Gosh but the New Forest’s a lovely part of the world. As we drive through England’s smallest National Park, trees glinting golden in late summer sun, around 20 wild ponies, ranging from darkest chestnut to taupe, dappled grey to purest creamy white, appear as if from nowhere, galloping into the distance, manes flying joyously. We knew about the wild ponies, of course we did, but nothing prepares you for the magical reality of seeing the beautiful animals so unfettered and free, neither saddle nor bridle in sight.
We encounter plenty more ponies, and cattle, which also roam wild across the forest (along with wild pigs, who keep themselves to themselves) before we reach the pretty village of Beaulieu, home of the Montagu Arms. The original edifice (1887-88) is attractively timbered, with lead-paned windows; the newer extension, built at the time of the Arts & Crafts movement (1926), ivy-covered warm red brick – very easy on the eye.
Inside, it’s all understated good taste, smelling deliciously of oak panelling, polished wooden floorboards and fresh flowers. The upstairs corridor leading to our bedroom in the original building has walls lined with sepia-tinted photographs depicting famous guests from years gone by, including Lily Langtree, H Rider Haggard (author of King Solomon’s Mines), Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, ‘Buffalo Bill’ and Henry Ford; latterly General Charles de Gaulle, who stayed during World War II, when the hotel also housed Wrens from nearby Exbury, giving it the nickname ‘the Wrenery’.
In the 1920s two silent films were made in Beaulieu including ‘The Gypsy Cavalier’ starring French boxer Georges Carpentier. Georges had a successful career in silent movies which came to an end with the introduction of talkies. One of the photos is of Georges with adoring fans, ‘Guests from the film and the footlights.’ If it’s old-fashioned evocative charm you want, you’ll get in bucket-loads here.
There are 22 bedrooms and suites in the main house, and two new duplex Hay Loft suites in a barn dating from the 1820s, which look extremely appealing – interiors inspired by the surrounding gardens, freestanding baths, walk-in showers, private terraces. We happened to coincide with a wedding party, so I’m guessing these had been snapped up by bride, groom and entourage. Never mind, our classic country house-style room was lovely, with picturesque views over the river to Beaulieu Castle and the same low-key luxury evident in the rest of the place – sublimely comfortable bed, the fluffiest of almond-scented towels and robes, toiletries from The White Company. We slept soundlessly, dreamlessly, waking more refreshed than we ever manage in London.
Dinner gets off to a pleasing start with pre-prandial cocktails in the beautiful, tranquil garden. Once the noisy wedding guests outside for a cheeky smoke have gone back in we’re left with the silvery tinkle of the fountain, punctuated only by birdsong – Andy, being a country boy at heart, puts me to shame by identifying wood pigeon. There’s a huge magnolia tree, blousy tea roses, scented scrambling honeysuckle, a croquet lawn: the quintessential English country garden.
Our cocktails are well-made and refreshing, with superior nuts and olives to start, but when a selection of canapes is served in quick succession we begin to realise that we’re in for a treat tonight. ‘Cheese and onion’ turns out to be a sweet macaroon contrasting beautifully with its tangy, intensely savoury blue cheese topping. ‘Hampshire beef doughnut with mustard gel’ is another masterclass of contrasts, warm, pulled strands of beef atop an exquisitely light puff of dough. ‘Carrot caraway tartlets’ comprise fine, fragile pastry with a melt-in-the-mouth filling. My notes say ‘PROMISES GREAT THINGS!’ (my handwritten caps) and happily for us, the rest of the meal lives up to the promise.
The Terrace Restaurant looks onto the garden through French windows (open in summer) and is decorated in harmonious shades of sage green and dusty pink, the tinkle of non-intrusive classical piano music echoing the silvery patter of the fountain outside. Putting ourselves in the hands of the extremely well-informed head waiter and maitre d’, we greedily go for the seven-course tasting menu, with accompanying wines (£165 each).
Warm sourdough straight from the oven is flavoured with sea salt and rosemary that chef Matthew Whitfield picks from the kitchen garden (a lot of the produce is fresh from the kitchen garden, and you can taste it). Incidentally, Matthew grew up in the New Forest, and once when driving past the Montagu Arms with his grandparents announced ‘one day I’m going to work there’. He joined the Terrace Restaurant in January 2019, fresh from the three-Michelin-Star Eleven Madison Park in New York – currently ranked fourth in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list (and boy, does the pedigree show). Our accompanying English sparkling white made with chardonnay/pinot noir grapes in the champagne method is pleasantly dry and biscuity, not a hint of sharpness, a revelation.
Our amuse bouche of fish soup with cod ‘croutons’ is delicate and delicious, a gorgeously clear golden stock somehow evoking the flavours of Provence, peppered with toothsome morsels of white fish. Appropriately, the accompanying wine is from the South of France, dry, with flavours of apricot. Andy’s notes here say ‘ REALLY delicious’ (I’m afraid the notes become more fulsome as the night wears on). Soup of white tomatoes with elderflower and Hendricks gin is an inspired combination, the tiny (baby broad bean-sized) tomatoes – picked today from the kitchen garden, natch – adding bursts of sweetness in every mouthful of clear, fragrant broth.
Beef tartare en croute is another winner (Andy’s notes say ‘ EXCEPTIONAL – best tartare ever!’ OK, I’ll stop with the notes now, but you get the gist – this really was a sublime meal, not a duff course, not a mediocre wine, just plate after plate, glass after glass of deliciousness). Andy detects a kind of smokiness to the beef and the waiter confirms that it has been flavoured with ash from the wood-fired oven, which doesn’t sound like it should be a good thing, but is.
Our trout arrives with a flourish under a smoke-filled cloche. The spanking fresh sea trout (locally caught, of course) is almost meaty, its skin crispy; the accompanying bright green watercress velouté with nutty little cubes of potato is elevated from merely delicious by unexpected little explosions of tang from slivers of pickled lemon. With this, we are served a delicate Alsace Riesling 2017, very nice too.
Hake comes with pickled mushrooms, beetroot and tender lardons (yes, it’s possible) in a red wine sauce, a nod to the imminent change of season perhaps, and is served with a Macon-Vergisson La Roche 2018, a lovely full-bodied white burgundy.
I’m starting to run out of superlatives, so take them as read from now on. Duck comes with carrots three ways and comprises three tender strips of rare breast and a deeply savoury confit parcel, leavened by the smoothest, silkiest (sorry!) pomme puree. To accompany, Alpataco 2017, Patagonian Pinot Noir, a young, light, soft red.
And now – oh good Lord, is it time for port already? Ah well, needs must. It’s 10 years old and tawny, very smooth, and accompanies a wonderfully chosen selection of cheeses: Bosworth Ash (light, tangy goats); local Hampshire Winslade (a cross between Camembert and Vacherin, soft and gooey with piney notes, as it’s matured in a spruce strip); Lancashire Bomber (pale yellow, soft, buttery, almost like eating clotted cream, encased in a dramatic black spherical wax ‘bomb’); and Epoisses (from Burgundy, ripened with Marc de Bourgogne brandy, unbelievably tangy and stinky, so much so that certain pubs have banned it from their bins, we’re told – it least I think that’s what I can garner from the incoherent scribblings).
Stoically, we find room for puddings – kaffir lime leaf sorbet with pineapple and coriander, welcomingly zesty and refreshing at this stage. And – well, not so light and refreshing, ‘chocolate bar, milk sorbet’, a dark, dense ganache shaped to look like a bar of chocolate, with a contrasting dollop of soothing pale ice, served with a Sauternes 2015.
What’s this? Another wine? Apparently we were then served a Spanish sweet red from the mountains near Barcelona, where it’s warm in the day, cold at night, which stabilises the sugar production (gotta trust the notes). Not sure why we were given this, apart from extreme largesse on behalf of the management, but I know it was extremely welcome at the time.
Out and about:
You’re spoilt for choice, with the picture-perfect riverside village of Beaulieu on your doorstep, all (ever-so-slightly twee) shops selling cream teas, ice cream, antiques and – the best bit by far – wild donkeys roaming the streets. There’s the castle, and the New Forest itself, which must be sensational in spring and autumn, or you could sail down the river as far as the Solent, should you be staying for some time, and of that persuasion.
Who goes there?
Difficult to tell when we were there, with the wedding going on, but judging by the location, décor and prices, I imagine yachting types, well-heeled Home Counties types, smug couples up from London (ahem). Oh and classic car enthusiasts – Lord Montagu has an extensive collection of them at the castle.
The worst thing:
The morning after the night before, our extremely good breakfast (cooked to order, no buffet nonsense, fresh bread, locally churned butter) is not enhanced by the wedding guests’ noisy, badly behaved children running around the room, shattering what’s left of our fragile equilibrium. And if that makes me sound like the worst type of misanthropic snob, so be it.
The best thing:
The location is outstanding, but dinner even better, the best since we started reviewing hotels four years ago, despite some fierce competition.
The Montagu Arms, Beaulieu, New Forest, Hampshire. SO42 7ZL
Tel: 01590 612324, Central Reservations: 01590 624467