Travel: Four wheels and a mansion keep Lord Montague rolling

John Winter visits Beaulieu
Click to follow
The Independent Travel
If you intend to set up in the leisure industry, it is clearly advantageous to inherit nearly 7,000 acres of the New Forest. "Give the public a decent cup of tea and good toilets and they will be happy," Lord Montagu of Beaulieu wrote after assuming responsibility for the family estate. But he has added considerably more than WCs and refreshment facilities to the Forest's natural attractions to entice a steady flow of visitors.

Getting there, though, can be a problem. Travelling by car seemed the most practical way of reaching Lord Montagu's portion of Hampshire, especially when the alternative was taking a train to Southampton and then a bus on to the village. But after lurching through traffic jams, I arrived in a state of mild road rage.

Thankfully, the village of Beaulieu is a very relaxing place, resting on the banks of a river where the water forms an attractive pool before spilling over a weir and heading for the sea. It is tiny: just a few streets with a pub and a row of shops crammed with assorted souvenirs.

It's just a short stroll across the road and round the pond to the entrance of Lord Montagu's family home and his main attractions. An elementary manoeuvre you might imagine, but a perilous one in Beaulieu where the amount of traffic on the roads is wholly disproportionate to the size of the village.

Having survived this experience, you enter a theme park conceived by an English aristocrat using Disneyland principles. The result is a kind of Beaulieu-world, where the 16th-century Palace House is authentic, and the white-knuckle roller-coaster has become a sedate monorail floating visitors over Victorian gardens, past ancient monastic ruins and through an extraordinary collection of vehicles housed in the National Motor Museum.

Most people head straight for the cars, but the Montagu family home and the ancient Abbey ruins are well worth a detour. The Montagus have lived at Palace House since the early 16th century - but to make way for tourists, the family has decamped to private quarters in the Victorian wing. Visitors are therefore left to admire unhindered the splendour of the elegant rooms, tastefully embellished with stone-vaulted ceilings and fine masonry around the windows and fireplaces. The only distraction is the odd member of staff dressed in period costume as part of the Living History Interpretation Programme.

Your pounds 8 admission to the grounds also gets you into the National Motor Museum, a quick monorail hop away. Anyone who has ever looked wistfully at an old Model-T or Morris Minor will be drawn to the wedge-shaped hall, containing a stationary history of motorised transport. From the vivid red of an old post-office van to the deep ultramarine of Bluebird, the story of the car is glorified by a symphony in chrome and wax polish. Wherever you stand in the museum, it is hard to avoid your attention being drawn by the absurdly sleek curves of Bluebird - once the fastest machine on earth.

The late Donald Campbell used this extravagance of horse power to break the world land speed record, a superlative that has remained in British hands more often than not since the birth of the motor car. The impending battle to be first to break the sound barrier at ground level gives an extra twist to the old newsreel footage of previous attempts.

You come away from the Museum with the distinct message "four wheels good". So anyone who thinks that, perhaps, the internal combustion engine is not the only solution to the transportation conundrum, may not have a pleasant afternoon here.

In some ways it would have been nice if Lord Montagu had kept to his early belief and just provided that decent cup of tea, those good toilets and let the attractions speak for themselves. But while a monorail, employees dressed in period costume, boxes of Beaulieu chocolate and jars of Beaulieu jam may not be to everyone's taste, they take nothing away from his aim to provide "a good day out for the family". Ironically, if anything spoils Beaulieu it is the huge numbers of that four-wheeled contraption we call the car.

Comments