The National Motor Museum and more in the New Forest
Tucked on the eastern edge of Hampshire’s New Forest National Park, Beaulieu is just a pretty forest village. It sits on Beaulieu Estate, which has been in the Montagu family for more than 400 years.
The late Lord Montagu (3rd Baron Montagu of Beaulieu, who died in 2015 at 87) found himself in the same situation as most English landed families after World War II, having to figure out how to monetize the assets of the estate to pay the taxes and upkeep. Like many of his peers, Lord Montagu opened Palace House to the paying public in 1952. As it happens, in the gardens of the stately home stand the ruins of 14th-century Beaulieu Abbey.
A huge motoring and automobile enthusiast, Lord Montagu garnered a large private collection of vintage cars, which he put on display as well. The museum grew to become the National Motor Museum in 1972 and today draws 500,000 visitors a year.
A baronial home set in stunning gardens, extensive remains of a medieval monastery in beautifully manicured lawns and the premier motor museum in the country: Beaulieu is a veritable paradigm of a one-stop day out.
TRAVELING TO BEAULIEU
The quickest route to the New Forest from London or the airports is a straight shot down the M3, less than two hours from the M25. For a more interesting route, take the A3 from the M25 to Guildford and pick up the A31 west. Along the way, you might plan a stop in Chawton for Jane Austen’s House or in the ancient cathedral city of Winchester.
Either way, the best destination is Lyndhurst, “Capital of the New Forest,” on the A337. With a number of hotel and lodging options, the market town of Lyndhurst makes a great place to base a stay, just a few miles west of Beaulieu. Right off the High Street, the New Forest Visitor Information Centre offers not only the usual tourist information, but a small museum providing a wonderful introduction to the forest and its history. Explore the region’s visitor website at thenewforest.co.uk.
ENJOYING THE DAY
From Lyndhurst, it’s about a 20-minute drive over moors covered with heather and gorse to Beaulieu. Right at the entrance to the estate and the parking area, the National Motor Museum is the natural place to begin. Side buildings contain popular exhibitions of vehicles made famous on British television, such as Mr. Bean’s car and vehicles from the hit show Top Gear.
The main building displays 285 vintage vehicles dating back to 1875, many with awards and speed pedigrees from decades of motor racing. Even those with little interest in cars or motor racing will love gawking through galleries of Formula One cars, earliest cars from the 1890s to 1910, interactive rides and simulators, dioramas, period garages and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
Next, you might take a seat on the mile-long elevated monorail that runs throughout the day for a bird’s-eye view of the grounds and gardens.
The conserved ruins of Beaulieu Abbey were once home to a large Cistercian monastery begun by King John in the early 1200s. Like so many medieval abbeys and priories, Beaulieu was disbanded and destroyed in 1538 by King Henry VIII. The abbey church foundations and cloister are well preserved, and in the standing Domus building an exhibition tells the abbey’s history and the life of the Cistercian monks who lived there.
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Overlooking the Beaulieu River millpond, Palace House was once the abbey gatehouse; since 1538 it has been home to the Montagu family. Extensively rebuilt and enlarged in the 1800s as a Victorian manor, Beaulieu is one of the 10 Treasure Houses of England. Costumed guides in the character of Victorian house staff offer tours. There are exhibitions on the late Lord Montagu and his ancestors and a gallery of Russian art.
Near the entrance to the Motor Museum and the monorail, Beaulieu’s spacious informal restaurant serves cafeteriastyle, well-prepared seasonal hot and cold fare, cakes and all the accoutrements of afternoon tea. Sit indoors in front of broad windows or on the covered terraces overlooking the grounds.
Unlike so many major attractions, Beaulieu is open daily throughout the year. The all-inclusive adult ticket is 24 GBP at the door. Tickets bought at least a day in advance online are discounted 5 pounds. beaulieu.co.uk
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IN THE IMMEDIATE NEIGHBORHOOD
Just a few miles south, the Beaulieu River broadens into its estuary on The Solent. At the village of Buckler’s Hard, ships of the line were built throughout the Napoleonic Wars. The extraordinarily wide main street leading downhill to docks on the water allowed the huge oak logs needed for masts and beams to be rolled down the street.
Right across the river, Exbury Gardens is especially popular in the spring. Acres of woodland displays of camellias, rhododendrons and azaleas draw visitors from around the world. Those sore of foot can take the miniature steam railway through the gardens.
When it’s time to move on, you might head north to Salisbury via the A36 for a visit to magnificent 13th-century Salisbury Cathedral. Or turn west to Dorset and Thomas Hardy Country.