As well as its wonderful woodland and heath, the New Forest National Park also includes the western Solent coastline, a haven for overwintering birds. The winter months are a great time for a bird-watching walk. Every year thousands of birds undertake extraordinary journeys to get to the Solent coast, some flying all the way from Siberia, some 3,000 miles. The coastline provides an ideal place to rest and feed, with mudflats offering a wealth of food. Winter visitors include brent geese, wigeon, curlew and black-tailed godwit, all escaping from colder climes. There are also year-round residents, including the oyster-catcher and little egret.

Although most of the New Forest coastline is unfortunately inaccessible on foot, there is one fine section along it that you can walk and that is between Keyhaven and Lymington, which affords excellent views across the Solent to the Isle of Wight. This passes the Lymington - Keyhaven Marshes Nature Reserve, a beautiful stretch of coast between the mouth of the Lymington River and the village of Keyhaven. It’s the best place to enjoy some bird watching so take your binoculars. Furthermore, it’s also very easy walking along the sea wall, so especially good in the winter months when field paths can be wet and muddy. The sea wall is also part of the route of the Solent Way, a 60-mile long-distance path that starts in nearby Milford-on-Sea and finishes at Emsworth Harbour. The waymark features a tern on a green arrow.

Great British Life: See visiting Canada geese (c) Fiona BarltropSee visiting Canada geese (c) Fiona Barltrop

In the past, what is now the Nature Reserve was where salt was produced in the shallow lagoons, known as salterns. Until the end of the 18th century the area from Lymington to Hurst Spit was the site of the biggest sea salt industry in the country. Salt was made by impounding seawater in the salterns where it was left to evaporate. Wind pumps were then used to draw off the brine solution into large metal pans where it was heated until only the salt remained. The wealth that salt production generated is reflected in Lymington’s fine Georgian buildings.

A variety of loops of different lengths are possible starting from either Keyhaven (as this walk does) or Lymington. Information panels along the route include those showing colour-coded trails, appropriately enough named after birds, which indicate options for shorter circuits. An out-and-back extension along Hurst Spit to the lighthouse at the end is also well worth doing. Although Hurst Castle (built by Henry VIII as one of a chain of coastal fortresses) is closed in the winter months (November 1 to March 31) and likewise the ferry from Keyhaven, there are winter wading birds, ducks and geese to be seen. And the views are superb, with the Isle of Wight just across the water. Keyhaven has a lovely old pub, the Gun Inn, and there’s also a pub just along the way, a short diversion from the main route.

Great British Life: Keyhaven harbour with the Isle of Wight beyond (c) Fiona BarltropKeyhaven harbour with the Isle of Wight beyond (c) Fiona Barltrop

The walk

1. (SZ306914) From the car park entrance head diagonally left across it to a gravel path through a gap in the hedge. Exit the car park and turn right along the gravel path beside the road. Continue along the lane to a gate at its end. Pass beside this and follow the gravel track along the landward side of the nature reserve.

2. (SZ319927) At the end of the track you’ll reach another gate with a parking area just beyond. Continue along the quiet lane to a footpath on the right soon after the lane bends left.

3. (SZ321930) Follow the enclosed footpath to another lane and continue on, passing a right turn just before Oxey Barn. Carry on to the next footpath on the right, indicated by a fingerpost on the left, just after a rough layby opposite the turning. If you’d like to visit the Chequers Inn, continue along the lane for 270 yards past Chequers Green – about a 3-minute walk – then retrace your steps.

4. (SZ324934) Turn right along the gravel track and take the next right by a waymark post signed Solent Way. Follow the gravel path alongside the water on your left, going through a gate and turning left, then up a few steps by Moses Dock and a sluice on your left. Keep ahead along the sea wall gravel path and follow the Solent Way all the way back to the start.

Great British Life: The lighthouse at the end of Hurst Spit (c) Fiona BarltropThe lighthouse at the end of Hurst Spit (c) Fiona Barltrop

Hurst Spit extension

If you want to walk out to the end of Hurst Spit, continue following the Solent Way waymarks, turning left at the car park past Keyhaven Yacht Club and the Hurst Castle ferry departure point. Carry on along the gravel path to join a lane, continuing along a path above it on the right (the lane can flood at high tide). Cross the footbridge and walk along the shingle to the end of Hurst Spit. There are great views of The Needles and the western end of the Isle of Wight. Fort Albert is directly opposite Hurst Castle, both guarding the narrow western entrance to the Solent. Thereafter retrace your steps back to Keyhaven.

Compass Points

Start/finish: Keyhaven car park

Map: OS Explorer OL22

Distance: 5 miles (8.1km), plus 2¼ miles (3.5km) each way for Hurst Spit extension

Terrain: Very easy walking entirely on the flat, much of it along the sea wall, with excellent bird watching. No stiles. Hurst Spit – shingle.

Time: 2½ hours (allow extra time for Hurst Spit)

Refreshments: Gun Inn, Keyhaven (01590 642391), Chequers Inn, Lower Woodside (01590 673415)