Seeking calm and connection in her third trimester, Emma Winterschladen heads to the New Forest to experience the ancient art of ‘forest bathing’, staying at two sister hotels, both with Mother Nature on their doorstep and at the heart of their offerings.
Nature Therapy In The New Forest
‘Ordinarily, I go to the woods alone’, writes Mary Oliver in her poem ‘How I go to the Woods’. I am reminded of these words as I walk through the ancient woodlands of the New Forest. Leaves crunch beneath my feet as I pass wise, whispering oaks and lichen-wrapped beech. A late summer sunlight dances on a leaf-strewn forest floor to a soundtrack of songbirds.
Like Mary, I too like to go to the woods alone. Except this time, I have a little hand gripping my own, a husband walking five paces behind, and a bellyful of baby. To an outsider, we are just another family out for a ramble in the woods. But to me, it feels more than a walk. Surrounded by this old ecosystem, I feel at once rooted firmly in the moment, immersed in the past, and on the edge of a new season of my life ahead.
We’re here for two nights, staying across two sister hotels: Carey’s Manor Hotel & SenSpa, and The Montagu Arms. Situated just six miles apart, both hotels are surrounded by the very best landscape the New Forest has to offer: a rich tapestry of wild, purple-carpeted heathlands, unenclosed pony-laden pasture lands, postcard-perfect villages, and – most appealing to me – pockets of ancient woodlands (the highest concentration in Western Europe, in fact).
Carey’s Manor Hotel & SenSpa in Brockenhurst is our first stop. This handsome 18th century country pile has undergone many renovations over the years including, most significantly, the installation of its now-award-winning Thai spa, SenSpa. Combining ancient Eastern rituals with state-of-the-art spa technologies (think hydrotherapy pools, a crystal steam room, ice room, and experience showers), it offers guests – of both the hotel and The Montagu Arms – the chance to slow down, turn in and tune out.
It also offers a range of seasonal spa packages: from their latest Hide & Sleep autumn break to a Thai-inspired Siam Spa Break, and even a vegan-friendly Plant Power Spa Break. But it’s their ‘Forest Retreat’ I’m here for, an overnight offering that includes full spa access, a four-hour spa hydrotherapy pass, a 30-minute treatment, and a ‘mindful’ New Forest walking guide, designed to help elevate your woodland walk to something closer to ‘forest therapy’.
The package also includes, happily, a SenSpa hamper upon arrival, full of calm-inducing lavender treats. Lucky, because I’m in need of some pampering. Pregnancy a second time around with a toddler in tow has proved to be a busy affair. With so much day-to-day life needing to be lived, jobs needing to be done, I’ve struggled to find any space to just be with my growing bump. I’m hoping some time among the trees (and on a massage table) might help to fix that.
We arrive to a lunch reservation at the hotel’s Neigh Bar, a converted horse box that sits on the lawn outside the front of the hotel. A short menu of small, thoughtful plates is on offer, including a flatbread so moreish we re-order it three times (all with the same topping: caramelised onion, Morteau sausage and Tunworth cheese). Then it’s time for my massage appointment. Although a 30 minute Thai massage is included in the retreat, I’ve been upgraded to a 60-minute pregnancy massage, which primarily uses Swedish-style techniques to ease discomfort.
Lord, my massage therapist, has what can only be described as healing hands. Her buttery fingers glide across my skin knowingly, as if she speaks the language of touch. It’s one my baby seems to understand well: as Lord makes her way from my feet, up my legs, across my back and lands eventually on my round belly, my baby wriggles and dances beneath her fingertips. The massage is the sort of massage that you lie there willing not to end, hoping for just one more stroke. Thankfully, just as I’d come to terms with it being over, Lord rounds off with a leisurely Indian head massage.
We start the evening dining at Carey’s Cambium restaurant – one of three restaurants on site. The menu is a seasonal affair, featuring ingredients from both near and far (but not too far). My roast cod with crispy potatoes, a warm creamy tartare sauce and crispy prawn fritter is the highlight. We end the evening with a drink outside, before retiring to our room – and the biggest bed we’ve both ever laid eyes on (and indeed laid in). The next morning, after a hearty breakfast, we’re all set to head out into the forest, with our ‘The Art of Forest Therapy’ walking guide in hand.
Forest therapy, or ‘forest bathing’ as it’s also known, originated as a concept in Japan, where it’s called ‘Shinrin Yoku’ – which literally means to ‘bathe’ the senses whilst walking in a forest environment. According to this booklet, research has shown that a walk in the forest can ‘ease depression, stress and anxiety by up to 70 percent’. It isn’t hard to find the studies online to back this bold claim up. One systematic review in 2021, which looked at the currently available evidence on the association between forest therapy and depression and anxiety, found it not only largely alleviated both those things, but also improved sleep and immune function, as well as reducing psychological stress and mental fatigue. Crucially, although just simply being in a forest environment is a key component of forest bathing, it is also about engaging the five senses, and often includes meditation and mindfulness-based cognitive behaviour therapy. For me, heading into the woods with some of the guide’s ‘activities’ to try – from taking time to ‘hear the sounds of the forest’, to noticing how it is to walk on its different surfaces, to an invitation to sit and be aware of the sensations in my body and surroundings – gave a real sense of intention to our walk.
There are plenty of walking routes available, including the ones recommended in the guide. We improvise a bit – needing a walk suitable for both a toddler and heavily-pregnant person. Finally, we land on a walk near Denny Wood, around a 12 minute drive from The Montagu Arms. The walk recommends a circular five to six kilometre route, but we manage a much shorter loop.
The walk takes us through ancient and ornamental woodlands of oak, ash, beech, along with holly, chestnut and silver birch (making it a perfect spot for some autumn leaf-peeping). I am reminded of two years previous when, similarly pregnant, I had an ecotherapy session with my psychotherapist at the time. She took me around our local woods, encouraging me to pick up any bits of ‘forest litter’ that took my attention. We then sat on a blanket and I spoke freely about what each object brought up for me, finally making them into a crown.
This time around, it feels less ‘therapy’ and more a mindful interaction with the forest, myself and both my babies. I do find myself actively and creatively engaging with my surroundings though. This is no doubt helped by having a two-year-old, who helps me see the wonder of nature through her eyes. Together we touch the gnarled bark of old oaks, clamber over bramble-covered fallen logs, play hide and seek, and gleefully spot wild ponies. And, finally, we collect foraged forest objects and make them into a forest crown each. Similar to the one I made two years ago, but this time made with the little human who I was then growing. I think about returning in two years time to make another crown with this second human I am currently growing.
We finish our walk and head to our next stop, The Montagu Arms, for our final evening away. Located in Beaulieu – a small village of thatched cottages, free roaming ponies and a winding namesake river – this Grade II old coaching inn is the more boutique of the two hotels. Inside it’s all oak panels and herringbone parquet floors, plush fabrics and magazine-scattered cosy corners – not to mention a bright, light conservatory overlooking immaculate English gardens.
Our room is one of their luxury courtyard retreats, housed in the original chauffeur garages at the hotel. It is bathed in natural light from windows and doors at each end; the interiors are a pleasing pink and green, its furnishings patterned linens, velvet sofas and cosy woven blankets. A deep freestanding bath sits proudly in a spacious marble bathroom, just asking to be bathed in (though no chance of a relaxing solo bath with a two-year-old on board). It was the small, thoughtful touches that really elevated The Montagu Arms beyond its sister hotel down the road though: a ribboned box of syrupy flapjacks, a decanter of homemade foraged blackberry gin, and fresh milk in a glass jar, alongside White Company toiletries to use and a selection of glossy magazines to read.
The real highlight of this hotel though lies in its food offerings. Not only does it have its own cosy country pub, Monty’s Inn, just next door, serving hearty classics and fine ales, but it is also home to award-winning fine-dining restaurant The Terrace. It’s the latter we have a reservation at (with an exception being made for us to bring along our toddler – usually they only accept children over 8 years of age for dinner). We go à la carte, conscious the tasting menu may be a stretch to sit through for a two-year-old.
The menu is mostly an ode to seasonal, hyper-local produce, with much being grown in the hotel’s impressive kitchen garden. Despite this, it’s actually the Hand Dived Orkney Scallop we both can’t say no to. Served with a cured iron-aged pork crumb, a South Coast dulse beurre blanc and New Milton sea herbs, it somehow manages to dance between sweet and savoury, meaty and light, crunchy and smooth. It leaves us both smacking our lips, wishing we could lick the plate clean (we resist; our daughter does not). The rest of the meal doesn’t quite match up in the taste stakes, but is still a spoiling feast, including tender fillet of Charlcroft Beef with a rich black garlic-infused jus and garden-fresh greens. We go to bed full up, with both good food, and forest fresh air.
As we leave the next morning, I reflect how I left home just two nights previous feeling untethered, and am returning feeling re-rooted. To my body, my sense of self as a soon-to-be mother-of-two, and, perhaps most importantly, to both my babies – the one who is here, and the one who will soon arrive. As Mary Oliver’s poem ends, ‘if you have ever gone to the woods with me, I must love you very much.’ Well, quite.
B&B at Careys Manor Hotel & SenSpa starts from £249, with seasonal and spa packages varying in prices and availability throughout the year. careysmanor.com
B&B at The Montagu Arms starts from £251, with a dining break starting from £371 per room. montaguarmshotel.co.uk