Some of the unusual aspects of life in Overton
PUBLISHED: 13:31 24 November 2015 | UPDATED: 13:31 24 November 2015
Reputedly Hampshire's largest village, Overton's lively community spirit sparkles like the nearby River Test. Viv Micklefield takes to its picturesque streets to track down a few of the more unusual aspects of local life
Nestling in the heart of Watership Down country, the rich heritage found in Overton owes as much to its geography as it does to the commercial nous displayed by successive Bishops of Winchester.
With a Roman road and Anglo Saxon settlement recorded on today’s northern-most boundary, in 1208 the ecclesiastical landlord decided to build a new community to the south of the River Test whose waters later powered its corn, fulling and silk mills. Meanwhile, when Henry VIII granted the Bishop permission for a market in Winchester Road, extra income was generated for the Church which also went on to benefit from Overton’s rise as an important staging post on the London to Exeter coaching route.
According to a plaque against the library wall, the lieutenant charged with carrying the news of Lord Nelson’s victory and death at the Battle of Trafalgar (1805), stayed the night at the White Hart Inn - it’s hoped that carbon dating carried out on the pub’s timbers during recent renovations will provide historians with a rich vein to tap in the search for more evidence of this fascinating village which currently numbers a population of around 5,000.
The sight of hundreds of pairs of eyes following their every move will often see many visitors do a double-take. Yet as this summer’s biennial Scarecrow Festival proved Overton’s residents and businesses alike, are a highly creative bunch with their humorous assortment of straw characters taking over the streets. A fancy dress wheelbarrow race and a grand fête are also highlights of the festival which, since 2009, has raised money for local sport and recreation facilities (more of which later). Their job done for another year, these ‘Wurzel Gummidges’ are donated to charitable causes.
And the fun doesn’t stop with scarecrows. Since the Millennium, villagers have flocked to support the four-yearly Sheepfair. Reviving a tradition which began here during the 13th century, next year’s fair on 16 and 17 July has a 1960s theme to mark another celebration of rural life.
Striking a pose
Two peacocks, nicknamed ‘Pierre’ and ‘Percy’, have moved into the Dellands area at the top of the village. Thought to have come from a lavender farm in nearby Whitchurch and accused by some locals of disturbing the peace with their loud squawking, a plan was initially hatched to evict the colourful intruders but this was overturned by the Parish Council which has agreed that they can stay. “The peacocks divide opinion,” says clerk to the council, Laura Harley. “Lots of people really like them but a few unsuspecting residents have had a bit of surprise when they’ve landed on their roof. Apparently, peacocks don’t like water so that’s one way to keep them at bay.”
Folklore has it the peacock symbolises protection and watchfulness, and in some religions they are thought to bring luck. Who knows? The Overton peacocks might be a good omen after all.
Surely one of the most curious reports in recent months is that Overton is in the grip of a battle with both its Hampshire neighbour Old Basing and 13 other villages from around the country? All, it seems, are on the shortlist to be twinned with the fictitious toy town ‘Sylvania’, whose cutesy animal figurines made of flocked plastic are celebrating their 30th birthday. The winning village will be the one that best reflects the Sylvanian idyll of nature, family and love in a land filled with picture-perfect houses, lush greenery and a happy community.
Overton has been a member of the Testbourne Parishes Twinning Association since 1979. Together with Barton Stacey, Laverstoke, Whitchurch and Wonston, links have been fostered with the historic town of Neuvic-sur-l’Isle in the Dordogne - the highlight of a busy social calendar is a twinning weekend.
Licence to print money
The history of banknote paper manufacturing in the Overton area started back in the 18th century, when Henry Portal, a French Huguenot, took over the lease first on Bere Mill and later Laverstoke Mill. It’s all a far cry from the high-security fencing designed to keep prying eyes out from the present site where currency for 150 countries, including Sterling, is produced.
“Portals Paper Mill needed pure water and power from the river to drive the machines to make the paper,” explains local historian Richard Waldram. “By 1922 power could be generated from electricity so operations moved to the much larger site at Overton where they also sunk deep artesian wells into the chalk.
“All of which brought great economic benefit to a village that had been in decline following the introduction of the railways. Since Portals and then De La Rue came here it’s become a prosperous place again.” Having at one time employed upwards of 600 people at the paper mill, the irony of the impending closure of Overton’s branch of HSBC bank, is not lost on many locals.
Getting a workout
Remarkably, Overton has over 30 acres of green spaces devoted to both traditional sports and many other popular leisure activities.
“The recreation centre was created by the community and kicked-off a membership scheme that began in 1966,” says committee chairman Steve Williams. “Now we have over 3,000 members and it’s quite unique for people to have that degree of ownership in their local facilities. The Town Meadow nine-hole par three golf course has been established for over 35 years, and is good for youngsters and older golfers alike.”
While with other sports clubs also hiring Overton’s pitches and pavilions, there’s no excuse for not keeping fit.
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