on the way to his trial and eventual beheading. (His ghost is said to haunt the place!) In later years the castle was added to by the Victorians and there is also a beautiful lighthouse and a café.

At the other end of the forest, on Calshot spit, you’ll find Henry’s second fortification, glaring out over the entrance to Southampton Water. Its circular design was to fend off enemy cannon balls.

  • Breamore House near Fordingbridge was completed in 1583 and is a fine example of a large Tudor house, with a museum attached. Breamore village also has a number of excellent Tudor properties.

  • Conspiracy theory. There are no dead bodies at Rufus Stone today, just an inscribed monument marking the spot where, it’s rumoured, the hated King William II or William Rufus, son of the Conqueror, died. He was mysteriously hit by an arrow but was it an accident or something more sinister?  To this day, theories abound on just how William Rufus met his death. Make up your mind on the short walk from the Rufus Stone car-park and then on for a pint or lunch at the pub named after the man said to have fired that fatal arrow – The Sir Walter Tyrrell. 

  • Nelson’s shipyard. It may look like a picture-postcard Georgian village now, but wind back 200 years and Buckler’s Hard was at the heart of the shipbuilding industry – Lord Nelson’s favourite ship, HMS Agamemnon was built here.  As well as enjoying the beautiful surroundings, visitors can also explore historic cottage displays and discover the fascinating history of the village in its Maritime Museum.

  • Britain’s only working tide mill. Overlooking Southampton Water on the Forest’s eastern edge, Eling has had a working mill on this site for more than 900 years. After being restored between 1975 and 1980 it reopened and now there is a museum, which explains and interprets this fascinating part of our industrial heritage. Because of the changing tides, Eling Tide Mill only grinds at certain times, so make sure you don’t miss them by checking their website before any visit.

  • The Second World War. The New Forest played an enormous part in both World Wars, with bombing ranges, targets, spy schools and even a Dog Training Unit at Matley, near Lyndhurst.

    Most of the structures from these times have been removed, so start off with a visit to the fascinating Heritage Centre run by the Friends of the New Forest Airfields (FONFA) near Bransgore, where you can discover where the old airfields were, and how they operated. Then you can either travel the three miles to the official Airmen’s Memorial itself, or check out the former airfields, some of which have returned to a natural state.

    Don’t miss the fascinating Secret Army exhibition at the National Motor Museum, which explains how spies and secret operatives were trained in this part of the world during the war. Among the exhibits are the items these brave men and women used in their work, plus stories of their courage after they were flown to Europe from Beaulieu Aerodrome.

    You can also check out the vestiges of the Mulberry Harbours used for D-Day that were left off Lepe Beach.

  • Something the Romans did for us. No one knew about the existence of the Roman villa at Rockbourne until 1942, when a farmer trying to dig his pet ferret out of a hole at West Park Farm came across a large quantity of oyster shells and small, mosaic tiles. Excavations began, to revel the amazing villa we see today. Among the treasures to look out for at the villa are two fine mosaics and a hoard of 1,700 coins.

  • The Snake Catcher.  Harry ‘Brusher’ Mills got his nickname for sweeping the cricket pitch at Balmer Lawn between innings whenever a match was played. Brusher famously lived in an old charcoal burner’s hut in the woods near Brockenhurst and caught snakes for a living. According to the New Forest National Park Authority: ‘Armed with a forked stick and a sack, he set about ridding local properties of grass snakes and adders.  He sent some to London Zoo as food for the birds of prey and used others to make ointments to treat snake bites and other ailments.’

    It’s thought Brusher caught around 30,000 snakes during his 18-year career which would be prohibited now, as all New Forests reptiles are heavily protected. Sadly, there wasn’t any protection for Brusher. Despite being a popular character and regularly enjoying a drink at Brockenhurst’s Railway Inn (re-named The Snakecatcher in his honour) his home was cruelly burned down. Visit St Nicholas’ Church, Brockenhurst, where villagers paid for a marble headstone to mark his final resting place after his death in 1905.

  • Village of witchcraft. During the late 1950’s Sybil Leek, a famous ‘white’ witch lived in the village of Burley and was often seen walking around in her long black cloak with a pet jackdaw sitting on her shoulder. With the locals upset by her presence, Sybil moved to America where she continued studying and writing about the occult and astrology. To this day, Burley has become well-known for its witchcraft connections. One of its shops, A Coven of Witches, was not only named by Sybil but has a portrait of her hanging above the Jacobean fireplace.

  • Spooks and phantoms. The New Forest is supposedly one of the most haunted places in the UK. Ghostly and ghoulish sightings have been recorded at the 13th century Beaulieu Abbey and Palace House and spectral monks are said to haunt Breamore churchyard. Meanwhile, two generations of Dodington ladies who lived there in the 1600s haunt the rooms at Breamore House, where one of the paintings is said to be cursed. William Rufus is said to haunt the area around the Rufus Stone and, in Lymington, the Angel and Blue Pig is alleged to be the most haunted place in Hampshire with no fewer than four ghosts, including a phantom sailor and a mysterious and unseen piano player.