Things to see and do in Overton and surrounding villages
PUBLISHED: 11:46 14 November 2016 | UPDATED: 11:52 14 November 2016
Jason Allen Photography
The upper Test Valley, a quiet, lush corner of the county, offers much to interest and entice says Emma Caulton
Although it is meant to be a town, and has the town hall to prove it, nearby Whitchurch has the feel of a village as you take a wander round. Its medieval origins are apparent in its streets lined with wonky timber-framed and colour washed cottages - among them are a number of interesting, quality independents worth a browse. These include The Handbag Shop, specialising in soft leather bags and ballerina pumps direct from the manufacturers in Italy. There’s Velvet Rose, a sumptuous boutique of frivolous one-off garments that mix classic with quirky, including bobble trimmed scarves, created by fashion designer Marsha Swanzy. Last year Marsha opened sister shop Bell Street Vintage with soft furnishings, bespoke lighting and upcycled furniture. This shop is in a yard off Bell Street and next to Ollie’s – an Aladdin’s cave of the collectable and the curious, ranging from architectural salvage to old medicinal chests. Other independents are The Dolls House, in an old chapel and one of the largest dolls house and miniatures specialists in the south, Daisy Down Crafts, a treasure trove of haberdashery including kilner jars filled with buttons and stashes of wool, and Haynes Hanson & Clark, a wine merchant working directly with growers and offering great quality from £6 upwards.
The highlight is a tour of Whitchurch Silk Mill - the only mill along the upper reaches of the River Test still in productive use, and the oldest silk mill in the country still in its original building. This is a historic gem: a Georgian mill with silks still woven on Victorian machinery and the original mill wheel. Today they weave customised textiles for interior designers, historic projects, including BBC period dramas, and top fashion designers.
This area developed around its mills. Make time to undertake a version of the Mill Trail – a circular walk of one, three or seven miles passing different historic mills, with river crossings and one of the few places on the upper Test where you can spot brown trout.
On to Freefolk and Laverstoke. These two villages are divided by the Test. Freefolk is home to popular Watership Down Inn – a pretty country pub on the edge of the patchwork of field, hedgerow and woodland so eloquently described in Richard Adams’ bestseller. Further along keen gardeners will be enchanted by Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants nursery – winners of 21 gold medals at Chelsea! What about seeking out the Grade II listed walled garden shop at Laverstoke Park Farm (Jody Sheckter’s ground-breaking organic/biodynamic farm) for organic fresh produce (open Friday 1-5.30pm and Saturday 10am-2pm).
Or simply take time to admire Freefolk’s run of 18 thatched cottages – the longest in the country. The cottages were built in 1939 by Portals Paper Mill as homes for mill workers.
That mill is now home to Bombay Sapphire Distillery – the distinctive gin that is attributed with re-energising the market and kick-starting our current gin fling. And what a star attraction it has become! This 300 year-old mill with a 1,000 year-old legacy has been repurposed after being empty for ten years and recreated as a sustainable enterprise - the mill providing a source of electricity. Designer Thomas Heatherwick has revitalised the site, widening the river, opening up a courtyard, bringing the visitor experience into the heart of the distillery and creating organic-shaped, statement greenhouses.
Take a self-guided tour, gin masterclass or an horticultural experience - all include a visit to the botanicals room to test your nose and a refreshing complimentary cocktail in the Mill Bar. You can finish off with a snack in Manydown’s Double Decker Bus cafe.
So to Overton. This large village near the source of the Test has a history of banknote manufacture dating back to the 18th century. De La Rue still produce pound sterling notes for the Bank of England and for more than 150 national currencies from Overton Mill.
Overton itself is picturesque with rows of thatched cottages. There’s a bit of an arts and crafts vibe going on: Overton Gallery has gifts made by local craftspeople and artists, picture framing and recommended tea shop; 5 Mile Studio has art supplies, artwork and a new programme of workshops.
Eat, drink & sleep
For entertainment, there are regular live music events with a folky flavour at Whitchurch’s Gill Nethercott Centre.
Thinking of feasting, there is a wealth of good pubs and restaurants in the area to attract the foodie. In Whitchurch cosy old pubs include The Red House with low beamed ceilings, flagstone floors and “outstanding” modern British menu, The Bell, a welcoming 15th century inn, and The King’s Arms, a traditional local. There’s also a highly rated contemporary Indian restaurant, Blue Ginger.
In Overton you will find Old House at Home, local pub with popular Thai restaurant, and The Red Lion, newly refurbished and describing itself as a smokehouse and gin bar.
Sleep over at The White Hart, a 16th century pub and restaurant with rooms that had been standing empty when Hampshire-based Upham Pub Group and Brewery refurbished and reopened it last year. It is now an inviting pub with beams and boards, stuffed pheasants, snug with woodburning stove, panelled dining room, village bar and luxury bedrooms.
My Overton - Joe Cathers, Head Chef, The White Hart
“Although I haven’t been in Overton for long, it has taken me no time at all to fall in love with the picturesque countryside that surrounds the village.
When I’m away from the heat of the kitchen, you’ll find me walking my Gordon Setter, Bella, around Overton and along the River Test. Whenever I can, I take the opportunity to forage for fresh ingredients in the village’s beautiful surroundings. We’re so fortunate to have an abundance of berries and other seasonal fruit on our doorstep… you just have to know the right places to look.
I want The White Hart to be the place everyone in Overton comes to eat, drink and socialise with family and friends – whatever the occasion. I draw inspiration from our stunning surroundings and strive to use seasonal and local produce whenever possible.”