Combine a delightful walk along the Solent foreshore with a visit to a magnificent woodland garden on the banks of the Beaulieu River.
Distance 6 miles (9.7km)
Minimum time 3hrs
Ascent/gradient 114ft (35m)
Level of difficulty Easy
Paths Fields, woodland and foreshore paths, some roads, 8 stiles
Landscape Coastline and farmland dotted with woodland
Suggested map aqua3 OS Outdoor Leisure 22 New Forest
Start/finish SZ 455985
Dog friendliness Keep dogs under control at all times
Parking Pay-and-display car parks at Lepe Country Park
Public toilets Lepe Country Park and Exbury Gardens
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1 Walk west from the shore car park along the road. Keep left along the path above the foreshore, pass The Watch House then, at a small lighthouse, bear right to meet the lane. Turn left then, as the road curves left, cross the stile on the right. Walk along the field edge, then bear left over a bridge.
2 Keep alongside the fence to a stile and proceed straight across the field. Briefly pass beside some woodland and follow the path to a stile near a telegraph pole. Continue over another stile, the path leading to a stile on the edge of the woodland ahead. Continue through the trees, bearing right beyond a footbridge, then right with waymarker post to join a bridleway arrowed to the left.
3 Enter a field and walk up the left-hand edge, skirting East Hill Farm to a track. Walk along the track, then where it curves sharp left, turn right through a gate. Follow the wide path ahead, turn right on entering a field and follow the field edge to T-junction. Turn left to a stile and lane.
4 Turn right, go through a gate beside a cattle grid and take the footpath left through a gate (by a cattle grid) to join a track to Gatewood Farm. Bear right at the fork, walk around the farm complex, and remain on the track for ¾ mile (1.2km) to a gate and lane. Go straight across for Exbury Gardens (where there's a tea room).
5 On leaving Exbury Gardens, turn right along the road then, where the road bends left, keep ahead, signed Inchmery Lane. Continue to a waymarked path and stile on the left.
6 Proceed straight across grassland into woodland, following the path right, through the trees. At a crossing of paths, turn left through the woodland fringe. On leaving the trees, turn right along the field edge beside the woodland to a stile. Maintain course, bearing right with the waymaker, and soon follow the path through scrub into woodland. Cross a footbridge and bear left, eventually reaching a lane.
7 Turn left and follow it to the shore. Proceed along the foreshore (follow the fingerpost) close to the high tide line and continue below Inchmery House. Pass Lepe House and rejoin your outward route past The Watch House back to Lepe Country Park. The final stretch along the foreshore may be impassable at high tide, so keep to the lane around Inchmery House, then, just before the road junction, turn right beside a barrier down to the foreshore to pick up the path past Lepe House.
With its shingle beaches, wild natural habitats and clumps of pine trees, Lepe Country Park is a perfect place to begin exploring one of the remote and most beautiful stretches of the Hampshire coast. It affords superb views across the Solent to the Isle of Wight and provides an excellent vantage point to watch passing yachts and ships, in particular huge tankers making their way to the oil refinery at nearby Fawley. To the west lie silent and eerie mudflats and marshland expanses at the mouth of the Beaulieu River and the magnificent gardens at Exbury, the focus of our walk.
Exbury is a rare surviving example of an estate village and enjoys an enviable position, being peacefully situated on the edge of the New Forest and just 1 mile (1.6km) from the Solent coast. Pride of place in the village goes to Exbury House and its 200 acres (81ha) of landscaped woodland gardens which lie on the sheltered east bank of the beautiful Beaulieu River. The gardens were the life's work of Lionel de Rothschild, a member of the banking family, who bought the estate in 1919. Having extended the early 19th-century house he set to work in establishing one of the most outstanding rhododendron gardens in the world.
The acid rich soil already supported fine specimens of oak, great cedars and Wellingtonias which provided the perfect backdrop for the rhododendrons and other acid-loving plants, including azaleas, camellias and magnolias. Today, nearly 80 years on, the gardens are internationally famous for rhododendrons and azaleas and over 1,200 hybrids have been created. A network of tracks enables you to explore the countless plantings, the cascades and ponds, a rose garden, heather garden and iris garden, daffodil meadow and a delightful walk along the banks of the river with views across to Bucklers Hard.
Exbury provides a feast of visual delights all year round and you should allow at least two hours for a visit, especially in the spring and autumn. Stroll through the gardens in late spring and the vibrant colours of the rhododendrons and azaleas will be mesmerising. On a warm June day, head for the rose garden to experience the amazing range and the intoxicating scent of hundreds of blooms, while high summer is the perfect time to saunter and relax in the shade of the great trees, including ancient, awe-inspiring yews, and admire the peace and beauty of Exbury. Come here in the autumn and the beautiful specimen trees will reward you with a magnificent display of purples, bronzes and mellow brown colours. Whenever you visit, you will discover that Exbury is truly a garden for all seasons.
Walk to the eastern extent of Lepe Country Park to see some relics from of the Second World War. The extensive raised concrete platforms are all that remain of the construction site of the floating 'Mulberry' harbours that were towed across to Normandy for the D-Day landings in June 1944.
Visit Calshot Castle. Down past the oil refineries and power stations east of Lepe you will find this Tudor fort, built for Henry VIII on the spit beyond the tidal flats of Southampton Water. There are excellent Solent views and an exhibition tells the story of the former flying boat base, which is now the County's outdoor pursuits centre.
Lepe Country Park has a restaurant and refreshment kiosk. There's also a licensed restaurant, with no access charge, offering coffee, good light lunches and teas at Exbury Gardens. Delicious teas can be had at the Tennis Court Tearooms if you're exploring Exbury in high summer.