Hampshire, the large county in central southern England was my home for ten years so it was nice to get back to this area early this month to walk in some familiar territory. One good thing about the county is that it doesn’t suffer so much from the ‘mud’ issue which so affects so many areas in winter and particularly this last winter, but that is not to say there is no mud. On the rolling chalk downlands, much precipitation soaks into the ground and so you can get out on a walk without watching every step you take.
I’m leaving Macclesfield early on a frosty moonlit morning to beat the rush hour in Birmingham but alas the M6 is already crowded by 6am and so it’s a slow crawl around the city until I’m onto the M40.
My starting point is the small village of Litchfield which lies just off the busy A34 a few miles south of Newbury. It’s only 8.30am as I set out east up a surfaced drive and despite the sun being up awhile there is a cold freshness in the air and still cold enough to wear gloves.
Its days like this when it’s good to be out under deep blue ‘winter’ skies and hardly a breath of air. I’m making steady progress east but having said that mud isn’t much of issue here, I encounter a muddy stretch as I follow the valley through Little Down. At least the gravelly track on the far side of a minor lane is better under foot.
Turning left, I walk beside Caesar’s Belt, a long strip of woodland. My route now is following The Portway which forms the course of a Roman Road which originally ran from Exeter (Isca Dumnoniorum) to Silchester (Calleva). I stay on this former Roman Road for a mile and quarter through the empty countryside before turning north along a good track gradually ascending to higher ground where the views begin to open out. I am aiming for Watership Down for my morning break and the short trespass into a field to the trig point provides a good place to sit down to take in the view. Watership Down became famous after the author Richard Adams set his novel with the same title about rabbits in this area. The only sound today is skylarks overhead whilst red kites circled high above under the deep blue sky.
I set off west along the Wayfarer’s Walk, a long distance path that I walked in the 1980’s and this well way-marked path runs seventy one miles from Inkpen Beacon in West Berkshire to Emsworth on the coast near Havant. The next section of path to the next road proves rather muddy due to countless feet but beyond I am on a good track before crossing a grassy field en-route to the unfinished Iron Age hill fort at Ladle Hill.
I make a short detour here to view the dips and mounds of perhaps the best example of an unfinished hill fort in England. An open track leads southwest but what concerns me now is how easy it will be to cross the A34 dual carriageway as this road links the Midlands with Southampton. As I near this road there seems no let up in the fast moving traffic. I later descend via dry valley down to the busy road and do a risk assessment. The route crosses the road at this point but attempting to cross this road under these conditions would not be wise. Thankfully there is an alternative by following a permissive path south for 6oo metres to an underpass and although this will take possibly a little longer it is the sensible thing to do. Reaching the underpass I find it is flooded but not enough from preventing me getting through. It is then a walk north up the western side of the A34 to Thorn Down.
I am glad to get away from this busy road, and set out west on a track which shortly passes a memorial to Geoffrey de Havilland who first flew his home made aeroplane from this spot. He went on to design and work on many aeroplanes but he is best known for his work on building the Mosquito, considered to be the most versatile warplane ever built. He later built his Comet which was the first jet airliner to go into production.
I follow the track uphill towards Sidown Hill but this is initially very rutted and flooded but conditions improve as I gain height. On Sidown Range I stopped on a grassy bank for lunch. It is the first time this year that I hadn’t felt cold whilst having a picnic lunch and I have no hurry to move on but to soak up the sunshine instead.
The walk over Sidown Hill is a pleasure to walk and on the summit I made a short detour on a path which forms part of the Highclere Walks but I don’t venture as far as the viewpoint at Heaven’s Gate. It is unfortunate that the information board about the walks is currently blank so I am unsure where these paths lead.
Back on the main path, I gradually descend towards the A343 passing on the way The Grotto, a curious round house which is now a holiday let and part of the Highclere Estate. The views to the north open out across Berkshire and it is such a good afternoon to be out. Highclere Castle, famed for the television series Downton Abbey can be seen from this area.
It’s time to turn south and I follow a lane before taking a field path to the small village of Crux Easton. Crux Easton House which I pass was once owned by fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley and it was here that he and his wife Diana were placed under house arrest in 1944.
Also of interest in the village is an old wind engine which dates from 1892 and has now been restored to working order. It is occasionally open to the public and pumps water from a 410 foot deep well.
With the sunshine beginning to turn watery I head south and continue on pleasant field paths and later walk beside an old ditch which formed the boundary of an ancient field system. To reach the secluded village of Dunley I follow quiet lanes. Traditional cottages line the large village green in a land where time has stood still. Leaving the village I follow a field path towards Litchfield but stick to field boundaries due to ploughing taking place
Entering Litchfield there are a profusion of primroses on the embankments on the approach to the underpass beneath the A34. Spring I think has probably arrived. It’s now only a couple of hundred yards to the car and the end of a perfect day on the downs.