Cycling along forest tracks to the quintessentially English village of Minstead in the heart of the New Forest, Gillian Thomas was on a mini-mission. Why was the grave of Conan Doyle there in the churchyard of All Saints since he lived and died in Crowborough which is 99 miles away? She reckoned it was a mystery worthy of Sherlock Holmes himself to solve.
Cycling is a great way to explore, yielding all sorts of secrets like the mystery of Conan Doyle’s grave which are easily missed by car. Together with a group of friends, we had hired bikes at Brockenhurst station, a 17-mile ride away.
I was pleased to have opted for an electric model which made light of the gently climbing trail across open heathland and through woods. In places it had sported puddles and heavy gravel due to a couple of recent downpours so I appreciated having the extra ‘oomph’.
There are 150 miles of off-road gravel tracks around the New Forest’s many villages, offering cyclists as well as walkers a choice of outings along way-marked routes that can be circular, short or long, easy or challenging. And however you get around there’s a huge variety of landscapes and wildlife to enjoy in the 800-year old forest.
In fact the area, covering 220 square miles, is by no means just a forest. One-third of it is wild-looking open heathland dotted with bogs and pools. There are also grasslands, called ‘lawns’, as well as ornamental woods and arboretums. One of these is planted with some of Britain’s tallest Douglas firs. And to the south, the Forest spreads along the coast beside the Solent.
Everywhere there are deer, ponies, sheep and even pigs roaming free. All the animals are owned by local ‘commoners’ who have grazing rights which are rigorously protected by ancient rules and customs. It was earmarked by William the Conqueror as a royal hunting preserve in 1079 and finally became a National Park in 2004 managed by the Forestry Commission.
Cycling north towards Minstead, our particular route first took us across an expanse of heathland with long views over flat countryside punctuated by trees and bushes.
We then pedalled on through woods shaded by beech, sycamore and oak, often sharing the trail with solitary ponies who nonchalantly lurked beneath the branches, totally unconcerned as we passed by.
A few gentle miles on we paused at a clearing to marvel at the Knightwood Oak, the oldest tree in the Forest, which has proudly stood there for over 500 years and now has a 7-metre girth.
Nearby the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh also planted trees in 1979, marking the Forest’s 900th anniversary.
In the Deer Fields Reserve a little further on, I had hoped to see some deer but they had hidden themselves away. Apparently dawn and dusk are the best times for a sighting.
In need of sustenance before further investigating the Doyle grave mystery, we were pleased to arrive at the atmospheric Trusty Servant pub beside Minstead’s village green.
It offered us just what we needed after a good morning’s ride: welcoming log fires, real ales and a hearty choice of food which included fish and chips and gooey desserts.
Afterwards it was a short stroll to All Saints churchyard where, tucked away under an oak tree, I found the stone cross complete with a Sherlock Holmes-style wooden pipe marking the grave of Sir Arthur and his wife Jean. A booklet in the church explained how he was originally buried in the garden at his home, having been denied a Christian burial due to his interest in spiritualism.
Then in 1955, 15 years after Jean’s death, the rector of All Saints agreed they could be re-interred together at Minstead. To avoid any controversy, it was a short private burial early one morning. Apparently they had a family retreat, Bignell Wood, nearby. Following holidays there Conan featured the area in his adventure story The White Company.
Leaving Minstead, mystery solved, we only faced 10 downhill miles back to Brockenhurst. So we resisted the temptation to pause en route at the popular Oak Inn in Bank, definitely another of the local attractions. Scattered throughout the forest, there are pubs, tea rooms and shops featuring local specialities – from pork to shortbread – waiting to be discovered.
Staying at the cosy Cottage Lodge Hotel in Brockenhurst, my day’s exertions were amply rewarded by Martin Packard, chef and patron of its White Tails restaurant. Home-made pate and chutney followed by melt-in-the mouth haunch of venison with crushed peas, cherry tomatoes and mushrooms. Raspberry and apricot buckle ended my memorable meal.
Built with ship’s timbers by a forest commoner in the 16th century, the Cottage Lodge has been transformed over the last 15 years by Christina Simons into a 18-room hotel that is truly in keeping with the Forest. Most of the furniture is crafted from recycled local timber – the dining-room tables from one huge oak and branches of silver birch for my very comfortable 4-poster bed.
The New Forest : thenewforest.co.uk.
Don’t forget to avail yourself of the good value Go New Forest Card – £10 for offers and discounts.
Cottage Lodge Hotel and White Tails Restaurant: cottagelodge.co.uk
Bike hire by Cyclexperience: newforestcyclehire.co.uk