Happy as a pig in Hampshire
PONIES are grazing nonchalantly and we often have to stop the car as they dawdle on to the road. The occasional cow looks up at us with bored confidence, and are those donkeys I can see in a thicket?
Indeed they are. This is the New Forest, a wild national park in the south of England, where ponies, donkeys, cattle and deer roam, without a care for passing traffic. Created by William the Conqueror as a royal hunting park, the New Forest takes in Iron Age barrows, World War II relics, beaches, rivers, heathland and woodland.
And at its very heart is The Pig hotel. Its big sister, also in the New Forest, is Lime Wood, a grown-up and grand affair, all clawfoot baths, muted velvets and grey silks.
The Pig has no such ambitions — it is altogether friendlier and more ramshackle. The sign outside, bearing the likeness of a magnificent golden swine, declares in capitals: THE PIG.
And, below, it doesn’t even bill itself as a hotel. Rooms, it says, and kitchen garden food. It should really be the other way round, as the kitchen garden is the engine of the place. When we arrive, chefs are foraging around with wicker baskets over their arms, in and out of the gloriously romantic walled garden, abundant with rows of kale, onions and beetroot, and the year’s first strawberries just turning red.
On the other side of the path are the quails and the smokehouse; beyond the walled garden are the crayfish pond, the orchard and the greenhouse; and behind our guestroom (at a fragrant distance, thankfully) are the chickens and the pigs. Handsome fellows, black and pink Saddlebacks and cigar-brown Tamworths; it seems a pity to eat them. But eat them we must, and we shall.
The restaurant is one of the prettiest rooms I’ve seen — a high-ceilinged conservatory with views over endless green, a roaring fire at one end and glittering with candles at night. Every shelf is crammed with pots of herbs and next to us is a lemon tree fat with fruit. My husband asks whether the lemons are used in the kitchen. ‘‘Of course,’’ replies the waitress, twisting one from its branch. ‘‘This looks just ready. I’ll give it to the chef for your fish.’’
The fish duly comes, the lemon noticeably delicious, as is everything else, from the warm homemade bread with salty butter to the crispy tobacco onions, the slivers of Yes, to all rooms on the ground floor, including the restaurant and bar. There is one fully wheelchair-accessible guestroom.
Children are very welcome in two family rooms, both with bunks. The restaurant has a children’s menu, and is happy to make smaller portions of anything else. Good massages in the cute spa shed by the pond. beetroot we saw being unearthed to, as one would expect, the tender, sharp-and-sweet pork salad. This is local, seasonal food at its unpretentious best, so no wonder the dining room is packed with a happy buzz.
Guestrooms are not an afterthought here — the Lime Wood pedigree is in evidence. Each one is individual and cosily chic; some have freestanding baths, others fourposter beds, most have views over the New Forest, and all have dinner-plate shower heads and are stocked with chocolate buttons and good wine. After a night under the cloud-like duvet, breakfast, if anything, is even better than dinner — slabs of honeycomb and tureens of local yoghurt, homemade jams and flaky, fresh croissants.
As we peel our boiled eggs and look at the mist burning away outside, all we can talk of is how nice it would be to come back next time with friends.