On the Doorstep

Quiet North Hampshire is a sight-seeing treasure trove

Sherfield Park sits in the middle of a wealth of sightseeing possibilities. How many of these have you explored? By Ellen Ferrara (disclaimer: the content and opinions in this article are those of the author alone and are not any form of support or endorsement by Sherfield Park Parish Council.)

The Vyne
The more I go to our local National Trust property, the more I love it. The house is a gem. Grand enough to impress, small enough to digest. Distinct layers of history telling a story about how such places come together by slow amalgamation. (Tudor, Carolingian, Georgian, Victorian. There's a good handful of blockbusters for history and architecture geeks: A contemporary portrait of Catherine of Aragon in the chapel stained glass; a neo-classical staircase to make Wedgwood fans pant with desire; one of the best Regency print rooms still in existence ... it's the supposed inspiration for the Duke of Wellington's rooms at Stratfield Saye; Fascinating links to Horace Walpole and Jane Austen. If you can play the piano, you can sit down and have a go at their Victorian ivories.

Outside, the gardens are pretty though unexceptional. The real stars are the riverside and woodland walks. In front of the house, lawns are thoughtfully dotted with deck chairs for your use, sloping down to a "lake" (created by holding up the flow of the river) graced by ducks, geese and swans. Walk along its banks, swaying reeds towering above you, and you'll come to a remarkable marsh given over to wildfowl. There's a wooden hide where you can sit and watch. Or continue on for miles of meandering through the forest, silent but for the occasional hoot of a child's glee.

Every summer The Vyne hosts The Lord Chamberlain's Men, a traditional Shakespearean troop that performs, in a style the Bard would have recognised, on the lawns. We were impressed by their Macbeth a few years ago, and were equally delighted ... though considerably more cheered ... by last year's Twelfth Night.

The Vyne has a fine collection of Roman artefacts unearthed locally, and one legend concerning its unusual name has the Roman Emperor Probus ordering the first vineyard in England on this spot. Nobody can prove the wine lore, but there's no doubt about Romans being here. Just six miles beyond the National Trust house, you'll find the remains of Calleva Atrebatum in the sleepy village of Silchester. At the height of the Roman empire this was a bustling, walled town of more than 20 square blocks, complete with its own forum, government buildings, baths and a small amphitheatre outside the walls. It was a major crossroads (much as Basingstoke is today), from where the road from London split into branches heading for Bath, Gloucester and Old Sarum.

While universities tend to excavate here every summer, and have unearthed some lovely stuff, you need to moderate your expectations. No ruined buildings, mosaics or stacks of columns here. Silchester's claim to fame is the only unaltered ring of Roman urban walls in England. (You can see some fine circumferential walls in York and Chester, but they're mostly medieval built on Roman foundations.) Caleva was completely abandoned by the 7th century, usurped by the Saxon settlements of Basing and Reading, and has spent more than a thousand years since as farmland. At points, it takes some imaginative thinking to see that the tree covered ridge with the gentle slope down to a shade-dappled stream is, indeed, the remains of the old wall and the defensive ditch in front of it. That's actually part of Silchester's magic. You'll feel like you're an explorer stumbling on a lost city for the first time. Other than the occasional local walking his dog, you'll probably be alone. The most impressive bit is the West Gate, where a good-sized chunk of the wall looms out of the fields on either side and the gap in its run makes clear where a stately gatehouse would have been. The pastoral views from here are soul-soothing. The silence is broken only by birds and wind-rustled leaves, putting you in just the right mood for a slightly melancholy contemplation of how easily the mighty can fall.

Stratfield Saye
Another local estate to benefit from Roman goodies unearthed in these fields is Stratfield Saye, though it's far more famous as the family home of the Dukes of Wellington.

Most people will be more familiar with Wellington's public exploits: building the foundations of the empire in India, the Peninsular Wars, Waterloo, Prime Minister, and mentor to Queen Victoria and godfather to her youngest son. The estate here was supposed to hold a palace equivalent to the one John Churchill received from the crown to commemorate Blenheim, but things never worked out. The Duke, always a man of simple tastes, made some basic alterations to the existing house. His descendants followed suit. Thus these days you have a fairly modest estate, crammed with treasures from the Great Duke's life that are often amusingly wedged into spaces too small to do them justice. It's still very much a family home, only opened for a few weeks a year. The tour guides know their stuff and all have more than a bit of hero worship for the man who established the line.

Chawton Cottage
At a big 17 miles from Sherfield Park, this is starting to push the sightseeing envelope ... but the drive alone is a thing of joy if you appreciate the beauty of rolling farmland and twisting lanes overhung by ancient trees. At the end of the drive you'll find the charming village of Chawton, where a modest house (roughly the equivalent of a modern 4-bedroom suburban home today) saw Jane Austen write her greatest works. Today, it's a museum to her life, family and novels.

Your enjoyment of Chawton will be in direct proportion to how much you know and love Austen's work. Real fanatics can spend hours here, delving into possible influences for different characters and plotlines across her classics. The casual reader may be more interested in how four genteel but cash-strapped women managed to co-exist in this relatively small space, or spend time wandering in the lovely gardens ... at their peak this time of year. People who haven't read Austen should probably give this a pass; I know better than to ever drag my husband here!

Winchester Cathedral
Our most distant point in this list, at a whopping 22 miles, is our county town of Winchester. It never seems to be near the top of the English cathedral lists, perhaps because Medieval engineering and subsidence conspired to leave it without a cathedral's trademark spire. It's a special place, however, and deserves more renown. Like all English cathedrals, you'll need to pay to get in; the Church of England doesn't have the revenues to let tourists crawl all over its best assets for free. Your admission (besides helping to maintain this glorious place) gets you a guided tour, and the volunteers are excellent.

I believe the greatest glory of Winchester is its chantry chapels, some of the best and most abundant in the land. The rarest treasure, however, might be its Anglo-Saxon baptismal font, probably the best of its type to be seen. Don't miss the Winchester Bible, the chapel with pre-Raphaelite windows by Bourne-Jones, and the caskets containing the bones of the Anglo-Saxon kings. In their time, after all, this was the capital of the kingdom rather than London.

Beyond the cathedral close you'll find a provincial market town well worth exploring, with plenty of Georgian architecture enlivened by Medieval and Victorian neighbours. Other than a ruthlessly ugly, but welcome, multi-story car park, there's not much evidence of the modern world. Winchester also manages to have a decent proportion of independent restaurants and shops, making it a great place for a wander.

Bombay Sapphire Distillery Tour
Roughly half way between us and Winchester, The Bombay Sapphire Distillery straddles the crystal clear river Test in a wooded valley right out of a fairy tale. The beautiful Victorian industrial buildings … a former paper mill … have been re-configured to fit the distillery and visitor centre. There are two modernistic greenhouses rising from the Test where you can see all the botanicals that flavour the gin growing in their natural state. The tour guides have polished patter; amusing and informative. You end the tour in a room of scents, where you get to sniff the botanicals in various forms and punch a card with the ones you like. You’ll end in the bar, where the bartender will prescribe a cocktail for you based on your preferences. (They even do non-alcoholic versions for kids and drivers.) While this is a good option for a mid-winter visit (something not true of many other places in this list), it's at its best in the summer. Pink lythrum and tall reeds sway along the river bank, trout hang suspended in the water waiting on fat flies and visitors enjoy their cocktails on the broad sun trap of a patio.