Joanna Booth road-tested an eco-friendly electric car in the New Forest
It’s not easy to turn heads with a car when you’re at the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu.
The competition is fierce: sleek Aston Martins, imposing Rolls-Royces, comic novelty cars including one in the shape of a giant orange, world speed record-breakers such as Bluebird and famous stars of stage and screen from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to Del Boy’s Reliant Regal van.
However, I managed it. Despite stiff competition, heads turned in the car park when I drove up – in a Renault Twizy.
Admittedly, glances were more confused than envious, but I was smug in the knowledge that my tiny two-seater electric car was cute and environmentally friendly – if not the kind of sleek, quivering hunk of horsepower that would make Jeremy Clarkson green with envy.
But if there’s anywhere where being sustainable makes sense, it’s in the beautiful surroundings of the New Forest – 300sq miles of woods and moorland punctuated by picture-perfect villages, all fronted by mile upon mile of England’s south coast.
The New Forest is the first destination in the country to offer a fleet of electric vehicles with – most importantly – a charge point network, so visitors can explore easily without grinding to a halt.
Londoners can take the train from Waterloo and roll into Brockenhurst station an hour and a half later, pick up their Twizy from the centre there and be on their way. (New Forest Environmental, which runs the Twizy network, has a pick-up and drop-off service to take luggage to the hotel, as there’s no storage space in the tiny electric cars.)
Guests arriving in their own cars might more conveniently opt to stay at one of the region’s hotels with its own Twizy instead, swapping petrol power for buzzing around by battery once they’ve checked in.
Rental costs £49 per day (agents earn 10% commission) and comes with a Brand New Forest Card offering discounts and special offers at pubs, restaurants and attractions that are part of the scheme.
There are 20 charge points across the region, at hotels, holiday parks, B&Bs, pubs, restaurants and attractions, so when visitors park up – for lunch at a Fullers pub, to take a kayak tour with New Forest Activities, or like us, to visit the National Motor Museum – they can simply plug in and return once they are finished to a fully-charged Twizy.
At least, that’s the idea. We visited Beaulieu on Autojumble day, one of the busiest in its calendar, and found someone had parked a campervan in front of the charge point. Happily, the fact a fully charged Twizy can travel 50 miles without recharging meant we made it back to our hotel.
The Twizy drives like an automatic and at full speed can hit 50mph, which is ample on the New Forest’s winding rural roads where the speed limit is 40mph. Drivers must be over 21 and have held a licence for more than a year.
The cars are absolutely tiny – the passenger is wedged in behind the driver almost like a passenger riding pillion on a motorcycle – so it’s not suitable for older couples with mobility issues. There are seat belts and an air bag as you’d find on any car, but the Twizy’s side windows are optional, and despite the fact we travelled on a sunny day, we wished we’d had them as the wind does whistle through when you get up speed.
The hire charge really is it when it comes to the price – recharging costs nothing, and Twizy drivers can park for free in New Forest District Council short-stay car parks. Buzzing around the beautiful countryside is fun, and you feel much closer to nature than you do in a normal car.
And there’s the added bonus of knowing you’re doing nothing to harm the ancient woodland and its wildlife, from carpets of spring bluebells to those famous wild ponies.
However, there are negatives to the small size and open design. It’s impractical if you want to carry anything larger than a handbag, and with no heating beyond the windscreen,
I wouldn’t recommend it in winter or in anything more severe than a short, sharp shower.
Whether visitors turn up in a Twizy or not, the Beaulieu National Motor Museum will get even the most lukewarm petrol head’s engine running.
From the very earliest vehicles – which look like carriages with a missing horse – right up to the latest Formula One racers, the motor collection is as entertaining as it is extensive.
You can perch in the driving seat of a 1904 Pope Tribune, covet sleek E-type Jaguars, and snigger at some of the more curiously-shaped creations including the one-seater Peel P50, which was manufactured on the Isle of Man and looks smaller even than a Twizy.
Fans of Clarkson, Hammond and May will love the Top Gear Enormodrome, filled with cars modified for the show, including an amphibious Toyota, an Alfa/Saab stretch limo and a Robin Reliant that was fired into space.
Beaulieu isn’t all about the cars. The National Motor Museum has a stunning setting next to a 13th century Cistercian Abbey, where we wandered among the butter-coloured cloisters and through fragrant herb gardens, peaceful even on a busy day.
Landowner Lord Montagu has opened the family home, Palace House, to the public too, so visitors can explore this late Victorian gem and its surrounding grounds. The admission price – £20 per adult and £9.95 per child – covers entry to all the attractions.
There’s plenty more on offer in the area. Active options include walking the network of paths through woodland and across moors to more organised activities such as kayaking on the Beaulieu River, Rib rides on the open sea or high-wire forest fun Go Ape.
Adults can explore pretty villages, stopping at pubs and cafes for a pint or a cream tea, whereas families could choose between real livestock at Longdown Activity Farm or cartoon friends at Paultons Park’s Peppa Pig World.
There are some truly stunning luxury hotels in the New Forest, from spa and food-focused boutique Lime Wood to the superlative Chewton Glen (see review, page 69).
Superbreak offers 12 hotels in the area for a range of budgets, including four-star historic property Crown Manor House Hotel, which is available from £69.50 per person per night in April. The 50-room hotel is minutes from Lyndhurst train station and serves New Forest breakfasts with locally-sourced produce.
Hoseasons has a choice of holiday parks. New Forest Lodges is part of the brand’s Autograph Lodge Holidays Collection, and overlooks a series of private coarse fishing lakes.
The sleek wooden lodges have their own verandas with hot tubs and open-plan living rooms with wood-burning stoves. Pamper packs for couples, including champagne, flowers, chocolates and bathrobes are on offer for £95 – order at the time of booking.
A short break in May starts from £455. For families, Oakdene Forest is part of the Go Active+ breaks collection and has a Go Juniors activity programme for three to seven-year-olds – think Robin Hood Junior Archery and Junior Musketeers for budding fencers.
The range of facilities includes an indoor heated pool with a 34-metre flume, and outdoor pool with water jets, pool, table tennis, crazy golf and zorbing. Caravan and lodge-style accommodation is on offer, and short breaks in May start from £199.
TRIED & TESTED: Chewton Glen Hotel & Spa, Hampshire
Chewton Glen has two driveways and neither disappoints. One takes you past the walled kitchen garden; the other snakes through the nine-hole golf course and alongside the croquet lawn.
The hotel itself is a beauty, an early 18th-century manor that manages to be rather grand but still domestic in scale. Stepping inside – through yet another meticulously well-tended garden – you experience your first taste of what makes Chewton Glen so very special – the absolutely pitch-perfect service. We were ushered solicitously up to our suite – a triumph of contemporary country-house design in restful shades of sage and purple.
There are 70 rooms and suites, 58 in the main house with classic looks and every conceivable comfort, but for a different feel there are the 12 Treehouse Suites – modern, glass-walled hideaways nestled in the canopy on raised stilts.
The public areas feel as welcoming as the rooms, from the bar, all warm wood and leather, to the light-filled lounge areas and sunny terraces.
The restaurant, Vetiver, is striking and more modern. The food is seasonal, sourced locally – much from the hotel’s gardens – and absolutely spectacular.
There’s a seriously good spa (Review, page 76) plus a state-of-the-art gym, indoor and outdoor tennis courts, a golf course and a croquet lawn. It’s also merely a 10-minute stroll through the grounds to the sea – you pop out on to a long, pebbly beach with a view across to the Isle of Wight.
Even though this is a hotel with some fairly unusual facilities, it’s not the croquet lawn, the tasting menu or the treehouse suites that loom largest in my memory. It’s the way the simplest, most basic elements of hospitality are pitched to perfection that makes this one of the country’s very best hotels.
The staff to guest ratio is three to one, and I don’t think I’ve ever experienced better, more personal service, whether it was from Anneli, who tailor-made a facial for me in the spa; Oscar, who brought us a complimentary glass of unusual French ice-wine because he thought we’d be interested to try it; or the bartender who made ordering a simple gin and tonic a memorable event by telling us the story behind Monkey 47 gin.
Book it: A Garden Room starts from £325 per room per night, including use of the spa facilities, golf course, tennis courts, and croquet lawn.
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