South Downs - Hampshire's most underrated corner?
PUBLISHED: 11:00 14 September 2015 | UPDATED: 11:00 14 September 2015
Could the South Downs be Hampshire's loveliest and most underrated corner? Emma Caulton thinks it might just be following her latest visit
I am smitten by the South Downs. This chalk ridge running from Winchester in the west to Eastbourne in the east may be at its most dramatic in East Sussex, but in Hampshire the Downs are a lush, undulating landscape of woodland, downland and farmland with the South Downs Way striding across the heights of Beacon Hill, Old Winchester Hill and Butser Hill (the highest point on this National Trail).
The South Downs National Park is England’s newest National Park and extends well beyond the Downs themselves - in order to preserve the Downs’ views and context. The result is an area that has become a bit of a country-fest with the fair, foodie and family orientated market town of Petersfield at its heart.
To Peterfields’s west is the Meon Valley with delightful waterside villages such as East Meon, Exton and Meonstoke. To the south is picture postcard perfect Buriton at the foot of the South Downs escarpment and adjacent to Queen Elizabeth Country Park - 1400 acres of trails for adventure and play. And to the north are the Hangers: ancient woods clinging to such steep slopes that the area is often called Little Switzerland. It was home and inspiration to the poet Edward Thomas - ‘the next turn may reveal heaven’. And it almost does. We take roads that seem less travelled in an area that still feels remote and relatively inaccessible by car. Potholed hollowed lanes drop and disappear into green tunnels of overgrown trees. There are steep banks fragrant with wild garlic and hedgerows of cow parsley.
This feels like a rural idyll of times past. Villages are tucked into corners. There is Sheet, caught between town and country with villas and cottages around a green dominated by a giant horse chestnut tree. Steep, once home to Alec Guinness, has a lot going on with cricket club, lawn tennis club, and drama and dance productions in Bedales – the well known co-educational independent based in the village. Lovely Hawkley also has a cricket club, a big green edged with cottages dripping with wisteria and roses the colour of sunset, as well as a popular inn. There are several good country pubs in the area including The Harrow at Steep (rustic with gloriously overgrown garden) and The Pub with No Name at Priors Dean (actually there’s a marked shortage of signage in the whole area, not just this pub). Getting lost down the steep lanes reveals the occasional magnificent manor houses, tile-hung Arts & Crafts influenced Edwardian homes, and what would once have been labourers’ cottages now spruced up invitingly.
It seems unlikely that this quiet area, attracting committed walkers and families enjoying a breath of fresh air, could be suitable for commuters. Unimaginable that you can live a rural idyll of country pubs, villages greens, and strolls through beech hangers yet be within reasonable access of the office. However mainline stations at Petersfield and Liss promise London Waterloo in roughly an hour and a quarter, more or less. There are decent road connections to Portsmouth and Guildford, principally the A3, the opening of the new road tunnel at Hindhead four years ago cut peak-time journeys by a good 20 minutes or so.
I am hard pushed to find a downside. School reports are very favourable with the numerous village schools achieving ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’ reports from Ofsted. The Portsmouth School at secondary level is also rated ‘good’, while there are those big name independents in the area – not only Bedales, but Churchers College and Ditcham Park.
All this and property is comparatively reasonably priced – you can still find a cute cottage for around £300,000. You almost want to keep it a secret.
Colin Williams - Williams of Petersfield
“We have seen a big increase in the number of people moving to the South Downs area in the last couple of years and I believe that this is due to a number of factors.
The opening of the Hindhead tunnel a few years ago has made London more accessible for much of this area, which has resulted in a number of commuters looking a little further south than they may have previously.
In addition to this the National Park status that the area gained in 2011 has attracted people wishing to take advantage of all that our beautiful surroundings offer. Whether it’s walking among the rolling hills, taking in the breathtaking view or other country pursuits, many of our clients have commented that they are proud to be living in an area of outstanding natural beauty. Safeguarding our green space has also attracted an increase in the number of families wanting to settle here. Couple that with the excellent schools – both public and state – that the area offers and it’s easy to see why so many people want to live in this corner of the country.
I was raised in the local area and have made it the permanent home for my young family and my business. It’s hard to think of an area with a better balance of rural life and urban accessibility.”
• Charlotte Woodward and the New Forest home she built with her husband - Charlotte Woodward is living the dream in the New Forest. She chatted to Emma Caulton from the home she built with her husband