A strict 40mph limit covers the roads in the New Forest, protecting wildlife and calming traffic to the beat of a bygone era, perfectly fitting in with the old buildings, narrow streets and timeless sense of history.
So what better way to explore the 219 square miles of former royal hunting ground that encompasses pasture, heathland, woodland and plenty of free-roaming wildlife, including donkeys, pigs and ponies, than behind the wheel of a vintage car?
A new offering from the historic Montagu Arms hotel has made a ‘fleet’ of venerable vintage cars available to 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 decorated room, breakfast, a seven-course tasting menu at the award-winning Terrace Restaurant, admission to the magnificent National Motor Museum and a copy from Classic Motoring magazine.
The journey back in automobile time begins when visitors check in at the antique desk in the 200-year-old hotel’s wood-paneled entrance hall, before their luggage is whisked away by a smartly dressed porter to their suite, built in former 1920’s chauffeur garages, accessed through manicured gardens.
From here, all luxury is possible as, for a fee, guests are encouraged to enjoy the hotel’s facilities, including the nearby sister hotel’s spa, while branching out for wider pleasures in the New Forest, heralded royal hunting forest for William the Conqueror. and appears in the Domesday Book.
Three beautifully restored engines line the starting grid for Classic Car Break, in association with New Forest Classic Car Hire, based in the traditional Beaulieu Garage, a minute’s walk from the hotel.
So alluring is the array of four-wheeled beauties for sale here that visitors sometimes stop and wander the showroom, cameras at the ready, thinking they’ve located the famous motor museum. “It happens quite often; we have to tell them that the actual museum, which is considerably larger, is just around the corner,” says Adam Gorgeon, sales manager.
Our car for the day is the stuff of dreams: two-tone paint job, wire wheels, convertible top, chrome trim and a 3-litre straight-six petrol engine that produces 148bhp, good for 120mph. and 0-60 mph in 9.8 seconds. .. not that that type of driving is welcome here.
“It’s more grand tourer than sports car,” 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 switch, how to hold the hood – and a warning that he ‘spits and coughs a bit’ during the warm-up.
Then we go. You forget how direct, how tactile, how visceral motorsport used to be. The big, skinny, non-powered steering wheel needs a good tug, the tiny remote wing mirrors take forever to adjust, the wide-space gearbox requires a deft touch, and even in a straight line, steering requires a steady hand. We sit low to the ground, the old chassis rattling and rattling over potholes and the heat, especially on a hot day, gets through the engine bulkhead and roasts your toes.
The feeling, under a clear blue New Forest sky and on gently rolling roads, is pure bliss. Engine performance is strong, the tailpipe emitting a sizzling, crackling soundtrack rarely heard in 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 search for the coast at Lymington.
We could have gone for 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, with the hood down, and I’m sure we’re the envy of other motorists, in their cool little-looking pickups.
Where is it?
The handsome, 200-year-old, family-run Montagu Arms has landed an enviable spot in Beaulieu. It sits nicely on a bend off the B3054, a stone’s throw from the placid River Beaulieu, in the heart of the New Forest.
Set in its own extensive gardens, it’s a 20-minute walk from the National Motor Museum, some of it off the busier B3056. Village donkeys roam the hotel’s gravel path, mingling with New Forest ponies, perfect for taking pictures.
The hotel is also a 15 minute drive from bustling Lymington and the coast with its views of the Isle of Wight and around 20 minutes from Lyndhurst, the ‘capital’ of the New Forest.
The English country hotel is the ambience, enhanced by the paneled reception area, soft red brick facades adorned with vines, Gertude Jekyll-inspired gardens, croquet lawn and sense of calm.
Discreet seating areas adorn the terrace, near the pond and fountain, encouraging guests to unwind with drinks from the bar.
It’s not all Old English though, with stylish, fresh-looking and tastefully modernized accommodation to the rear, some rooms having their own small terraces and seating areas.
Food and drink
The Montagu often sells out on the strength of its culinary offerings, and the exquisite seven-course tasting menu that accompanies the Classic Car Break, with wine pairings, makes it clear why.
The three AA Rosette award-winning ‘Terrace Restaurant’, under the direction of Executive Chef Nathan Eades, offers a true dining experience that is a great way to cap off a day in a vintage car.
The tasting menu includes exquisitely judged delicacies 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 crown jewel 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 dish, with an infallible eye and nose.
Discretion and mysterious invisibility are probably the watchwords at Montagu Arms. The staff is very attentive, but at a distance, always ready to offer assistance with luggage, advice or directions, always with a smile. They come out of nowhere at just the right time. Getting the balance right isn’t easy, but the Montagu has it all under control.
Beaulieu’s big draw is, of course, the National Motor Museum, and after all these years (it celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2022), it still knows how to please the crowds.
Beautifully spread out over sprawling grounds, they’re not just piled up in rows of old cars; they show carefully selected beauties in attractive groups, each one telling a compelling story.
Current highlights in an ever-changing rotation include ‘The History of Motoring in 50 Objects’. If you visit before the end of October, when it closes, you should head straight to ‘Bond In Motion’, which celebrates No Time To Die.
With over 280 vehicles, there’s something for everyone, including Edwardian ‘palaces’ on wheels, camper vans, F1 cars and other racing stars, early pioneer vehicles and a delightful selection of motorcycles.
After all the excitement, Montagu Arms guests can relax again enjoying complimentary access to the luxurious facilities of the elegant 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 a car, include an indoor pool, Jacuzzi, steam room, sauna and gym, with hydrotherapy pool access and treatments available at an additional cost.
Not to be missed is Exbury Gardens, 200 acres of informal planting in an enchanting landscape along the Beaulieu River. Neither should its great little narrow-gauge steam train, winding its way through a tunnel, over a bridge and exotic plants.
Guests enjoying the Classic Car Break stay in a spacious and beautifully appointed Courtyard Suite that, while echoing the feel of a country house, keeps things moving forward with a fresh, vibrant and modern interpretation. The decor is crisp but calm and is said to be inspired by the flora and fauna of the New Forest. There are soft wood floors, large sofas and custom-made ‘bare’ wood furniture.
The fixtures and fittings are all of a very high standard as they are selected by hand. objectsalong with the ‘vintage’ radio, the oversized freestanding bathtub in the luxurious marble bathroom and of course a handy wooden bathroom shelf with book stand, on which to put your classic car magazine.
Other room treats include a complimentary bottle of seasonal gin, a Nespresso machine, a mini bar, a 52-inch TV, and full-size SenSpa toiletries to take home afterwards. There are also beautifully manicured outdoor seating areas, for alfresco drinking or dining.
Celebrating a ‘special’ event, perhaps a major birthday. Even those who aren’t fans of petrol should enjoy gliding through the New Forest in a vintage convertible with the prospect of a seven-course tasting dinner at the end of the game, and a treat or two at the nearby spa, while the National Museum del Motor offers an excellent, nostalgic trip down memory lane with giveaways even for those totally uninterested in the motoring scene.
how to get there
Getting to this peaceful New Forest hideaway from central London by car takes around two and a half hours, either via the M3 or, depending on your starting point, perhaps the A3/M27. The Montagu Arms offers free parking and the route, once it reaches the New Forest, is magical. But remember to abide by the 40 mph speed limit, which is strictly enforced.
Montagu Arms, Beaulieu, New Forest, SO42 7ZL
Phone: 01590 612324
Luxury Classic Car Getaway at The Montagu Arms starts from £997 in a Courtyard Deluxe Room.