The only way in Wessex: an electric car

Clean and cheap –but cheerful? Simon Calder sets the controls of a battery-powered vehicle for an epic journey from the New Forest to nuclear Dorset

A clean, green journey around the mightiest power points in Hampshire and Dorset: that was the plan. I wanted to plug into a new and blissfully simple electric-vehicle hire scheme. The only question: what to call this electrical excursion?

The New Forest's easy accessibility is both a blessing to the millions who can reach its ancient landscapes in an hour or two, and a curse because of the congestion and pollution they bring along. To avoid adding to emissions, you can now step off an electric train at Brockenhurst station, show a driving licence and a credit card, and step into the car of the future. Sort of.

"Think of it as a quad bike with a roof," advised Stephen Vine, boss of New Forest Environmental, as he showed me the controls for the Renault Twizy. This was not a protracted process. On the spectrum of transportational complexity, the French designed/Spanish built car is at the milk-float extreme rather than the Boeing 787 Dreamliner end. Switch on, press D to go forward, then press the accelerator (in the Twizy, not the 787). Getting into the thing proved more complicated, especially since my wife had kindly agreed to come along for the ride.

Two seats is, well, pushing it. The driver sits recumbent on a hard plastic seat astride what, in a real car, would be the transmission tunnel, knees pointing at jaunty angles towards the plastic windows. The passenger slots into a space between the back of the seat and the motor – a "seat pitch" uncomfortably close to zero.

Oh well, sustainability is all about compromise. Time to get busy with the Twizy.

Hythe, just beyond the eastern edge of the New Forest boundary, is the place to start a high-energy day. In the Thirties, this Hampshire village was Britain's long-haul hub. Imperial Airways' flying boats started their puddle-hopping adventures here, connecting the Mediterranean at Marseille, the Nile and Lake Victoria en route to the ends of the Empire. The upper reaches of Southampton Water still constitute a gateway to the world (in the shape of the cruise terminal) and Wight (the Red Funnel ferry to Cowes). Presiding over it all: the world's oldest pier railway, still taking commuters to work and home.

There is nothing restored or self-consciously retro about the Hythe Pier Railway. Every half-hour it rattles between the sweet little station at the landward end – all timeworn wood beneath a gloss of forest green – and the end of the pier, where the ferry shuttles to Southampton. The electric locomotives began life 96 years ago in, of all places, a mustard-gas factory, before starting a peace-time career that has endured for nearly a century. The line is also the shortest commercial link in Britain, but it allows passengers to cover the distance between Hythe and Southampton in less than 20 minutes – quicker and cleaner than the circuitous road journey.

The pier also provides a platform for a 180-degree swivel around British power: north-west, an early form of sustainable energy is still in use at Eling Tide Mill; south-east, the forest of gaunt towers that comprise Fawley oil refinery.

With Mrs Calder compressed into the back "seat", we climbed from sea level through the village of Dibden Purlieu (surely named after some long-forgotten rep actor?) to the frontier between the prosaic present and the poetic past. The entrance to the New Forest National Park is marked by a cattle grid, over which the Twizy bounced noisily in the manner of a biscuit tin.

Then, silence – and the chance to appreciate southern England's improbably expansive wilderness. The greater part of the New Forest is heath, not woodland, created as a royal hunting ground in 1079 by William the Conqueror and untainted by time. Breezing along at about 120 feet above the Solent, you glimpse the Isle of Wight beyond the gaunt steelwork of Fawley. The sky goes wide-screen, revealing a westward bluster of cloud.

The 21st-century car purred past grizzled old shrubs sprouting from tough heathland, enlivened by flashes of gorse. The Twizy's 17 electric horsepower hurried past ponies snuffling around their bleak pasture, while the caws of stern crows penetrated the vehicle's flimsy superstructure.

Beaulieu Heath descends to Beaulieu village, the domain of the Montagu family for five centuries and now the home of the National Motor Museum. Battery-powered visitors get preferential treatment here. You can park close to the entrance, plug in the car to recharge and go in search of the only electric vehicle on show.

The high and handsome 1901 Columbia Electric Runabout was, well, the original electric runabout. At the start of the 20th century, the owner of this extravagantly engineered vehicle was Queen Alexandra, who used it in the grounds of Sandringham.

"She had a habit of running gardeners over with it, because it was so quiet," reported Ian Stansfield, senior workshop engineer at the museum – who has driven it. "There's not a lot to it: forwards and backwards". In 1904, this was the highest-selling car worldwide, but limited range and speed curtailed the appeal. Ian is unconvinced that the electric car's day has yet come: "For distance work, they've got a long way to go." And so had my now strangely crumpled wife and I.

West Dorset is a beautifully under-rated part of England, where the hills step up a gear from rolling to rugged. The Twizy is designed to re-charge itself on descents, but not by enough to make up for the watt-sapping climbs. Which is why the gentlemen in the workshop behind the Texaco garage in the town of Wool earned a surprise visit from the Calders. They agreed to plug us in, so to speak, while I found a taxi to complete the journey. Say what you like about French car makers, but they can get it right. As Jonathan Gepheart of Cross-Country Cars drove us past Giddy Green, I revelled in the luxury of his Citroën Xsara Picasso 1.6, which can achieve 50mph in less than a week. In 10 minutes flat, we reached Dorset's Chernobyl.

Winfrith Heath is a long way from the nuclear wastelands of north-west Ukraine. The parts to which the public are allowed access comprise a picture of serenity: swaying trees, populated by songbirds, over a carpet of wildflowers. But to switch from rural idyll to nuclear nostalgia, you need an appointment. Handily, Andy Philps, decommissioning project manager for Research Sites Restoration Limited, had agreed to show us around the strangest building in Britain.

The Dragon nuclear reactor seemed like a good idea at the time, the time being the 1950s. The UK was facing an energy crunch as coal production fell and the bright hope for the future was nuclear power. Winfrith Heath in Dorset is just four miles as the neutron flies from the unlimited water supply in the Channel at Lulworth Cove. The main railway line through Wessex passes just to the north, and the military are close by – which provided useful protection for the nine reactors. Most of them never generated a single volt for the plugged-in public, but Winfrith was the frontier of scientific research.

The cooling towers, and much else, have been demolished. But Dragon remains as a tower of former power. This giant cylinder, wrapped around a radioactive core, and equipped with clunky controls, reveals how the future looked to scientists a half-lifetime ago. The nuclear dream turned nightmarish when it became clear that shutting down a reactor is much trickier than starting one up. Andy Philps described the robotic arm his team is working on. "It will reach down into the reactor to remove all the radioactive materials from the core, package it into boxes, which are fit for safe storage for thousands of years." Few holidaymakers whizzing west or lulling in Lulworth Cove have any notion of the drastic damage limitation taking place: "We get all this radioactive waste out, then we demolish the building, ultimately turning this site into the heathland that it was prior to the late 1950s."

The tour ended with a radiation test. Handily, no-one had turned Giddy or Green. "If we stood here all day we'd probably pick up a lot less than if we stood out in the sunshine," said Andy. "Certainly compared to going to Cornwall on holiday."

Cornwall: now there's a thought. But my wife was already studying the rail timetable to escape a vehicle that shares much of its mechanical DNA with a lawnmower. Yet for Wessex wanderers of modest ambition, the Twizy provides a fresh dimension. What to call the concept? Unlike silly PR inventions such as "staycation", this trip can be summed up in a real word: electrification.

Travel Essentials

Getting there

Brockenhurst has direct trains from London Waterloo, Southampton, Oxford, Birmingham and Manchester (08457 48 49 50; nationalrail.co.uk).

Getting around

Twizys can be hired from the Brand New Forest Twizy Hire Centre (01590 624066; brandnewforest.com/twizy) next to Brockenhurst railway station. The Hythe Pier Railway (02380 840722; hytheferry.co.uk) operates half-hourly, 6am-9pm from Monday to Friday (different times at weekends).

Staying there and charging there

Best Western Forest Lodge, Pikes Hill, Lyndhurst (0845 373 0904; bestwestern.co.uk/Forest_Lodge).

Seeing there

National Motor Museum (01590 612345; beaulieu.co.uk). Open daily 10am-6pm, £20.

More information

New Forest Visitor Information Centre, High Street, Lyndhurst (023 8028 2269; thenewforest.co.uk), 9am-5pm daily.

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