Happy as a pig in Hamp­shire

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - A. Z. B. KNIGHT

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.

BOU­QUETS

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.

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