Why move Alresford
PUBLISHED: 10:42 15 February 2010 | UPDATED: 14:51 20 February 2013
Famous for its Watercress Festival and Watercress Line, Alresford is one of Hampshire's gems. Jill Belcher finds out why it is such a great place to live...
It is thanks to a disastrous fire and the bravery of an American pilot more than 200 years later that Alresford is the Georgian gem we can enjoy today. While the town's wooden buildings and thatches had always been prone to go up in flames, with the first serious fire happening in 1440, it was in 1689 that a really huge blaze tore through the town, destroying the church and market house as well as 117 houses. In 1736, another conflagration, which began in a brewery in West Street, caused more damage.
While the street pattern of the town, where some of the houses have cellars dating back to Norman times, remained, it was ordered that the 'new' buildings should be constructed of brick with clay peg tiles or slate for roofing to make them far less vulnerable to fire and so the town we see now has stayed very much the same for almost 300 years.
But Alresford's history goes back a lot further than that. Old Alresford is mentioned in the Domesday Book and the present town, New Alresford, came into being at about the beginning of the 13th century, when a weir was built by Bishop de Lucy, Bishop of Winchester, to create Old Alresford Pond. It served the dual purpose of fish farm and power source for local mills and today it is a home for wildfowl and otters. The weir also meant there was access to the Winchester to London road, which ran at that time north of the river.
The new town was very soon completed and a successful centre for wool and leather as well as other sheep and cattle products and fulling and corn mills opened. There was trade with the Cotswolds and it is recorded that in 1827 more than 30,000 sheep were sold at a sheep fair in Broad Street, as well as numerous pigs, cattle and horses.
The area's chalk streams and ditches had always been ideal for watercress and the crop had been eaten for centuries by the people of Alresford. Its fragility and the poor roads, however, meant the town was unable to sell its crop elsewhere until the arrival of the railway in 1865, when suddenly London and the Midlands were able to buy Alresford watercress.
There was a huge expansion in the industry as cress beds were developed, with bore holes providing chalk-filtered water from 40 feet below the surface at a constant, all-year-round temperature, keeping the crop free from frost. Today Alresford celebrates its watercress with a yearly festival every May, and the Mid-Hants Railway, which this year marks the 30th anniversary of its reopening, is affectionately known as the Watercress Line.
This town is ideal for festivals and markets as visually it is a feast for the eye with its wonderful colour-washed buildings. Broad Street, originally a market place in Bishop de Lucy's plan for the town, remains the centre of any Alresford celebrations.
Alresford was also the headquarters of the 9th US Army 47th Infantry Division before D Day. And East Street, once known as Ram Alley, was the home of much-loved broadcaster John Arlott, while West Street boasts two of the town's original coaching inns.
When you admire the beautiful architecture of this unspoilt town today, you should also honour the memory of Captain Robert Cogswell of the 303 Bomb Group US 8th Air Force. On September 26, 1943, he was with his nine-strong crew in a B17 Flying Fortress, appropriately-named 'Lady Luck'. It got into difficulties over the town and looked certain to crash. Plucky Captain Cogswell ordered all the crew to bail out and he fought with the controls of the bomber to keep it away from the town. He eventually bailed out, injured, just before the plane crashed east of the pond. He almost certainly saved the town from potential disaster.
There is a memorial plaque to him beside the pond, but perhaps his best memorial is the Alresford we see today, a bustling town full of galleries and specialist shops with antiques, gifts, clothes, pubs, hotels and fine restaurants, as well as great architecture, surely one of the best places in Hampshire to make your home. n
Out and about...
Property prices: Land Registry figures for average house prices October-December 2006: Average 371,971; detached 529,969; semi-detached 274,865; terraced 260,896; flats 162,200.
Ups: A beautiful Georgian town with every amenity.
Downs: Property can be very expensive because so many people want to live here.
Where are the best areas to buy? Alistair Williamson, manager of Keats of Alresford, says, "East, West and Broad Street have homes from two to six or seven bedrooms and people buy on position. Anything listed or within the conservation area is its own magnet." He points out that detached family homes of between three and five bedrooms in the area are always in demand because the excellent local schools, praised by Ofsted, create their own market. Keats of Alresford has a three-bedroom detached Victorian coach house with views over the pond with a guide price of 575,000. A detached five-bedroom family house in New Farm Road, dating from the beginning of the 20th century, is on the market with Hamptons International of Winchester at a guide price of 495,000. They also have a two-bedroom Grade II listed Georgian townhouse in East Street with a guide price of 295,000.
What's commuting like? Easy. You're on the A31 for Winchester and Alton, which have mainline stations, and close to the M3 for Southampton and Basingstoke.
Schools: St Swithun's in Alresford Road, Winchester, is the nearest girls' independent, taking pupils from age 3-18. For boys, from 12-19, there's Winchester College in College Street, Winchester. Local state schools have an excellent reputation. State primary is Sun Hill Junior School in Sun Lane and Perins School is a community school for 11-16-year-olds in Pound Hill, Alresford, followed by Peter Symonds Sixth Form College in Winchester.
Amenities: Play golf at Alresford Golf Club at Tichborne Down on the Cheriton Road, get fit at Evolution at Perins at Pound Hill, ride at The Old Stables in Headmoor Lane at nearby Four Marks.
Shops/restaurants: Alresford has a terrific range of shops which will meet your every need, while pubs and restaurants can supply all tastes, so there's really no reason to get in your car to go shopping or for a night out.
What to do at the weekend: Explore the shops, take the mile-long Alresford Millennium Trail, sample the excellent fare at the many pubs and restaurants, walk around the pond, travel on the Watercress Line, go cycling, walking or riding in the beautiful countryside. Visit Jane Austen's house at nearby Chawton. Or consider hang-gliding at Lasham airport - not too far away.