Tuesday, December 14, 2010
For those of you who are partial to the odd tipple, you are probably already familiar with Alton due to its fantastic beer festival, however, there is more to this town than beers and ales.
Alton may play host to the beer festival twice a year but the best way to get to know the town and its residents is by taking a trip to one of its fabulous markets. Known in Hampshire as one of the friendliest markets in the county, Alton relives its history time and time again by putting on a spectacle of food, drink, entertainment and wares.
Historical findings show that the Romans travelled on a road from Chichester to Silchester and evidence suggests that there was once a posting station at Neatham, not too far away from Alton.
It was around this area that, centuries later, a Saxon tribe decided to settle near to the River Wey and, going by the recently excavated 17th century cemetery found nearby, the settlement would have been extremely large in comparison to other sites found in the county. It was in this cemetery that one of the most exciting pieces of Anglo-Saxon craftsmanship was found, a beautiful buckle set with garnets and glass within a silver-gilt mount. It was obviously buried with its occupier as a grave gift and has since been renamed the Alton Buckle, which can now be found on display in the towns Curtis Museum.
Going to battle
The name Alton is thought to have come from the Anglo-Saxon word aewielltun meaning farmstead at the source of the river but the more I have researched the more apparent it is that Alton is far grander and prominent than a humble farmstead.
In its history Alton has been subjected to a great deal of angst and revolt, starting in 1001 with the Battle against the Danes. After causing devastation across England, the Danish were surprised to find that the men of Hampshire had congregated in Alton to protect their county and honour their country. These heroic men had a jolly good go at taking out the Danes and even though outnumbered, succeeded in killing more men than they lost; however this was no victory and, after losing 81 men, they fled to Winchester to seek solace.
In 1643 Alton was attacked again, this time during the English Civil War. A small congregation of Royalists had gathered in Alton when, on the December 13, they were ambushed by some 5,000 Parliamentarians led by Sir William Waller, a leading Parliamentarian commander in southern England. Many of the Royalist cavalrymen fled to avoid almost certain death, leaving behind their Colonel, Richard Bolle and his infantry to fight the opposition. Completely outnumbered and unprepared, the Colonel and his men were forced in to the Church of St Lawrence within the town and shot dead. More than 700 royalists were killed on that day and, walking around the church today, you can still see the bullet holes caused by the battle.
The final tragedy to affect Alton happened during the Victorian era, although not caused by battle or war, the town was left devastated after a local girl, Fanny Adams, was
brutally murdered by solicitors clerk Frederick Baker.
The story goes that eight year old Fanny, her sister Lizzie and her friend Millie Warner were on their way to play in a nearby meadow when they were approached by Baker who offered Millie and Lizzie three halfpence to go and spend in the town and Fanny a halfpenny to accompany him towards Shalden, a few miles on from Alton. But Fanny refused the money and it is said that Baker then took her to a nearby field, out of sight of the two girls and butchered her, so badly, that when she was finally found over several days later, her body had to be put back together again in the towns doctors surgery; this surgery is now Ye Olde Leathern Bottle pub in Alton and is said to be haunted by Fannys ghost.
Baker was arrested after blood was found on his clothing and witnesses put him near the field, the final piece of evidence, an exert from his diary reading: August 24, Saturday killed a young girl. It was fine and hot, was enough to find him guilty of the crime and he was sentenced to death and consequently was one of the last criminals to be hanged outside Winchester Gaol on Christmas Eve 1867. It was a murder that horrified the country and a couple of years later new rations of tinned mutton were introduced to British seamen, who, dissatisfied with the contents quipped that it compared to the remains of sweet Fanny Adams, the phrase sweet fanny adams or sweet f.a is still commonly known today to describe something of little worth or to mean nothing much included.
Alton may have been subjected to some tragedy throughout its history but theres one thing that remains a positive part of the town even today and that is its spectacular markets. In 1086 the Domesday Book lists Alton as having the most valuable recorded market in the whole country, a tradition which the local people have fought hard to maintain.
Today a regular market is held every Tuesday and the town plays host to several festivals and fairs throughout the rest of the year.
The delightful mix of historic buildings coupled with modern shops and arcades makes Alton a wonderful town to stroll through and guided walks taking you to places of interest such as the Church of St Lawrence and Fanny Adams grave can be arranged through the towns Tourist Information Centre. If you are looking for a place to stay then Alton is the perfect base for exploring the surrounding area. Nearby attractions include Jane Austens House, Gilbert Whites House and Grayshott Pottery all of which can be easily accessible from Alton.
Dates for the diary
June 5: Alton Beer Festival
A great day out in aid of the local charities at the Alton Maltings Centre, local breweries come together to show off their award winning ales, wines and ciders.
June 12 13: Alton
Alton Farmers Markets bring you the best in Hampshires food and drink direct from the producers.
June 19 26: Jane Austen Regency Festival
An excellent event celebrating the works of Jane Austen and in particular the bicentenary of her move to Chawton. Expect music, talks, museum displays, readings, school visits, childrens competitions, horse-drawn carriages, Fashion through the ages show, Victorian Cricket, Regency Evening and Chawton House Librarys open day.
July 4: Alton and North East Hampshire Agricultural Show
A fun-filled family day out with horses, livestock, arena events, rural crafts, food marquees, trade stands, motor and horse show and childrens attractions.
July 10: Alton Food Festival
A fun and friendly event
held in Altons market square
and High Street.