ST SWITHUN'S WAY
Stage 2: New Alresford to Alton
Thursday, May 3, 2012
For once the weather forecast was accurate and steady light rain persisted throughout most of the day for the second stage of my walk along St Swithun's Way. Rejoining the route in front of The Cricketers pub in New Alresford, I headed east along a road called Tichborne Down, which runs along the southern edge of New Alresford, with houses on the left and the rather noisy A31 running parallel just fifty metres off to the right.
Ten minutes walking brought me to the end of Tichborne Down, where the route turns left into Sun Lane, which defines the eastern limit of New Alresford. Almost immediately the route turns right again into the narrow but surprisingly busy Whitehill Lane (picture 1), which continues to parallel the A31 past a succession of fields for another 500 metres or so before gradually bearing away to the left for another kilometre to reach the B3047 in the village of Bishop's Sutton.
The Way follows the main road to the right, through the middle of the village, where I passed by an old-fashioned milestone in front of one of the stone-walled houses (picture 2). Towards the far end of the village, a waymarker on a metal post indicates that St Swithun's Way turns left along Water Lane to pass through a much newer and slightly disconnected section of the village (picture 3).
At the end of Water Lane, a waymarker post directs the Way along a driveway beside a house then through a wooden gate and out into grassy fields, following a wire fence until it reaches Northside Lane. A short distance to the right along this lane the path rejoins the B3047, turning left to follow it as it curves back to the right to meet the A31 at a large roundabout (picture 4).
Following the footpath around to the left of the roundabout to reach the far side, the route heads south along Old Park Road for a few hundred metres to Manor House Farm, having to walk on the road as there is no verge or footpath to walk on. With the farm sheds on the right, the route turns left along Tegg Down Road. At first the lane climbs uphill past a white farmhouse before heading downhill again with views over the surrounding countryside (picture 5).
After around a kilometre, as the road bends right, the path leaves the road via a stile (picture 6) and follows a well-worn chalky path diagonally across three fields of wheat to reach Park Lane at a bend in front of a large white farmhouse. Despite a lot of recent rain, the path across the fields was firm and easy to follow, as the farmer had carefully preserved the path when ploughing the fields. Sadly, I've seen many places where landowners have not been so considerate when ploughing over public rights of way.
The route heads more or less straight ahead along the lane to a bend where a driveway marked "Grasscroft" and then a muddy enclosed footpath take the Way straight ahead to reach Petersfield Road on the edge of the village of Ropley. The route then bears slightly to the right across the road to take another enclosed path to South Street, which is followed to the right as far as a left turn into Hammond's Lane.
A few minutes walk later, the route turns right at the top of Hammond's Lane, following Vicarage Lane then Church St past the Church of St Nicholas, with its rather unusual tower (picture 7). At the next intersection, St Swithun's Way continues ahead into Lyeway Lane, but after the first house on the left the route takes a muddy path beside the house and through a gate onto grazing land divided up by neat wooden fences (picture 8).
The route follows one of the fences across the first paddock to another wooden kissing gate where four horses had wandered over to say hello (picture 9). From here, the path continues straight ahead to a metal gate under the biggest tree on the field boundary. There are no well-worn paths across the next few fields, so one has to look ahead to find the way out of each field. Most of the fields contained flocks of grazing sheep and there were good views over the surrounding farms (picture 10).
About a kilometre from Ropley, the path comes out onto Andrews Lane to the right of a large white house. Turning past the house to a T-junction, the route crosses a stile and climbs along another couple of field boundaries to the corner of Old Down Wood. The path soon turns right to run through the middle of the wood (picture 11) for the best part of a kilometre before emerging and crossing a large wheat field to a road junction at the small hamlet of Kitwood.
A waymarker opposite points left onto an enclosed path beside a house and then along several field boundaries to reach Hawthorn Road, just west of the hamlet of Hawthorn (picture 12).
Crossing the road into the next field, the path (which is fenced off from the rest of the field) follows the field edge right then left to climb over the small hill. At the top of the field the path crosses a stile and turns left along another field boundary to reach a metal kissing gate at the back of the Garthowen Garden Centre on the outskirts of the town of Four Marks.
The driveway of the garden centre leads out to Alton Lane, which the route follows for around 600 metres to the edge of a large block of woodland, known as New Copse, where the sealed road ends. St Swithun's Way soon turns right on a muddy vehicle track along the southwestern edge of the wood, where I noticed a set of horse-mounting steps next to the path (picture 13). After about 500 metres, the track turns left and continues for another kilometre along the southeastern edge of the wood.
When the woods finally end, the track becomes the sealed Woodside Lane, descending gradually downhill past Upper Woodside Farm (picture 14), then Lower Woodside Farm. At the bottom of the hill, the lane bends to the right, but St Swithun's Way goes left along an unsealed track, turning right again after a little more than one hundred metres and then left yet again at a crossroads amongst farm buildings after a similar distance.
Heading north now for a little more than a kilometre, the Way follows a track along an avenue of trees that separates fields, soon passing under a disused and rather overgrown railway bridge (picture 15) before continuing past Southfields Farm. When the trees end, the route winds it's way around the edge of an irregularly-shaped field to meet the A32, which has to be crossed carefully at street level. Once safely across the busy road, the route climbs some concrete steps and hops over a stile to take a muddy fenced off path that soon reaches Winchester Road in the village of Chawton. The route turns left along Winchester Road, following it past the Chawton Church of England Primary School, The Greyfriar pub (picture 16), and the Jane Austen's House Museum.
At the end of the road, the route goes through a subway under the A31, which separates Chawton from the much larger town of Alton. Continuing ahead on Winchester Road, the route reaches two adjacent roundabouts, the second of which is between the arches of a very solid looking brick railway bridge (picture 17).
The Way goes round the left side of both roundabouts then turns right and follows the main road through Alton for the last one and a half kilometres of this stage of the walk. The first half of this stretch is residential, known as Butts Road, while the next section is largely commercial and the name changes to High Street. Towards the end of High Street, a three metre high stone cairn, the local war memorial, stands by a small square known as Crown Court (picture 18).
Continuing along the main road, which soon changes name again to Normandy Street, I passed by a hotel with an amusing advertising sign (picture 19) and after one more block I reached the corner of Station Road and the end of this stage of the walk, in front of the Railway Arms pub (picture 20). My GPS showed that I had walked 20.9 kilometres from New Alresford.
Unsurprisingly, Station Road leads to Alton Railway Station. The railway first came to Alton in 1852, with the mainline coming down from London via Farnham. In 1865 the line was extended through New Alresford to Winchester and Southampton.
In 1973, British Rail closed the section beyond Alton and dismantled the track, making Alton the end of the mainline from London. In 1977, local volunteers relaid the track between Alton and Four Marks and reopened it as the Mid-Hants Railway Watercress Line, running restored steam and diesel trains from their own dedicated platform at Alton Station. By 1985 they had extended the line through Ropley to New Alresford. At sixteen kilometres, the line is a somewhat more direct route than the one I had just walked.
Thirty-five years after it reopened, the Watercress Line is still going strong, attracting visitors of all ages. On the weekend after this walk I came back to Alton to spend a day riding on the steam trains and exploring the stations on the line and the workshops where engines and carriages are restored. When I visited, there were two locomotives operating, "Lord Nelson" (picture 21) and "Black 5" (picture 22), each hauling half a dozen restored carriages up and down the line.
There is a great atmosphere on the Watercress Line, with all the volunteers wearing old-fashioned uniforms (picture 23), a band, morris dancers, and on some Saturday nights, a Real Ale Train, where local brewers serve their finest beers straight from the cask (picture 24). The Real Ale Train is always very popular and I had to book a few months in advance to guarantee my spot. That little bit of effort was well worth it as I had a great day on the Watercress Line.