Out and about on the Basingstoke Downs
PUBLISHED: 10:26 06 May 2014 | UPDATED: 10:26 06 May 2014
Ever yearned for a secret spot where you can get away from it all? A place to quietly reflect or a haven of hidden views - find that and more within Basingstoke's downland
We’re good walkers in this country and I love nothing more than striding out in to the open countryside. We have so many lovely landscapes to walk in and venues to visit in Hampshire, even round and about the “Old Doughnut”, as Basingstoke is affectionately known because of the number of its, er, roundabouts, there are lots of wide open spaces to breathe in the great outdoors. And, after the wet washout of a winter we’ve just waded through, a lungful of fresh air is something we could all do with.
Indeed, just to the south of the town, the South Downs are often referred to as the lungs of the South East, a large swathe of rolling countryside between London and the South Coast. The landscape is one of mixed farming and small woodlands on an undulating chalk escarpment and ridges. The start of the South Downs Way, the first bridleway national trail, is just a 15-minute train ride from Basingstoke and, following old routes and droveways, comprises some 100 miles of chalk downland, taking in a large area of outstanding natural beauty.
Facts and fables
Basingstoke itself is located in the valley of the river Loddon, which cuts through the North Downs, and lies on the natural trade route between the southwest of England and London. The word Downs comes from an Old English word dun, which means hill, the word acquiring the idea of elevated rolling grassland around the 14th century.
One of the most famous of the downs located in the borough of Basingstoke and Deane is Watership Down, made famous by the eponymous 1972 novel by Richard Adams, who still lives in nearby Whitchurch and leads an annual charity walk over the turf. The hill itself rises from the village of Ecchinswell, where the Royal Oak (www.royaloak-ecchinswell.co.uk. 01635 297355) serves up good-value country pub grub for walkers and cyclists joining the famous Wayfarer’s Walk there.
The path actually extends 70 miles from the coast near Portsmouth to Inkpen Beacon, just across the Berkshire border, connecting along the way with other long-distance paths, including the Sussex Border Path, the Solent Way, and the Test Way. It also comprises a site of special scientific interest in several fields, not least as an internationally important habitat for early gentian.
Lighting the way
Walkers on the Basingstoke part of the Way will also come across an incomplete Iron Age fort and, from Beacon Hill - which, at 261 metres, is the highest point in Hampshire - some of the best views in the county, including that of Highclere Castle and the Sydmonton Estate, home of composer Andrew Lloyd Webber.
The hill gets its name because it was once one of the links in a chain of warning, and nearby excavations have revealed tobacco pipes and the red brick and flint fireplace pottery of the shelter hut, left by the men who tended the bonfire.
Today, Beacon Hill is the final resting place, by his own wishes, of the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, who was instrumental in the discovery of the tomb of King Tutankhamun. Many of the artefacts the Earl brought back from Egypt are now on display in an exhibition at Highclere Castle (www.highclerecastle.co.uk, 01635 253204), which is open over Easter.
This is also where aviation pioneer and aircraft engineer Geoffrey de Havilland made his first successful test flight in 1910, an event commemorated by a memorial stone in the Seven Barrows field, just to the south of the hill.
Conserving the countryside
Another downland walk worth de-cobwebbing the boots for is at Old Down, located just to the west of the town. The area comprises almost 40 acres of open chalk grassland, planted and narrow ancient woodland.
The grassland and new woodland was used to grow arable crops until quite recently, but now it is being managed to restore the numerous wildflowers associated with the chalk soils and is, at this time of year, particularly famous for its cowslips and tumulus.
Traversing the trees
If it’s trees, or more particularly, climbing them, that appeals, then you should make your way to The Vyne (www.nationaltrust.org.uk/vyne, 01256 883858) which is just outside the village of Sherborne St John in Basingstoke. An important 16th-century country house, it was first built for Lord Sandys, King Henry VIII’s Lord Chamberlain.
Here you can lose yourself in the surroundings that inspired Jane Austen, see a ring that may have started another on a literary quest, or, since we’re determined to go outdoors this month, walk down past a shimmering lake to the ancient woodland now carpeted by bluebells.
The Vyne’s extensive grounds are riddled with parkland, woodland and wetland trails - and now is also the time to see the large nesting sites populated by swans and common redshank.
If you do go down to the woods, there, deep within, the Great Big Tree Climbing company (www.bigtreeclimbing.co.uk, 0800 0556760) has dispatched two of its instructors to help people, from the ages of six to 60, reach new heights of enjoyment.
Using ropes, knots, karabiners and harnesses, they will teach everyone how to reach the top of the tree – an oak in this case – from where they will see the woodland canopy as they have never seen it before. What better way can there be to make you feel out there and on top of the world?
Lapine is a fictional language created by author Richard Adams for the novel Watership Down. It is spoken by the rabbit characters. The fragments of language presented by Adams in the book consist of a few dozen distinct words, and are chiefly used for the naming of mythological characters from rabbit history, and objects in their world.
The Elvish used in Tolkien’s fictional universe is a family of languages descended from a common ancestor, called the proto-language. He created, to varying degrees of detail, more than 20 languages, each with a unique grammar and vocabulary. Tolkien was working on the construction of at least 15 Elvish languages and dialects up until his death in 1973.
The Vyne’s story of the ring is the inspiration for a new ‘Hidden Realm’ playground, which gives children the chance to explore a garden inspired by dwarves and dragons, myths and legends.
Ring of truth?
An ancient ring, found at Calleva Atrebatuman, once a Roman town and now an archaeological site near The Vyne, is thought to be the one that inspired Tolkien to embark on his Lord of the Rings saga. In a new exhibition at the house, created in conjunction with the Tolkien Society, the ring, a Roman tablet inscribed with a curse on the man who stole it, and information about its connection to a mine fabled to have been dug by dwarves, are on show, and the story is told of how Tolkien, a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University at the time it was found, was asked for his comments. It is said that a few days later, the eminent author began writing the Lord of the Rings. The exhibition also contains Tolkien memorabilia including a signed book, children’s resources and dressing-up clothes.
Get out there
Upload your snaps of the downs this spring to our website www.hampshire-life.co.uk/photos for a chance to see them in next month’s issue