Simon Calder cycles the Royal hunting ground of the New Forest
Autumn is irrelevant for most of the New Forest. That is not so much because stubbornly evergreen conifers have overtaken the deciduous varieties, ravaged by foresters, disease and hurricane. It is more because much of the New Forest is actually an ancient and mostly treeless heath. So the best way to tell that August has finally yielded to September is to look at the traffic. The dreary, nose-to-tail summer convoy of sightseers has receded, leaving southern England's improbably expansive wilderness wonderfully empty. In autumn, you can see the absence of wood for the tourists.

We commoners can thank William I for its creation, and his successors to the monarchy for its survival. In 1079 the Norman conqueror named the "Nova Foresta" as the first royal reserve. The term "forest" denoted a expanse of land appropriated by the Crown; it made no promises about the existence of trees. Rather, the word implied good hunting grounds. A parcel of land between Winchester and the coast was given over to satisfying His Majesty's pleasure and supplying fresh meat for the royal table.

The New Forest was hardly a serfs' paradise. William I invoked all kinds of cruel laws to preserve deer for the royal chase. Woe betide any dog that could not pass through a catflap-sized piece of ironwork: any too large had their claws removed to prevent them harming the deer. Fences which impeded the hunters were forbidden. A local who killed a deer was himself executed.

To enable some sort of living to be scraped by the people, an arcane set of laws was imposed. These survive today and are couched in Norman legalese. The forest boundary is officially the "perambulation"; a "Commoner" is someone who, by virtue of owning a particular piece of land, enjoys "rights of common" - so his or her pigs may forage for acorns, for example. Land use disputes are settled by the Court of Swainmote, which sits six times each year. Its members are known as Verderers, the traditional guardians of the forest. But at the top of the tree, so to speak, is the Queen. When not opening hospitals and mediating in Windsor family disputes, Her Majesty's other job is Surveyor of the New Forest.

You are unlikely to bump into the patrolling monarch during your perambulations. Divert from the main roads, though, and you will meet dozens of fellow explorers. In the Nineties, the standard steed is no longer the lean, gentle New Forest pony but the mountain bike. Woodland tracks are a-swish with shiny bicycles, most equipped with trillions of gears despite the absence of mountains taller than 130ft.

To join them, just head for Brockenhurst. In 1847, the railway arrived in the New Forest and brought the first non-royal tourists. The town grew into a modest straggle of redbrick cottages, many of them decked in hanging baskets resembling miniature Monet masterpieces.

Brockenhurst is hemmed in from the wilderness beyond by a variety of impedimentia: cattle grids, the railway line and a genuine ford, through which Escorts and Mondeos splash today. An inventory of the amenities of this cream-tea oasis does not take long: a football ground with a far- from-grandstand; a pub called The Snakecatcher, celebrating one "Brusher" Mills, who swept up adders from the surrounding heathlands and sold them to London Zoo for a shilling each as fodder for exotic snake-eating animals; and a travel agent with the name (rather racy for this part of Hampshire) of Egyptian Encounter.

More importantly, opposite Brockenhurst station is a cycle shop where you can pick up a suitably spiffy bike and maps of the forest trails. Within a couple of minutes, you can be scrunching along avenues of slender, handsome trees that cast Impressionistic stripes across the dappled gravel. Soon, though, the ancient track emerges on to the more typical New Forest terrain of Beaulieu Heath. The only notable vegetation comprises grizzled old shrubs sprouting from tough heathland. The relentless gloom of the earth is relieved by brash violet shreds of heather. Wild ponies snuffle around this beautifully bleak pasture, the silence pierced by the caws of stern crows - and the drone of aircraft arriving from the Channel Islands to Southampton airport, which reminds you that the south coast's biggest city is only five miles away.

As Beaulieu Heath descends to Beaulieu village, the comfort index increases. It peaks at Palace House, global headquarters for the Montagu family, a dynasty that has lived at Beaulieu since 1538 and made this corner of the New Forest defiantly its own (see Jon Winter's story, opposite).

Nowhere else where can you be engrossed in the Sparking Plug Story (sponsored by Champion) moments after leaving the ruins of the largest Cistercian abbey in England. The old refectory is now the parish church, probably the only one in Britain served by monorail. Last weekend worshippers found themselves in uncomfortable proximity to Autojumble, a motor accessories show. Linguistic purists might approve of a car boot sale where you could actually buy a car boot, but I shook off the chrome and took the Solent Way. This long-distance footpath wobbles endearingly through the New Forest. It ushers you through Keeping Copse, downstream beside the dreamy Beaulieu River. Soon you stumble upon a tidy village that once helped Britannia rule the waves. Two rows of cottages tumble down to the waterside, on either side of a broad green occupied by a colony of overfed mallards.

Bucklers Hard came into existence when the priorities of royalty changed. As the world grew more complex, economic and military domination acquired more importance than fresh venison. The Navy needed big ships, quickly. As with any industry, it was easiest to put the shipbuilders in close proximity to the raw materials. Oak was plundered to create vessels of war, the grandest of which was Nelson's Agamenmon.

The greatest work was by Henry Adams, who accordingly lived in the grandest residence. He occupied the Master Builder's House throughout the second half of the 18th century, and was responsible for much of the fleet that won the Battle of Trafalgar. His home is now a hotel, and half the cottages in the village are exhibits rather than dwellings.

Inevitably, Bucklers Hard is part of the Montagu empire. For a time its name was changed to Montagu Town, but reverted to the original after the second Duke lost public favour in an abortive slaves-for-sugar swap with the Caribbean island of St Lucia.

Press on south, and the New Forest reveals another face: rolling meadows and benign pastures. That this has been good farming land for centuries becomes startlingly clear when you turn a corner by St Leonard's Grange and almost collide with a medieval tithe barn. Its doddery stonework has been sheltering grain and livestock for almost as long as the New Forest has existed.

The middle distance is occupied by the Solent, a swathe of inky water on which the last of the summer dinghies dance. Beyond it, the woodland of the Isle of Wight is turning a distinctly scarlet shade of green.

Autumn has arrived there - but not here.

New Forest: the essential guide

New Forest Cycle Experience (01590 624204) is opposite the main entrance to Brockenhurst station. It opens 9.30am-5.30pm daily. A bike costs pounds 9 a day.

Beaulieu Abbey, Palace House and National Motor Museum (01590 612123). Open daily 10am-6pm except Christmas Day. Adults pounds 8, children pounds 5.50, pounds 25 family rate for two adults and up to four children. Call for details of special pre-Christmas festivities.

Maritime Museum, Bucklers Hard (01590 616203). Open 10am-6pm daily, until the end of October when closing time moves forward to 4.30pm. Adults pounds 2.90, children pounds 1.95, pensioners pounds 2.40.

New Forest Museum, High Street, Lyndhurst (01703 283914). Open 10am- 6pm daily. Adults pounds 2.50, children pounds 1.25, pensioners pounds 1.65, pounds 5.50 for two adults and up to four children.

The Forestry Commission (Queen's House, High Street, Lyndhurst, Hants SO43 7NH; 01703 283141) runs camp sites in the New Forest. Most sites close for the winter on 29 September, but one remains open all year.

For general tourist information, contact the New Forest Visitor Information Centre, High Street, Lyndhurst, Hants SO43 7NY (01703 282269).The centre opens 10am-6pm daily.

Six of the best New Forest hotels

Cloud Hotel, Meerut Road, Brockenhurst (01590 22165). Charming setting facing open heathland. Double rooms: pounds 58.

The Cottage Hotel, Sway Road, Brockenhurst (01590 22296). Just six rooms, costing pounds 56-80.

Watersplash Hotel, The Rise, Brockenhurst (01590 22344). Victorian house with a modern annexe. Double rooms: pounds 76.

Master Builder's House, Bucklers Hard (01590 616253). The home of 18th- century shipbuilder Henry Adams. Good views across the Beaulieu estuary. Double rooms: pounds 80; on Sundays, dinner, bed and breakfast costs pounds 60 double.

Rhinefield House, Rhinefield Road, Brockenhurst (01590 22922). Elegant country house. Double room: pounds 105. Weekend rate: pounds 115 per night including dinner.

New Park Manor, Lyndhurst Road, Brockenhurst (01590 23467). Former royal hunting lodge set in formal gardens. Double rooms: from pounds 114.

All rates include breakfast.