It never ceases to amaze me that the people of Hampshire haven’t taken their cue from the Scottish Nationalists and formed their own Hampshire Nationalist Party. For Hampshire holds so many of the symbols and cultural points that help define Englishness that it makes other counties seem, well, almost foreign: take your pick from cricket, beer, country villages, Morris dancing, country houses, gardens, the armed forces, sailing, famous writers, and gentle countryside. What Hampshire does, it does world class. Of course part of Hampshire has already broken away geologically speaking: the Isle of Wight.
A large rich county in central southern England, Hampshire occupies the final few bulimic notches on London’s bloated commuter belt. I should think that Hampshire tolerates rather than encourages this reputation. Hampshire once held some of the greatest offices in England, and to a degree still does. Winchester, its main city, was the ancient seat of the kings of England, the brainchild of King Alfred. Southampton, a huge commercial port, is berth to a monarch of the waves, the QE2. Hampshire contains the birthplaces of the Royal Navy, the British Army and the Royal Air Force. The island city of Portsmouth, where the Royal Navy is based, is final resting place of The Mary Rose and Nelson’s HMS Victory. Two of the greatest writers in the English language came from Hampshire: Jane Austen was born in Chawton, lived in Hampshire and now lies in Winchester Cathedral; Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth. On the subject of writers, let’s not forget Gilbert White, whose beautiful family house at Selbourne is worth visiting, and whose book The Natural History and Antiquities of Selbourne has not only been in print ever since 1789 but is also reputedly the fourth best-selling book in the English language.
A bucket-list of things to see in Hampshire would include Beaulieu, ancestral home of the Montagu family ever since the 16th century, where the National Motor Museum is garaged; Broadlands, Earl Mountbatten’s home, a Palladian mansion by the River Test belonging to Lord and Lady Brabourne which 'Capability' Brown rebuilt in 1765, and where the Queen and Prince Philip spend part of their honeymoon; the Earl of Carnarvon’s home Highclere Castle, perhaps now equally familiar as ‘Downton Abbey’; Stratfield Saye, the Duke of Wellington’s estate; Osbourne House on the Isle of Wight, preserved from the time Queen Victoria lived and died here; Hambledon village, where the first cricket club was founded; the Sandham Memorial Chapel at Burghclere, which some hold as the greatest masterpiece of 20th-century British art; the New Forest, untouched ever since William the Conqueror founded it in 1079; the River Test which offers excellent fly fishing; Cowes Regatta, the oldest yachting regatta in the world, held in August; the city of Winchester with its magnificent Gothic cathedral…There isn’t a bucket large enough to encompass everything that Hampshire has to offer.
Among famous people associated with Hampshire are Sir Alec Guinness who lived in the village of Steep near Petersfield until his death in August 2000. Jill Balcon, the actress and mother of Daniel Day Lewis also lived in Steep. David Bowie is believed to have a house near Petersfield, as is Pete Townsend, rock star of The Who, who has been spotted in MacDonalds in Petersfield. Bertrand Russell, the philosopher, lived just outside Harting. Ken Wood, of Kenwood electrical appliances, lived in Liphook. Peter Sellers, the actor, was born above a Chinese restaurant in Southsea. Sir Euan Anstruther-Gough-Calthorpe overseas his family estate Elvetham near Hook in the north-east of the county. The Govett family (as in Hoare Govett) own land around Bransbury Common. Among famous English families who have seats or estates in Hampshire are the Baring insurance family, the Chetwodes, the Wakefields, the Cadburys (chocolate), the Cecils and the Sainsburys (supermarkets).
The Isle of Wight has several famous people connected with it: Jeremy Irons, the actor, was born and grew up here; David Niven lived in Rose Cottage in Bembridge; the late Anthony Minghella, Oscar-winning director of The English Patient and The Talented Mr Ripley, was born on the Isle of Wight where his father Edward owns Minghella's Ice Cream factory in Wootton. Sir Christopher Cockerell inventor of the hovercraft also lived on the Isle of Wight, as did Barnes Wallace, inventor of the 'bouncing bomb', and Alfred Lord Tennyson.
Winchester College, the most famous school in Hampshire, is famously elitist and intellectual. Its alumni include Tim Brooke-Taylor (comedian), Antony Beevor (historian) and Richard Noble (team leader of the Bloodhound land speed record project). The other famous Hampshire school is Bedales in the village of Steep, which produced Daniel Day-Lewis, Minnie Driver and Jade Jagger.
Some of the finest scenery in Hampshire lies in a broad belt of gentle countryside stretching from Andover, Stockbridge and Romsey along the Test Valley in the west, to Winchester, Alresford, Alton and Petersfield in the east. You’ll find a rolling blowy chalk downland covered with a patchwork of hedged fields, clumps of steep beechwood, valleys delved by clear chalk streams, and charming villages of brick and flint.
An irresistible attraction in this part of Hampshire are the country pubs, remotely and leafily embedded like hidden gems, and serving local ales from Ringwood, Bowmans, Langhams and Upham. Among the most cherished pubs is the Harrow Inn at Steep, owned by the McCutcheon family ever since 1929, although the pub dates back from Tudor times. Shrouded in gardens pullulating with dahlias, alliums, sweet peas, apple trees and the occasional rose, this idyllic spot is folded in a 10-acre estate. Period charm grips you as you step inside – ducking to avoid hitting your head – to a veritable museum of odds and ends, and bits of pieces of often bizarre provenance, including a bomb, a World War Two parachute and a vessel containing the first drop of North Sea oil. ‘We have taken on where mummy and daddy left off,’ says Clare McCutcheon, who has worked at the Harrow all her life. ‘The menu hasn’t changed much: ham and rare beef are our specialties.’ Others specialties are cottage pie, fish pie, ham hock and vegetable soup, and in winter Aga-baked potatoes for Saturday lunch which you’re wise to book in advance.
Contemplating buying a bag of manure on my way out, my attention is snagged by a sign saying ‘Free WiFi’. What’s the password? ‘Bugger off!’
When I alight at the Hampshire Bowman near Bishops Waltham, Mark Newman, 29, and his fiancé Chloe, who are the landlords, are applying the final touches to their annual beer festival, which takes place in the last weekend of July, a must-do fixture hereabouts ever since it began in the 1990s. The Bowman is rare among English for having its own archery field in 12 acres, the legacy of a previous landlady from the 1970s, Carol Montague, who was an archer in the British Olympic team.
Newman, born locally in Bishops Waltham, is something of a beer connoisseur who scours the country for unusual barrels, including a beer from the Orkneys. ‘We have failed to make the Good Beer Guide on only two occasions,’ he says. ‘And the Good Beer Guide has been going for 35 years. We were CAMRA runner up in 2013.’
Like many country pubs, the Bowman attracts its share of oddballs and eccentrics. One regular Martin Orford, is, ‘one of the greatest prog rock keyboardists of all time,’ says Newman. ‘He played in IQ in the late 1980s. Now retired, he helps out in the kitchen when not driving steam engines on the Watercress Line.’
Chloe, Newman’s ‘other half’, looks after the cooking, which runs to all the pub classics. ‘I’d get lynched if we took the liver and bacon off the menu,’ says Newman. ‘Our biggest sellers are the cheesy chips.’ You can be certain the food will be fresh: Chloe’s father runs A A Edwards & Son, the fruit and vegetable wholesalers in Southampton.
Hampshire is the cradle of cricket. The first ever cricket club was founded in Hambledon in 1786. It was briefly the pre-eminent cricket club in the world until the Marylebone Cricket Club supplanted it at Lord’s cricket ground in London in 1787. However, Thomas Lord, the founder of Lord’s, is commemorated in the Thomas Lord pub in West Meon, where Lord retired in 1830. Located near the stunning Meon Valley, the Thomas Lord aspires to be more than a mere pub. With its gardens, tastefully decorated dining room, wood-fired pizza oven and clientele of gentleman in Panama hats and their Sloaney wives, it is a comfortable and friendly spot, and the food is excellent, particularly the venison and black pudding Scotch egg.
There are many other pubs of commensurate charm and beauty: the Hawkley Inn has a west-facing veranda like something out of the wild west, with customers arriving by horse; the Tichborne Arms in the village of Tichborne has perhaps the best beer festival of the lot; the Pub With No Name, aka the White Horse in Prior Dean, has recently modernised itself and now serves Sunday lunch. With their roaring open fires, these pubs work just as well in winter as in summer.
Winchester has a charming old quarter around its cathedral, and, with its plethora of tearooms and shops, the strolling here is outstanding. Unlike its rival cathedral cities, Salisbury and Chichester, Winchester is not a market town, so you don’t find local butchers and bakers. What you do find are supermarkets galore, which some say makes the city feel like a London suburb. The eastern flank of the city is dominated by Winchester College and by the first Norman cathedral in England, with the famous Wykeham Arms pub sandwiched between the two. Meanwhile, to the west, the ‘new town’ of Winchester sprang up in the 1850s when the railway line to London was built. Today Winchester is within easy commuting distance of the capital, with five trains an hour.
‘Although it is a rich city, it gets no funding for the arts,’ says Chris Caldicott, local resident, over a pint of beer at the Black Boy pub. ‘So there are no theatres or galleries, whereas Eastleigh to the south is a thriving arts centre that has The Point, a contemporary theatre and dance studio. But Winchester is starved so we go to London for our entertainment.’
Winchester is an excellent place to embark on ambitious long-distance walks. Indeed it marks the beginning of the Pilgrim's Way. A towpath on the Itchen Navigation, which conveyed coal from Southampton to Winchester, leads out to St Catherine’s Hill close to Twyford Down. Another walk leads you to the water meadows beyond the ancient town walls and Winchester College to the village of St Cross.
Where to stay? There are plenty of hotels and bed and breakfasts, but if you want stupendous luxury, complete with spa and gym and restaurants, try the Four Seasons Hampshire. The site of this magnificent hotel in Dogmersfield Park dates from the 13th century (originally the site of a bishop's palace) and marks the place where Prince Arthur met Catherine of Aragon.
I can’t see independence for Hampshire ever happening. To break away somehow wouldn’t be English, and Englishness is the quintessence of Hampshire…
What Hampshire does, it does World Class