By Chrissie Walker
This is a large and rather imposing building set behind an open field, or lawn, where still can be seen cricket matches in good summer weather. The Lawn in the hotel name is actually 500 acres of open land grazed by New Forest cattle and ponies. The name of the hotel is thought to come from a corruption of the original name of Palmers Water. The hotel was first built as a private house and hunting lodge around 1800. It was rebuilt and fashioned into something more like what you see today at around 1850. There have been further renovations in recent times following a fire in 1970.
In October 1997 the hotel once again returned to private hands after years of Group hotel ownership. The Wilson family bought the hotel and have completely refurbished the property to Four-Star glory with old-fashioned charm and modern facilities.
Hotel owners Chris and Alison Wilson were interested in Balmer Lawn’s history, and with the help of local historian John Wingham, they began to learn more about its unique involvement with the Second World War.
In fact major works which involved, amongst other projects, lifting floorboards, unearthed some remarkable documents. Contractors discovered spent ammunition, empty cigarette packets, and a priceless collection of WWII documents under the floor of bedroom 10. But war associations here go back to a previous conflict, when the building was commandeered during World War One to be used as a field hospital, with wounded soldiers being wheeled on luggage trolleys from Brockenhurst Train Station in the nearby village. Not an elegant entrance, but I expect the lads were just glad to be away from the front.
The papers detail for example arrangements in the Mess and invitations to personnel “to attend the American All Variety Musical Show, ‘Swingin’”. Other documents refer to less amusing subjects like communications and preparations for D-Day; some were marked “secret” or “most secret” although I am not sure what the difference could be. The documents hint at life in those times not only with their words about military matters, but also with their very fabric. Envelopes were used several times to save paper, which was itself recycled.
The Allied invasion of Europe along the beaches of France was the turning point in the Second World War and heralded the beginning of the end of that conflict. Its success was due to the strategic co-operation between Britain, Canada and the U.S., troops undergoing months of secret training, although it’s difficult to see how the locals would not notice the increased population. The New Forest was full of soldiers in training during those months. It’s believed that just before the D-Day landings there were over 20,000 billeted in camps near Brockenhurst. The 3rd Canadian Infantry Division used Balmer Lawn Hotel as a headquarters from September 1943 to April 1944.
In typical British fashion the Ministry of Defence took the documents away for evaluation, although they were returned a few months later stating that there was nothing that could compromise national security! The information gave a remarkable insight into those dark days. The 3rd Division landed in Normandy on June 6, 1944 and fought around the historic city of Caen before battling further into France. During this time, Canadian soldiers who had been based at Balmer Lawn Hotel earned themselves the nickname ‘Water Rats’ by Field Marshal Montgomery after fighting in awful wet conditions.
Balmer Lawn has a beautiful location but it also has history – history of its own and also a shared history with those who didn’t come here for a relaxing vacation. It acts as witness to international co-operation and human endeavour. One can see aged papers in frames on the walls, but they are much more than mere decoration.
This is one of the best hotels in the New Forest and is perfect for holidays for families with children who will love the two pools and other sporting facilities. The restaurant has an AA Rosette, making this a destination hotel for outstanding food.
Balmer Lawn Hotel
Phone: +44 (0)1590 421 107
Fax: +44 (0)1590 623864
Visit Balmer Lawn here http://www.balmerlawnhotel.com
Read more about Chrissie Walker and her travels at Mostly Food & Travel Journal http://www.mostlyfood.co.uk