A Weekend in north Hampshire

My maternal grandfather was a Hampshire man, a "Hampshire Hog" in popular parlance, but I'd never spent much time there; that is until we passed an early summer weekend in and around the country towns just south of Basingstoke. Our investment was well rewarded.

Audleys Wood Hotel

We stayed at the Audleys Wood Hotel, one of Thistle Group's Country House hotels, set in 7 acres of well-tended grounds. Originally the family home of Sir George Bradshaw of "Bradshaw's Railway Guide" fame, it has been tastefully converted and extended to produce a hotel of distinction. Particularly worthy of mention are the oak-panelled reception rooms and the AA-rated Two Rosette restaurant in the former conservatory.

Alresford Station 1

After a breakfast of gargantuan proportions we set out on Saturday morning in the direction of Alton for our first visit - to the Mid-Hants Railway, known as the "Watercress Line". Running from Alton to Alresford, this was once part of the main line from Winchester to London. Closed by British Railways in 1973 it was bought by a preservation group and restored to working order in 1977. It now provides a tourist attraction and a leisurely alternative to road travel between the towns.

Watercress Line tickets

At Alresford station we bought the excellent "Enjoy a Walk Around Alresford" guide-book and followed the suggested route but in reverse. Never was the acronym "RTFM" (read the manual) more appropriate; not that this detracted from our enjoyment. We walked along footpaths past the former fulling mill (now the cottage shown on the right) where cloth was kneaded and pressed by a series of hammers, causing shrinkage and tightening.

Mill Cottage, Alresford

St John the Baptist, Alresford

Our route also took us past the watercress beds, the source of the town's prosperity from 1865 when the new railway permitted swift transport of produce to London. We returned to the town centre by way of the tree-lined Georgian Broad Street. From there we took a detour to the parish church of St. John the Baptist. There has been a church on this site for centuries but the present building dates from a rebuild in 1898 using original materials.

An interesting feature of the churchyard is the graves of four French officers and the wife of another officer which date from the Napoleonic Wars. These soldiers were prisoners of war on parole in Alresford, one of 11 Hampshire towns where prisoners were kept. Parole conditions meant that they had to keep to the confines of their town and risked returning to prison if they broke those conditions. Some had their wives and families join them and some supplemented their meagre income by teaching French to the children of local families.

We returned to the station and, taking the next train, made our way back via Ropley station with its topiary figures on the platforms to Alton. A day ticket permits unlimited travel but we took our leave of the Watercress Line and drove to the nearby village of Chawton to visit Jane Austen's House.

Alresford Station 2

Jane Austen's House, Chawton

In the opinion of many (including us) the greatest female novelist in the English language ever, Jane Austen lived in this fine old 17th Century red-brick house with her mother, sisters and their friend Martha Lloyd from 1809 until shortly before her death in 1817. The house is owned and administered by the Jane Austen Memorial Trust and is a treasure store of Austen memorabilia.

The garden is somewhat reduced in size from Jane's time but is well-maintained and a pleasure to stroll around on a day like the one when we visited. There are a number of outbuildings open to view, including the old bakehouse where Jane's restored donkey carriage is displayed. The old granary is now a lecture room and houses exhibitions on Austen themes which change from time to time. After our visit we refreshed ourselves on tea and home-made cakes at the delightful tea-room opposite. The name escapes us but you can't (and shouldn't) miss it.

Jane Austen

The following morning, after another substantial breakfast, we left the Audley's Wood Hotel and made our way across country to the Royal Horticultural Society's gardens at Wisley, Surrey. The good weather had brought out lots of people but the vastness of the grounds means that it never gets crowded. It's impossible to describe Wisley in the short space available here - visit for yourself.

RHS Wisley

The time comes when even beautiful sights can pall, especially on a warm afternoon, so we returned home the quickest way, via the M25 London Orbital Motorway. After two nights of the sumptuous cuisine at Audley's Wood we were relieved to dine that night on plain traditional English fare.