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Things to see and do in Whitchurch

PUBLISHED: 10:43 26 June 2018

Steel mesh sheep sculpture at Bere Mill

Steel mesh sheep sculpture at Bere Mill

Emma Caulton

Mills, quiet thrills and cocktails, Emma Caulton chills in Whitchurch

Morning

Take a wander and a walk. One of the simple delights of visiting Whitchurch is trout spotting in the River Test’s clear waters. Leaning over the bridge railings I spotted several good-sized ones including rainbow trout with an unmistakable pink blush on their sides.

This small town on the upper reaches of the Test developed because of the river. It was known as a mill town although most have now been converted into homes. Not so Whitchurch Silk Mill, the oldest silk mill in the country still in its original Georgian building, with silk woven using 19th century machinery. However, the mill is currently swathed in scaffolding, undergoing a £2 million renovation and not scheduled to reopen to visitors until 25 August.

Sue Tapliss, Mill Director, explains that this project has been over four years in the planning. The intention is to improve accessibility with a lift to the top floor and create a more immersive experience by glazing both ends of the weaving shed with floor to ceiling glass. In addition, the visitors’ café and shop are being made into more of a destination, relocated into one building with waterside views.

Even with this mill temporarily closed, there is still plenty to discover in Whitchurch. Much of the compact town centre is a conservation area with streets lined with period properties and adorned by decorated bollards.

Browsers can take their time mooching round a collection of intriguing independents. One such is Ollies (open Thursday to Sunday), hidden off Bell Street, an Aladdin’s cave of the unusual and the curious with retro, salvage and vintage pieces for home and garden. It was opened by collector and dealer Steven Smith and his wife Karen three years ago and has become a go-to place for those in the know looking for a style statement. I can spend hours here – and do.

Those wanting to stretch their legs further afield can explore the surrounding countryside. Whitchurch is called the gateway to the North Wessex Downs, a sweeping landscape of downland and woodland which inspired the author Richard Adams’ modern classic, Watership Down.

A comfortable stroll round and about town is the waymarked Mill Trail which criss-crosses the Test and idles out into surrounding countryside to Freefolk and Laverstoke. The route can be adjusted to a distance of two, three-and-a-half, four-and-a-half and seven miles. I saw a heron as still as a statue, three varieties of butterfly, a meadow of loudly baaing lambs, ducked under branches of catkins and was entranced by light sparkling on the water where willows dipped.

 

Coffee & Lunch

Take a break in town. Cafes encompass the traditional and the trendy. The former is well-established H’s Coffee Shop in a quaint timber-framed corner house that was the birthplace of Lord Denning (considered one of our greatest judges) and serves up the likes of homemade scones and hot chocolates. The latter is a new addition: cool and contemporary Kudos with a Scandi vibe to the décor (all pale woods and filament bulbs) where I tucked in to gluten-free brownie and a good coffee (supplied by Winchester’s The Roasting Party) while perched on a window stool watching a duck waddling down Church Street.

Local pubs include The Red House, a popular inn dating back to the 16th century with cosy bar full of character with low beams and flagstone floor and a family-friendly sunny beer garden. There’s also The White Hart which dominates the centre of town - its origins dating way back to the 15th century. Both serve up good pub grub.

 

Afternoon

Recently Whitchurch has turned into a bit of a hub for discerning drinkers. It is ten years since friends Nicholas Coates and Christian Seely created Coates & Seely and started making award-winning fizz from vines growing on the slopes of the North Hampshire Downs just outside Whitchurch. You can’t visit the vineyard, but you can pick up a bottle or two from wine merchant Haynes Hanson & Clark which opened in Whitchurch’s repurposed old sorting office about five years ago. Expect tastings and friendly advice whether buying wine en primeur for investment purposes, establishing a cellar or simply looking for a well-priced bottle (from £6.70 upwards) to accompany supper. A selection of gins includes local hand-crafted Test Valley Gin.

A must visit for gin aficionados is Bombay Sapphire Distillery which opened in Laverstoke Mill, a couple of miles out of town, nearly four years ago. Designer Thomas Heatherwick was responsible for reimagining this 300-year-old mill (which once produced all the banknote paper for the Bank of England and the British Empire) after it had been empty for some ten years. His two intertwining glasshouses, constructed from over 700 individual panes of glass with no two the same, make a particularly dazzling centrepiece, warmed through heat recovery from the stills.

Experiences include a self-guided tour using interactive map activating ‘whispering walls’, hosted tours, heritage experiences, horticultural experiences and gin cocktail masterclasses where you can learn tricks of the trade. All include a visit to the botanicals room to test your smell preferences and complimentary cocktail in the Mill Bar.

The horticulturally inclined will also be delighted by Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants. It’s 30 years since this nursery opened at nearby Freefolk Priors. It is now recognised as one of the country’s leading independent nurseries for herbaceous perennials with 1200 varieties. Regular events include talks and propagation workshops by Rosy Hardy and they’ve won 21 RHS gold medals (and counting) at Chelsea.

 

Eat & Sleep

Whitchurch surprises with a gem of an Indian restaurant, Blue Ginger; the well-spiced lamb shanks jalfrezi is particularly recommended. Out of town, Watership Down Inn in Freefolk Priors is a gastropub set in a pastoral idyll with views across the Test valley from its terrace. With comfy bedrooms and walking distance from Bombay Sapphire Distillery (a mile away in the next village), it’s perfect for those attending cocktail masterclasses and staying over.

Another countryside experience is B&B at Peak House Farm, Cole Henley, a working farm with luxury shepherd’s hut or rooms in the old farmhouse. Back in Whitchurch, The Chase is a newish and stylish B&B on Church Street.

 

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