Hampshire, Dorset and Wiltshire Travel Guide

AS A COUPLE
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The distant past is perhaps more tangible in Hampshire (often abbreviated to “Hants”), Dorset and Wiltshire than in any other part of England. Predominantly rural, these three counties overlap substantially with the ancient kingdom of Wessex, whose most famous ruler, Alfred, repulsed the Danes in the ninth century and came close to establishing the first unified state in England. And even before Wessex came into being, many earlier civilizations had left their stamp on the region. The chalky uplands of Wiltshire boast several of Europe’s greatest Neolithic sites, including Stonehenge and Avebury, while in Dorset you’ll find Maiden Castle, the most striking Iron Age hill fort in the country, and the Cerne Abbas Giant, source of many a legend.

The Romans tramped all over these southern counties, leaving the most conspicuous signs of their occupation at the amphitheatre of Dorchester – though that town is more closely associated with the novels of Thomas Hardy and his distinctively gloomy vision of Wessex. None of the landscapes of this region could be described as grand or wild, but the countryside is consistently seductive, not least the crumbling fossil-bearing cliffs around Lyme Regis, the managed woodlands of the New Forest and the gentle, open curves of Salisbury Plain. Its towns are also generally modest and slow-paced, with the notable exceptions of the two great maritime bases of Portsmouth and Southampton, a fair proportion of whose visitors are simply passing through on their way to the more genteel pleasures of the Isle of Wight. The two great cathedral cities in these parts, Salisbury and Winchester, and the seaside resort of Bournemouth see most tourist traffic, and the great houses of Wilton, Stourhead, Longleat and Kingston Lacy also attract the crowds; but you don’t have to wander far off the beaten track to encounter medieval churches, manor houses and unspoilt country inns.

Around Salisbury

North of Salisbury stretches a hundred thousand acres of chalky upland, known as Salisbury Plain; it’s managed by the Ministry of Defence whose presence has protected it from development and intensive farming, thereby preserving species that are all but extinct elsewhere in England. Its empty expanses are home to the country’s only colony of Great Bustards, the world’s heaviest flying bird, which became extinct in the UK in the 1840s. Chicks were re-introduced from Russia in 2004 to a secret location on Salisbury Plain, and the first Great Bustard to be born in the UK in nearly two hundred years appeared in 2009.

Though now largely deserted, in previous times Salisbury Plain positively throbbed with communities. Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age settlements left hundreds of burial mounds scattered over the chalklands, as well as major complexes at Danebury, Badbury, Figsbury, Old Sarum, and, of course, the great circle of Stonehenge, England’s most famous historical monument. To the west, Salisbury’s hinterland also includes one of Wiltshire’s great country mansions, Wilton House.

Stonehenge

No ancient structure in England arouses more controversy than

Stonehenge

, a mysterious ring of monoliths. While archeologists argue over whether it was a place of ritual sacrifice and sun-worship, an astronomical calculator or a royal palace, the guardians of the site struggle to accommodate its year-round crowds. Conservation of Stonehenge is an urgent priority, and unless you arrange for special access (book by phone or online), or come during the summer

solstice

– when crowds of 35,000 or more gather to watch the sunrise – you must be content with walking around, rather than among, the stones.

Brief history

Some people may find

Stonehenge

underwhelming, but understanding a little of its history and ancient significance gives an insight into its mystical appeal. What exists today is only a small part of the original prehistoric complex, as many of the outlying stones were probably plundered by medieval and later farmers for building materials. The

construction

of Stonehenge is thought to have taken place in several stages. In about 3000 BC the outer circular bank and ditch were built, just inside which was dug a ring of 56 pits, which at a later date were filled with a mixture of earth and human ash. Around 2500 BC the first stones were raised within the earthworks, comprising approximately forty great blocks of dolerite (bluestone), whose ultimate source was Preseli in Wales. Some archeologists have suggested that these monoliths were found lying on Salisbury Plain, having been borne down from the Welsh mountains by a glacier in the last Ice Age, but the lack of any other glacial debris on the plain would seem to disprove this theory. It really does seem to be the case that the stones were cut from quarries in Preseli and dragged or floated here on rafts, a prodigious task that has defeated recent attempts to emulate it.

The crucial phase in the creation of the site came during the next six hundred years, when the incomplete bluestone circle was transformed by the construction of a circle of 25 trilithons (two uprights crossed by a lintel) and an inner horseshoe formation of five trilithons. Hewn from Marlborough Downs sandstone, these colossal stones (called sarsens), ranging from 13ft to 21ft in height and weighing up to thirty tons, were carefully dressed and worked – for example, to compensate for perspectival distortion the uprights have a slight swelling in the middle, the same trick as the builders of the Parthenon were to employ hundreds of years later. More bluestones were arranged in various patterns within the outer circle over this period. The purpose of all this work remains baffling, however. The symmetry and location of the site (a slight rise in a flat valley with even views of the horizon in all directions) as well as its alignment towards the points of sunrise and sunset on the summer and winter solstices tend to support the supposition that it was some sort of observatory or time-measuring device. The site ceased to be used at around 1600 BC, and by the Middle Ages it had become a “landmark”. Recent excavations have revealed the existence of a much larger settlement here than had previously been thought – the most substantial Neolithic village of this period to be found on the British mainland in fact – covering a wide area. Nothing is to be seen of the new finds as yet, though there are plans to re-create a part of the ancient complex.

Wilton House

The splendid

Wilton House

dominates the village of Wilton, renowned for its carpet industry. The original Tudor house, built for the First Earl of Pembroke on the site of a dissolved Benedictine abbey, was ruined by fire in 1647 and rebuilt by Inigo Jones, whose classic hallmarks can be seen in the sumptuous Single Cube and Double Cube rooms, so called because of their precise dimensions.

The easel paintings are what makes Wilton really special, however – the collection includes works by Van Dyck, Rembrandt, two of the Brueghel family, Poussin, Andrea del Sarto and Tintoretto. In the grounds, the famous Palladian Bridge has been joined by various ancillary attractions including an adventure playground and an audiovisual show on the colourful earls of Pembroke.

Avebury and around

The village of AVEBURY stands in the midst of a stone circle that rivals Stonehenge – the individual stones are generally smaller, but the circle itself is much wider and more complex. A massive earthwork 20ft high and 1400ft across encloses the main circle, which is approached by four causeways across the inner ditch, two of them leading into wide avenues stretching over a mile beyond the circle. The best guess is that it was built soon after 2500 BC, and presumably had a similar ritual or religious function to Stonehenge. The structure of Avebury’s diffuse circle is quite difficult to grasp, but there are plans on the site, and you can get an excellent overview at the Alexander Keiller Museum, at the western entrance. The nearby Barn Gallery has an exhibition on Avebury and the surrounding country.

Bournemouth and around

Renowned for its pristine white beach (one of southern England’s cleanest) and its gardens, the resort of BOURNEMOUTH dates from 1811, when a local squire, Louis Tregonwell, built a summerhouse on the wild, unpopulated heathland that once occupied this stretch of coast, and planted the first of the pine trees that now characterize the area. The mild climate, sheltered site and glorious sandy beach encouraged the rapid growth of a full-scale family-holiday resort, complete with piers, cliff railways and boat trips. Today Bournemouth has a rather genteel, slightly geriatric image, counterbalanced by burgeoning numbers of language students, clubbers and surfers, attracted by Britain’s only artificial reef in the neighbouring suburb of Boscombe.

In the centre of town, on Hinton Road, the graveyard of St Peter’s church is where Mary Shelley, author of the Gothic horror tale Frankenstein, is buried, together with the heart belonging to her husband, the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. The tombs of Mary’s parents – radical thinker William Godwin and early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft – are also here.

Kingston Lacy

The glorious seventeenth-century mansion of

Kingston Lacy

stands in 250 acres of parkland grazed by a herd of Red Devon cattle. Designed for the Bankes family, who were exiled from Corfe Castle after the Roundheads reduced it to rubble, the brick building was clad in grey stone during the nineteenth century by Sir Charles Barry, co-architect of the Houses of Parliament. William Bankes, then owner of the house, was a great traveller and collector, and the

Spanish Room

is a superb scrapbook of his Grand Tour souvenirs, lined with gilded leather and surmounted by a Venetian ceiling. Kingston Lacy’s

picture collection

is also outstanding, featuring Titian, Rubens, Velázquez and many other old masters.

Bridport

Ten miles west of Abbotsbury is the pretty town of BRIDPORT, mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086 and an important port before the rivers silted up in the early 1700s, leaving it stranded a mile or so inland today. It’s a pleasant old town of solid brick buildings with very wide streets, a hangover from its days as a major rope-making centre when cords were stretched between the houses to be twisted and dyed. Today, it’s a lively market town (Wed and Sat) with an arty, alternative vibe. The town’s harbour lies a mile or so south at West Bay, which has a fine sandy beach sheltered below majestic red cliffs – the sheer East Cliffs are a tempting challenge for intrepid walkers.

Dorchester and around

For many, DORCHESTER, county town of Dorset, is essentially Thomas Hardy’s town; he was born at Higher Bockhampton, three miles east, his heart is buried in Stinsford, a couple of miles northeast (the rest of him is in Westminster Abbey), and he spent much of his life in Dorchester itself, where his statue now stands on High West Street. The town appears in his novels as Casterbridge, and the local countryside is evocatively depicted, notably the wild heathland of the east (Egdon Heath) and the eerie yew forest of Cranborne Chase.

The real Dorchester – liveliest on Wednesday, market day has a pleasant central core of mostly seventeenth-century and Georgian buildings, though the town’s origins go back to the Romans, who founded “Durnovaria” in about 70 AD. The Roman walls were replaced in the eighteenth century by tree-lined avenues called “Walks”, but some traces of the Roman period have survived. On the southeast edge of town, Maumbury Rings is where the Romans held vast gladiatorial combats in an amphitheatre adapted from a Stone Age site.

Cerne Abbas giant

The village of

CERNE ABBAS

has bags of charm, with gorgeous Tudor cottages and abbey ruins, but its main attraction is the enormously priapic

giant

carved in the chalk hillside just north of the village, standing 180ft high and flourishing a club over his disproportionately small head. The age of the monument is disputed, some believing it to be pre-Roman, others thinking it might be a Romano-British figure of Hercules. Either way, in view of his prominent feature it’s probable that the giant originated as some primeval fertility symbol. Folklore has it that lying on the outsize member will induce conception, but the National Trust, who now own the site, do their best to stop people wandering over it and eroding the 2ft-deep trenches that form the outlines.

Maiden Castle

One of southern England’s finest prehistoric sites, MAIDEN CASTLE stands on a hill southwest of Dorchester. Covering about 115 acres, it was first developed around 3000 BC by a Stone Age farming community and then used during the Bronze Age as a funeral mound. Iron Age dwellers expanded it into a populous settlement and fortified it with a daunting series of ramparts and ditches, just in time for the arrival of Vespasian’s Second Legion. The ancient Britons’ slingstones were no match for the more sophisticated weapons of the Roman invaders, however, and Maiden Castle was stormed in a massacre in 43 AD.

What you see today is a massive series of grassy concentric ridges about 60ft high, creasing the surface of the hill. The main finds from the site are displayed in the Dorset County Museum.

The Isle of Purbeck

Though not actually an island, the ISLE OF PURBECK – a promontory of low hills and heathland jutting out beyond Poole Harbour – does have an insular and distinctive feel. Reached from the east by the ferry from Sandbanks, at the narrow mouth of Poole Harbour, or by a long and congested landward journey via the bottleneck of Wareham, Purbeck can be a difficult destination to reach, but its villages are immensely pretty, none more so than Corfe Castle, with its majestic ruins. From Swanage, a low-key seaside resort, the Dorset Coast Path provides access to the oily shales of Kimmeridge Bay, the spectacular cove at Lulworth and the much-photographed natural arch of Durdle Door.

The whole coast from Purbeck to Exmouth in Devon – dubbed the Jurassic Coast – is a World Heritage Site on account of its geological significance and fossil remains; walkers can access it along the South West Coast Path.

Durdle Door

A mile west of Lulworth Cove the iconic limestone arch of Durdle Door can be reached via the steep uphill path that starts from Lulworth Cove’s car park. The arch itself sits at the end of a long shingle beach (which can be accessed via steep steps), a lovely place for catching the sun and swimming in fresh, clear water. There are other steps to a bay just east of Durdle Door, St Oswald’s Bay, with another shingle beach and offshore rocks that you can swim out to.

Studland

East of Swanage, you can follow the Southwest Coast path over Ballard Down to descend into the pretty village of STUDLAND at the southern end of Studland Bay. The most northerly stretch of the beach, Shell Bay, is a magnificent strand of icing-sugar sand backed by a remarkable heathland ecosystem that’s home to all six British species of reptile – adders are quite common, so be careful. On Middle Beach, you can hire kayaks from the Studland Sea School or take one of their excellent guided kayak tours round Old Harry Rocks, through cliff arches and sea caves.

The Isle of Wight

The lozenge-shaped ISLE OF WIGHT has begun to shake off its old-fashioned image and attract a younger, livelier crowd, with a couple of major annual rock festivals and a scattering of fashionable hotels. Despite measuring less than 23 miles at its widest point, the island packs in a surprising variety of landscapes and coastal scenery. Its beaches have long attracted holiday-makers, and the island was a favourite of such eminent Victorians as Tennyson, Dickens, Swinburne, Julia Margaret Cameron and Queen Victoria herself, who made Osborne House, near Cowes, her permanent home after Albert died.

Osborne House

The only place of interest in East Cowes is Queen Victoria’s family home, Osborne House, signposted one mile southeast of town. The house was built in the late 1840s by Prince Albert and Thomas Cubitt in the style of an Italianate villa, with balconies and large terraces overlooking the landscaped gardens towards the Solent. The state rooms, used for entertaining visiting dignitaries, exude formality as one would expect, while the private apartments feel homely in a manner appropriate to an affluent family holiday residence that Osborne was. Following Albert’s death, the desolate Victoria spent much of her time here, and it’s where she eventually died in 1901. Since then, according to her wishes, the house has remained virtually unaltered, allowing an intimate glimpse into Victoria’s family life.

Lyme Regis

LYME REGIS, Dorset’s most westerly town, shelters snugly between steep, fossil-filled cliffs. Its intimate size and photogenic qualities make this a popular and congested spot in high summer, with some upmarket literary associations – Jane Austen summered in a seafront cottage and set part of Persuasion in Lyme (the town appears in the 1995 film version), while novelist John Fowles lived here until his death in 2005 (the film adaptation of his book, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, was shot here).

Colourwashed cottages and elegant Regency and Victorian villas line its seafront and flanking streets, but Lyme’s best-known feature is a practical reminder of its commercial origins: the Cobb, a curving harbour wall originally built in the thirteenth century. It has suffered many alterations since, most notably in the nineteenth century, when its massive boulders were clad in neater blocks of Portland stone. On Bridge Street, the excellent Lyme Regis Museum displays artefacts related to the town’s literary connections, including John Fowles’ office chair, and provides a crash course in local history and geology, while Dinosaurland on Coombe Street, fills out the story of ammonites and other local fossils. Foodies should head to the Town Mill Complex in Mill Lane, just off Coombe Street, where as well as a working mill, pottery and art gallery there’s a fantastic cheese shop, local brewery and café/tearoom.

Lyme’s Jurassic Coast

The cliffs around Lyme are made up of a complex layer of limestone, greensand and unstable clay, a perfect medium for preserving fossils, which are exposed by landslips of the waterlogged clays. In 1811, after a fierce storm caused parts of the cliffs to collapse, 12-year-old Mary Anning, a keen fossil-hunter, discovered an almost complete dinosaur skeleton, a 30ft ichthyosaurus now displayed in London’s Natural History Museum.

Hands-off inspection of the area’s complex geology can be enjoyed all around the town: as you walk along the seafront and out towards The Cobb, look for the outlines of ammonites in the walls and paving stones. To the west of Lyme, the Undercliff is a fascinating jumble of overgrown landslips, now a nature reserve, where a great path wends its way through the undergrowth for around seven miles to neighbouring Seaton in Devon. East of Lyme, a huge landslip in 2008 closed the Dorset Coast Path to Charmouth (Jane Austen’s favourite resort), as well as blocking the two-mile beach route to the resort, which was previously walkable at low tide. At Charmouth, you can rejoin the coastal path leading to the headland of Golden Cap, whose brilliant outcrop of auburn sandstone is crowned with gorse.

The New Forest

Covering about 220 square miles, the NEW FOREST is one of southern England’s favourite rural playgrounds, attracting some 13.5 million day-visits annually. The forest was requisitioned by William the Conqueror in 1079 as a game reserve, and the rights of its inhabitants soon became subservient to those of his precious deer. Fences to impede their progress were forbidden and terrible punishments were meted out to those who disturbed the animals – hands were lopped off, eyes put out. Later monarchs less passionate about hunting than the Normans gradually restored the forest-dwellers’ rights, and today the New Forest enjoys a unique patchwork of ancient laws and privileges alongside the regulations applying to its National Park status.

The trees of the forest are now much more varied than they were in pre-Norman times, with birch, holly, yew, Scots pine and other conifers interspersed with the ancient oaks and beeches. One of the most venerable trees is the much-visited Knightwood Oak, just a few hundred yards north of the A35 three miles southwest of Lyndhurst, which measures about 22ft in circumference at shoulder height. The most conspicuous species of New Forest fauna is the New Forest pony – you’ll see them grazing nonchalantly by the roadsides and ambling through some villages. The local deer are less visible now that some of the faster roads are fenced, although several species still roam the woods, including the tiny sika deer, descendants of a pair that escaped from nearby Beaulieu in 1904.

Portsmouth

Britain’s foremost naval station, PORTSMOUTH occupies the bulbous peninsula of Portsea Island, on the eastern flank of a huge, easily defended harbour. The ancient Romans raised a fortress on the northernmost edge of this inlet, but this strategic location wasn’t fully exploited until Tudor times, when Henry VII established the world’s first dry dock here and made Portsmouth a royal dockyard. It has flourished ever since and nowadays Portsmouth is a large industrialized city, its harbour clogged with naval frigates, ferries bound for the continent or the Isle of Wight, and swarms of dredgers and tugs.

Due to its military importance, Portsmouth was heavily bombed during World War II, and bland tower blocks now give the city an ugly profile. Only Old Portsmouth, based around the original harbour, preserves some Georgian and a little Tudor character. East of here is Southsea, a residential suburb of terraces with a half-hearted resort strewn along its shingle beach, where a mass of B&Bs face stoic naval monuments and tawdry seaside amusements.

Salisbury

SALISBURY, huddled below Wiltshire’s chalky plain in the converging valleys of the Avon and Nadder, sprang into existence in the early thirteenth century, when the bishopric was moved from nearby Old Sarum. Today, it looks from a distance very much as it did when Constable painted his celebrated view of it, and though traffic may clog its centre, this prosperous and well-kept city is designed on a pleasantly human scale, with no sprawling suburbs or high-rise buildings to challenge the supremacy of the cathedral’s immense spire. The city’s inspiring silhouette is best admired by taking a twenty-minute walk through the water meadows southwest of the centre to the suburb of Harnham.

Salisbury Cathedral

Begun in 1220,

Salisbury Cathedral

was mostly completed within forty years and is thus unusually consistent in its style, with one prominent exception – the

spire

, which was added a century later and, at 404ft, is the highest in England. Its survival is something of a miracle, for the foundations penetrate only about 6ft into marshy ground, and when Christopher Wren surveyed it he found the spire to be leaning almost 2.5ft out of true. He added further tie rods, which finally arrested the movement.

The interior is over-austere, but there’s an amazing sense of space and light in its high nave, despite the sombre pillars of grey Purbeck marble, which are visibly bowing beneath the weight they bear. Monuments and carved tombs line the walls. Don’t miss the octagonal chapter house, which displays a rare original copy of the Magna Carta, and whose walls are decorated with a frieze of scenes from the Old Testament.

The Close

Surrounding the cathedral is the Close, a peaceful precinct of lawns and mellow old buildings. Most of the houses have seemly Georgian facades, though some, like the Bishop’s Palace and the deanery, date from the thirteenth century. Mompesson House, built by a wealthy merchant in 1701, contains some beautifully furnished eighteenth-century rooms and a superbly carved staircase. Also in the Close is the King’s House, home to the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum – an absorbing account of local history.

Shaftesbury

Fifteen miles east of Sherborne on the A30, SHAFTESBURY perches on a spur of lumpy hills, with severe gradients on three sides of the town. On a clear day, views from the town are terrific – one of the best vantage points is Gold Hill, quaint, cobbled and very steep. At its crest, the local history museum displays items ranging from locally made buttons, for which the area was once renowned, to a mummified cat.

Pilgrims used to flock to Shaftesbury to pay homage to the bones of Edward the Martyr, which were brought to the Abbey in 978, though now only the footings of the abbey church survive, just off the main street. St Peter’s Church on the marketplace is one of the few reminders of Shaftesbury’s medieval grandeur, when it boasted a castle, twelve churches and four market crosses.

Sherborne

Tucked away in the northwest corner of Dorset, ten miles north of Cerne Abbas, the pretty town of SHERBORNE was once the capital of Wessex, its church having cathedral status until Old Sarum usurped the bishopric in 1075.

Southampton

A glance at the map gives some idea of the strategic maritime importance of SOUTHAMPTON, which stands on a triangular peninsula formed at the place where the rivers Itchen and Test flow into Southampton Water, an eight-mile inlet from the Solent. Sure enough, Southampton has figured in numerous stirring events: it witnessed the exodus of Henry V’s Agincourt-bound army, the Pilgrim Fathers’ departure in the Mayflower in 1620 and the maiden voyages of such ships as the Queen Mary and the Titanic. Despite its pummelling by the Luftwaffe and some disastrous postwar urban sprawl, the thousand-year-old city has retained some of its medieval charm in parts and reinvented itself as a twenty-first century shopping centre in others, with the giant glass-and-steel West Quay as its focus.

Stourhead and around

Landscape gardening was a favoured mode of display among the grandest eighteenth-century landowners, and

Stourhead

is one of the most accomplished examples of the genre. The Stourton estate was bought in 1717 by Henry Hoare, who commissioned Colen Campbell to build a new villa in the Palladian style. Hoare’s heir, another Henry, returned from his Grand Tour in 1741 with his head full of the paintings of Claude and Poussin, and determined to translate their images of well-ordered, wistful classicism into real life. He dammed the Stour to create a lake, then planted the terrain with blocks of trees, domed temples, stone bridges, grottoes and statues, all mirrored vividly in the water. In 1772 the folly of

King Alfred’s Tower

was added and today affords fine views across the estate and into neighbouring counties. The house is less interesting, though it has some good Chippendale furniture.

Longleat

If Stourhead is an unexpected outcrop of Italy in Wiltshire, the African savannah intrudes even more bizarrely at

Longleat

. In 1946 the sixth marquess of Bath became the first stately-home owner to open his house to the paying public on a regular basis, and in 1966 he caused even more amazement when Longleat’s Capability Brown landscapes were turned into England’s first drive-through

safari park

, with lions, tigers, giraffes and rhinos on show, plus monkeys clambering all over your car. Other attractions followed, including a large hedge maze, a Doctor Who exhibition, high-tech simulators, and the seventh marquess’s saucy murals (children not admitted). Beyond the razzmatazz, there’s an exquisitely furnished Elizabethan house, built for Sir John Thynne, Elizabeth’s High Treasurer, with an enormous library and a fine collection of pictures, including Titian’s

Holy Family

.

Weymouth and around

Whether George III’s passion for sea bathing was a symptom of his eventual madness is uncertain, but it was at WEYMOUTH that in 1789 he became the first reigning monarch to follow the craze. Sycophantic gentry rushed into the waves behind him, and soon the town, formerly a busy port, took on the elegant Georgian stamp that it bears today.

A lively family holiday destination in summer, Weymouth reverts to a more sedate rhythm out of season. The highlight, of course, is its long sandy beach, but there are also a number of “all-weather” attractions in town. A few buildings survive from pre-Georgian times: the restored Tudor House on Trinity Street and the ruins of Sandsfoot Castle, built by Henry VIII, overlooking Portland Harbour. But Weymouth’s most imposing architectural heritage stands along the Esplanade, a dignified range of bow-fronted and porticoed buildings gazing out across the graceful bay. The more intimate quayside of the Old Harbour is linked to the Esplanade by the pedestrianized St Mary’s Street. In Lodmoor Country Park, at the eastern end of the promenade, the excellent Sea Life Park is a splendid family attraction.

Just south of the town stretch the giant arms of Portland Harbour, and a long causeway links Weymouth to the Isle of Portland. The causeway stands on the easternmost section of the eighteen-mile bank of pebbles known as Chesil Beach, running northwest towards the fishing port of West Bay.

Winchester

Nowadays a tranquil, handsome market town, WINCHESTER was once one of the mightiest settlements in England. Under the Romans it was Venta Belgarum, the fifth largest town in Britain, but it was Alfred the Great who really put Winchester on the map when he made it the capital of his Wessex kingdom in the ninth century. For the next two hundred years or so Winchester ranked alongside London, its status affirmed by William the Conqueror’s coronation in both cities and by his commissioning of the local monks to prepare the Domesday Book. It wasn’t until after the Battle of Naseby in 1645, when Cromwell took the city, that Winchester began its decline into provinciality.

Hampshire’s county town now has a scholarly and slightly anachronistic air, embodied by the ancient almshouses that still provide shelter for senior citizens of “noble poverty” – the pensioners can be seen walking round the town in medieval black or mulberry-coloured gowns with silver badges.

Jane Austen in Chawton

A mile southwest of Alton – accessible on the “Watercress line” steam train, – lies the village of CHAWTON, where Jane Austen lived from 1809 to 1817, during the last and most prolific years of her life, and where she wrote or revised almost all of her six books, including Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. A plain red-brick building in the centre of the village, Jane Austen’s House contains first editions of some of her greatest works and provides a fascinating insight into the daily life of the author. A short walk from the house is Chawton House, which belonged to Jane’s brother, Edward Austen Knight. It remained in the Austen family until 1987, when it was bought by American IT millionairess Sandy Lerner who opened the Chawton House Library, containing an impressive collection of women’s writing in English from 1600–1830. The house, which has now been fully restored, can be visited on a guided tour, or you can look round the gardens independently. The library is open by appointment only.

The Watercress Line

ALRESFORD, six miles east of Winchester, is the departure-point for the Mid-Hants Watercress Line, a steam-powered train so named because it passes through the former watercress beds that once flourished here. The train chuffs ten miles to Alton, with gourmet dinners served on board on Saturday evenings, plus real ales from local breweries and traditional Sunday lunches.

Winchester Cathedral

The first minster to be built in Winchester was raised by Cenwalh, the Saxon king of Wessex in the mid-seventh century, and traces of this building have been unearthed near the present

cathedral

, which was begun in 1079 and completed some three hundred years later. The exterior is not its best feature – squat and massive, it crouches stumpily over the tidy lawns of the Cathedral Close. The interior is rich and complex, however, and its 556ft

nave

makes this Europe’s longest medieval church. Outstanding features include the carved Norman font of black Tournai marble, the fourteenth-century misericords (the choir stalls are the oldest complete set in the country) and some amazing monuments –

William of Wykeham’s Chantry

, halfway down the nave on the right, is one of the most ornate.

Jane Austen

, who died in Winchester, is commemorated close to the font by a memorial brass and slab beneath which she’s interred, though she’s recorded simply as the daughter of a local clergyman. Above the high altar lie the mortuary chests of pre-Conquest kings, including

Canute

(though the bones were mixed up after Cromwell’s Roundheads broke up the chests in 1645);

William Rufus

, killed while hunting in the New Forest in 1100, lies in the presbytery. Behind the impressive Victorian screen at the end of the presbytery, look out for the memorial shrine to

St Swithun

. Originally buried outside in the churchyard, his remains were later interred inside where the “rain of heaven” could no longer fall on him, whereupon he took revenge and the heavens opened for forty days – hence the legend that if it rains on St Swithun’s Day (July 15) it will do so for another forty. His exact burial place is unknown.

Accessible from the north transept, the Norman crypt – often flooded – is home to Anthony Gormley’s contemplative figure Sound II, reflected in the waters. The cathedral’s original foundations were dug in marshy ground, and at the beginning of last century a steadfast diver, William Walker, spent five years replacing the rotten timber foundations with concrete.

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8/29/2020
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