At last! That long-awaited day out in Hampshire arrived! Leaping out of bed I couldn’t get my clothes on fast enough in anticipation of driving down to the edge of the South Downs to visit “Jane Austen” country and the river Itchen. With only a day to play with, I had had some tough choices to make regarding what to do and what to leave till next time. With long-suffering husband (LSH) at the wheel, we drove down the A30 and arrived at Chawton, near Alton, at 9:45 am, in time to be the first visitors of the day to Jane Austen’s House Museum. It is really easy to book tickets online and the village of Chawton is jaw-dropping.
It’s a “typical English chocolate-box village” with thatched cottages, a village green and a cricket pitch with a pavilion. Jane Austen completed and published several novels over the 8 years she lived in Chawton, but she obviously found it inspiring, as did we. During your visit, you see furniture, clothing, pictures, letters and extracts from her novels lovingly exhibited and you are transported back into the pages of her books. It’s pure escapism!
The nearby towns of Alton and Alresford are only a matter of 10-15 minutes’ drive away from Chawton. Linking them is the Mid Hants Railway, a heritage railway affectionately known as “The Watercress Line”, because of the area’s strong links with the cultivation of watercress. The geology of the area is chalk, gravel and water-meadows, all of which are perfect growing conditions for watercress. When the railway line from Alresford to London was built in 1865 it meant that watercress harvested in Alresford could be transported to Covent Garden within 24 hours and was still fresh when it arrived there. You can take a train ride on the Watercress Line most days of the year.
After our visit to Chawton we drove 4 miles to Selborne, where we had a delicious light lunch in the café at Gilbert White’s House. Gilbert White was an 18th century priest who is regarded as England’s “first ecologist” – a sort of cross between Chris Packham and Alan Titchmarsh! As our schedule was too tight to make a visit, we had to promise to go back another time….
… and walked down the road to our next place of pilgrimage: Selbourne Pottery! It is no ordinary pottery and not a 10 minute visit! Prepare to be flabberghasted by Robert Goldsmith’s vibrant creations: mugs, plates, bowls, lampshade bases, cheerful sculptures – and his very friendly dog!
Having had my pottery and retail-therapy-fix, we got back in the car and drove back in the direction of Chawton, stopping on the way at Hartley Park Farm, where they grow….. lavender! It’s a magnificent sight in summer when all the flowers are in bloom and you can just imagine the smell! Lavender has been grown there since 1999 and visitors are able to into the field and walk among the rows of the 8 varieties of plants that are grown there. You can even take a picnic and dogs on leads are allowed in too. If you go in with children, you can pick up a “bug hunting kit” and the kids can go looking for bugs!
Our next stop was New Alresford, a well-loved little town with independent shops and galleries and pastel-coloured houses lining the main street. There, we went to the Tiffin Tea Room where you can choose from 40 different types of loose-leaf tea! And as it was National Tea Drinking Week this week, it was even more enjoyable! Walking down the
street, we found a path leading down to some rogue-wild watercress beds; as we looked into the water of a little stream running alongside the path, LSH caught sight of a trout just lingering in the water alongside some weed. What a joy!
Just outside New Alresford is where the river Alre joins the infant Itchen before the waters flow westwards towards Winchester. There are two walking trails for those who want to follow it and have the time: the Itchen Way and the Watercress Way. The river Itchen is a really beautiful chalk river and to get a last fix of it before heading for home, I thought it would be nice to make one last stop at The Bush Inn at Ovington, where you can sit outside in the garden and watch the river glide by – it is a hidden gem and we’re definitely going to have dinner there one day – but watch out Mr Itchen Trout, because you’re on the menu!
Featured image: “Chawton” by grassrootsgroundswell is licensed under CC BY 2.0