A local’s guide to The Watercress Line and surrounding areas
PUBLISHED: 11:34 16 September 2019 | UPDATED: 11:34 16 September 2019
The Watercress Line runs through a landscape of downland, vineyards and watercress beds; Emma Caulton asked locals to pick their favourite things
The Mid Hants Railway, known as The Watercress Line, is one of the most successful heritage railways in the country.
It started life in 1865 as the Alton, Alresford & Winchester Railway, filling the gap between Alton and the main route from London to Southampton, and played an important part during both world wars, providing a link between the army centre of Aldershot and the seaport of Southampton.
When the London to Alton line was electrified, steam services onto the Mid Hants route virtually ceased. Closure notices were published in 1967 and despite a major campaign to retain the line it closed in 1973.
Just four years later the first trains ran from Alresford to Ropley as a heritage railway operation. Funds were available to buy all the route to Alton and the new company, based on volunteer staff, reopened the line in stages, to Medstead in 1983 and finally to Alton in 1985.
Today the Watercress Line holds regular special events as well as standard travel days allowing visitors to hop on and off at stations. These include Ropley Station, the line's engineering hub, where people can see restoration in action and also walk in Harry Potter's footsteps across the very footbridge where he received his Hogwarts Express ticket. At Medstead and Four Marks Station there's a Goods Shed exhibition. At present there is no service to Alton, a market town near the source of the River Wey, until the end of summer due to a highway improvement scheme.
"Alresford is the centre for watercress, the produce that gave the railway its nickname. A plant grown and consumed locally up until the mid-19th century, it became a nationally eaten vegetable thanks to the railway's ability to move it quickly to the markets in London and elsewhere.
"I first came to know Alresford when I was studying for my final accountancy exams in 1975/76. One afternoon I took time out to drive down and have a look at the start being made to reopen the line. I've pretty much been a volunteer ever since. As a family we moved here in 1990. Although it meant I had a long commute to work, every day was like going on holiday.
"Apart from volunteering on the railway I occasionally drive the town's community minibus and most weeks I volunteer one day for the county's Countryside Service."
Peter's local life
- Where to walk: "There's a lovely walk which takes you down Broad Street and Mill Hill through to the river. The short walk is back up The Dean. Better to stay by the river and go out to Drove Lane and back into town along The Avenue."
- Local event: "The annual Watercress Festival - when the railway provides much of the transport into Alresford."
"I'm an Australian, but I have lived in the UK for eight years and in Hampshire for almost three years. Over that time, my wife Kirsty, who grew up just outside Winchester, has introduced me to the county. We have both worked in the drinks industry for many years, so the superb local wineries, breweries and gin distilleries have been of particular interest and are why we started Grape & Grain Tours. We take people out for the day so they can learn about and taste the wonderful wines, beers and gins made in the region and enjoy countryside views and delicious pub food along the way."
Joel's local life
- Where to walk: "I've recently started walking the Itchen Way on a recommendation of one of our tour guests. There are so many routes you can take, but one of my favourites is to head south from Alresford towards the villages of Tichborne and Cheriton. If you pick the right day to do the walk, you might even be able to call in at the cellar door of Raimes English Sparkling Wine to pick up a bottle."
- Day with the kids: "A ride on Thomas the Tank Engine at the Watercress Line was a dream fulfilled for our toddler son earlier this year. Aaron made the most of his opportunity, insisting on back-to-back rides on Thomas up and down the track. We eventually prised him away to explore the other attractions, including fairground rides and a miniature railway."
- Favourite pub: "Just up the road from Alresford is the hamlet of Totford, basically comprising four houses and a great countryside pub. The pub is The Woolpack Inn, where I take guests on our Hampshire tours for lunch. I often visit with family and friends as well. The building is over a century old and has bags of character. In the winter we sit by the roaring fire, and in the summer we're out in the courtyard by the outdoor kitchen. The food is superb and the bar is well-stocked with locally produced wines, beers and gins."
Hattingley Valley is a family-owned vineyard and winery in Lower Wield making traditional method sparkling wines from grapes grown on chalk soils. Emma moved to Alton after Hattingley Valley's owner, Simon Robinson, approached Emma and asked her to build him a winery. The winery was completed in 2010 in time to process the first harvest.
Emma's local life
- Favourite pub: "I have two - The Yew Tree at Lower Wield is like a second staffroom for the team at the winery. Tim, the landlord, not only cooks fantastic food, but provides a wonderful atmosphere and sells our wine by the glass! The second choice is The Globe in Alresford; they serve Hattingley Valley behind the bar, have a fantastic beer garden on the lake and the staff are always friendly."
- Best café: "Caracoli on Broad Street in Alresford - their Caracoli muffin is legendary."
- Best gym: "I am a member of Energique Fitness in Alton. I have been going regularly for three years now and the team there are really encouraging. I like attending the numerous classes such as spin, Endurafit, kettlebells, yoga… It's a great mix so you don't get bored."
- Hair salon: "I am loyal to Nathan and Luna at Toni & Guy in Alton for cutting and colouring my hair so brilliantly for quite a few years now."
Tim Miller has lived in the local area all his life and in Alresford for the past 15 years. He runs Alresford-based marketing agency Thomas Miller Creative with his colleague Sue Thomas. Through this agency they are also involved in promoting local theatre groups, the annual Alresford 10k Run and Perins School productions.
They started Alresford Music Festival over ten years ago with the intention to bring live music to the town and raise money for charity. Since its inception the festival has attracted more than 30,000 people, hosted over 250 bands and raised in excess of £50,000 for various charities.
Tim's local life
- Favourite pub: "The Horse & Groom, a perfect location in the heart of Alresford and great for either a pint or a family meal. Plus, it has a courtyard for those warmer evenings."
- Overnight stay: "The Swan Hotel in Alresford which has recently been refurbished."
- Best gym: "Evolution at Perins School has a good gym as well as various fitness classes."
- Local event: "The Alresford Music Festival! We recognise the immense talent and dedication it takes to play and perform live music. The festival has always been keen to promote young musicians and give them opportunities to perform and give the local community the opportunity to enjoy live music from all genres."
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