With its rolling green hills and picturesque villages, Hampshire is the English countryside at its best. There’s plenty to explore – go fly fishing, tour the estate where Downton Abbey was filmed, ride a steam train and sample farm-fresh produce.
Words and Photography by Mark Parren Taylor
At the historic port city of Southampton, the River Test joins with other watercourses in a wide and windswept estuary, big enough to make cruise liners and container ships look tiddly. But its upper reaches are in stark contrast.
In this leafy little corner of England, along Hampshire’s western flank, the Test flows for much of its 62km as a shallow stream (frequently as several concurrent streams and side channels) through rolling chalk hills and past charming villages and towns that go by names such as Longparish, Stockbridge and Longstock.
It’s that rare thing: a ‘chalk stream’. There are only 200 or so in the world, and they’re mostly in Britain. Chalk stream waters are crystal clear and mineral-rich – good for riverside ecosystems – and they are shallow, cold and fast-moving, which wild trout and salmon seem to love. It’s no surprise then that these chalk streams, the Test in particular, are famous the world over for the quality of their fishing.
But it doesn’t need to be the ‘laze-in-a-deckchair-and-wait-for-a-bite’ type of fishing. In these parts the anglers like to hunt for a catch: they’re ‘fly fishers’. Sometimes they wade out into the water, most often they walk along the riverbank, and sometimes when they don’t want to spook a sharp-eyed trout that they’re stalking – they move slowly and try to disguise their distinctive human outline against the trees and tall rushes that thrive beside the streams.
Like similar rivers, the Test is divided into ‘beats’ or sections. It was on the beat at Mottisfont Abbey House where this modern-day ‘dry fly fishing’ (using specialised rod and line and, most notably, an artificial ‘fly’ that floats on the water surface) was invented in 1914 by a Mr F. M. Halford.
I meet two present-day aficionados of the sport, Peter McLeod and Alex Jardine, on ‘Bullington Manor Beat 2’, a few miles upstream from Mottisfont. The pair are professional anglers who travel the world taking individuals and groups to all those places where it’s fun to fish. For them, these chalk streams in Hampshire are hard to top.
Alex (a respected fly fisher, following in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps) chooses one artificial ‘fly’ from a wallet containing several hundred, and then casts and recasts his line with the distinctive fly fishing technique: quick, accurate flicks that lay the light-as-air line and fly on the water’s surface. It doesn’t take long before he hooks a shiny, strong grayling (a member of the salmon family). Mayflies hover about the wildflower-filled bank and, as he releases the fish back into the river, I realise how abundant the wildlife is here.
There are even water buffalo in the area, but, as herbivores, they’re unlikely to get a taste for the health-giving oily fish of the Test.
Grabbing the Buffalo by Both Horns
“Once a few escaped.” Dagan James chuckles as his four-wheel-drive hits a furrow and we jump out of our seats. “I got a phone call, and we had to hurry down to the village and encourage them back to the farm.” It’s not a sight you come across every day: Indian water buffalo grazing on prized garden plants in a sleepy English village!
At the turn of the century Dagan returned to Hampshire with his wife, Jess, leaving behind a very different life as a painter and writer in France to manage the farm he had inherited from his grandfather. Young, creative minds naturally bring a fresh viewpoint to the land, and so the couple turned what had been an intensive crop farm into a place of sustainable natural agriculture and grazing.
As we approach their herd of water buffalo, I notice the rich pasture around us, thick with wild flowers and herbs, chicory and clover. Dagan’s method of rotating grazing pastures (the buffalo are as good at churning the soil as eating the grass) and his additional planting has resulted in a strengthened biodiversity … and, no doubt for the cattle, some flavourful herbage. This in turn eventually makes for tasty meat, such as the buffalo burgers that have gained quite a following at local farmers’ markets.
Water buffalo aside, the view from the James’s Manor Farm is of an archetypical English shire: rolling green hills chequered with pasture and crops bound by hedgerows. Further afield there are quaint villages and market towns, splendid forests (including the New Forest National Park) and orchards of apples and pears. And there is also the mighty, inspiring thousand-year-old cathedral in the ancient town of Winchester, the one-time capital of England.
Winchester can be reached in about an hour from London’s Waterloo railway station. While movie buffs may recognise Waterloo from the tense hide-and-seek sequence in the 2007 thriller The Bourne Ultimatum, there is a good chance you will have seen plenty of Hampshire on the screen, too. Highclere Castle (a half-hour drive due north of Winchester) has become well known as the setting for Downton Abbey, the fictional home of the Crawley family at the centre of the successful television period drama (a Downton Abbey movie is being filmed there this year, www.highclerecastle.co.uk). There’s also Handyside Bridge, which appeared in 2001’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone when in its original location at London’s King’s Cross station. In 2008, the station was extensively remodelled and the bridge (no longer needed) was dismantled and carted all the way to little Ropley Station.
Letting Off Steam
Ropley is one of four stops on the 16km-long heritage railway called the Watercress Line, along which vintage carriages are pulled by steam and diesel locomotives. The oldest in operation is from 1927. Despite their age, these spritely engines cover the route in about 35 minutes, but visitors can spend hours going back and forth, hopping on and off as they please. Each of the stations is set in a different historical era. Ropley, for example, transports visitors back to 1948, while the western terminus, Alresford, eight or nine minutes down the line, evokes the period eight or nine years earlier, at the end of the 1930s.
To stand on Alresford station platform and be momentarily engulfed by the sooty steam of a passing locomotive is exhilarating.
In between all the ‘time-travelling’, visitors can stop to enjoy a snack at the ‘buffet’, as British railway station cafés were known, where the food is thankfully nothing like museum artefacts (it’s fresh and well within the best-before date!). A framed vintage menu, however, lists old items and prices: a cup of coffee, for example, cost just ‘3d’, or three pennies in England’s pre-decimal currency.
Hampshire is renowned for the variety and quality of its produce and cooking. Within walking distance of Alresford station, for example, several farms grow top-notch watercress (as has happened in specially adapted sections of these chalk streams for centuries), and this nutritious, peppery leaf finds its way into dishes served at cafés and restaurants across the region. Other local fare to look out for (including, of course, the James’s buffalo burgers) are cheeses, smoked trout, locally grown fruit and vegetables (especially apples,raspberries, beetroot, tomatoes), jams, chutneys and the local lamb. There is even a wasabi bed … but the hot root’s rarity in the UK means the location is top secret!
But then, this part of England is a bit of a secret, too. Although the River Test is revered by anglers around the world, Hampshire’s abundant pleasures are yet to be discovered by many folk living just an hour away in London, let alone from much further afield. It makes this glorious part of England all the more special for those who do visit.
JAKARTA TO LONDON (HEATHROW)
Frequency 3 flights per week
14 hours, 35 minutes
5 Senses – Scent
While you may be surprised to learn that lavender is not native to this part of the world, ‘English lavender’ is the quintessential scent of lush cottage gardens, antique wardrobes and homemade conserves. The dried flowers and their oils have dozens of uses, but fields of the flowering plant are a delight to walk through, too. At Long Barn (in Alresford, close to the Watercress Line) they grow and distil lavender, which is sold in its many forms in the shop, including in both savoury and sweet dishes at the appealing café.