For today’s blog, I am reposting a piece I wrote for The History Girls blog back in September 2018.
I have already written about the long defunct Meon Valley Railway (MVR), a feature of this lovely part of Hampshire that is often part of my daily walk, together with the River Meon itself and the remnants of a royal hunting ground, the Forest of Bere. All that is left of the line now is an 11 miles (17.5 km) stretch of woodland track on which you can walk (or trot or cycle) from Wickham through Droxford to West Meon. But when it opened the railway ran for 22.5 miles (36.2 km) between Alton and Fareham, in part following the course of the River Meon
The railway was authorised in 1896 and opened in 1903, making it one of the last railways of any size to be built to mainline standards in the United Kingdom. It was expensive to build – £400,000, which is the equivalent of about £51.2 million at today’s prices – and from an engineering perspective, very difficult, because of the nature of the terrain it had to cross. The stations were impressive, built out of brick in a mock-Tudor style, with Portland stone mullions and gables. The architecture included stained-glass door windows and tiled interiors. The lavatories were apparently housed in outbuildings styled like Chinese pagodas!
At its northern (Alton) end, the MVR joined with the Mid-Hants Railway to Winchester, the Alton Line to Brookwood (and, presumably thence to London) and the Basingstoke and Alton Light Railway. At Fareham it linked with the Eastleigh to Fareham Line, the West Coastway Line and the line to Gosport. But, although the MVR was intended to be part of a through route from London to Portsmouth, it never fulfilled that purpose.
When it opened, local residents and businesses apparently had high hopes for the new railway, and, in the early days, as well as taking passenger traffic, it was used extensively for shipping local agricultural and horticultural produce, about which I shall say more in next month’s post.
Unfortunately, the economies of the new railway were never fully viable and the expected London through-traffic did not adequately materialise and, in 1955, after only fifty years, passenger traffic was cut, and the line was closed altogether in 1968.
Nonetheless, when it was first in use, many local newspapers were greatly impressed by the line’s speed, the scale of its engineering works, the high standards of the stations and other structures, and the beauty of the scenery it passed through. Some papers wrote articles describing the route and its scenery in great detail, pointing out places of interest along the line, such as this snippet from the Hampshire Telegraph and Post, published in June 1903:
“The line passes through a lovely country, rich in literary and historical associations.”
And it went on to mention some of those associations, which I thought was a splendid idea, and so decided to elaborate a little further on a few of them.
Travelling south from Alton, the Telegraph’s first-mentioned “association” is Chawton, a mile or so from Alton. Chawton is of course where Jane Austen lived and wrote for the last eight years of her life. It was in those years that she published all her major works. The house where Jane lived is now Jane Austen’s House Museum. She moved to the house, which was owned by her brother Edward, with her mother and sister in 1809. Edward had inherited the Chawton estate from his wealthy adoptive family, the Knights, and offered the house rent-free for life to his mother and sister. Jane died in 1817.
The first stop on the MVR line is Farringdon Halt, and we are now in Gilbert White territory. Gilbert was a pioneering English naturalist and ornithologist, as well as a cleric. He remained unmarried and a curate all his life. Gilbert was born in 1720, in his grandfather’s vicarage at Selborne, a few miles to the east of Farringdon. He is best known for his writings about the village’s history, geography, climate and natural history in his Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne. After going to university in Oxford, Gilbert was ordained, and was curate in several parishes in Hampshire and Wiltshire, including Farringdon, as well as Selborne itself on four separate occasions. After the death of his father in 1758, Gilbert moved back into the family home in Selborne, which he eventually inherited in 1763. In 1784 he became curate of Selborne for the fourth time, remaining so until his death in 1793.
Gilbert White’s house is open to the public, and also incorporates The Oates Collections, devoted to the remarkable Oates family, in particular, Frank Oates, a Victorian explorer, and Captain Lawrence Oates, who accompanied Scott on his ill-fated Antarctic expedition to the South Pole. Lawrence Oates is famous for uttering the heart-rending line, quoted in Scott’s diary:
“I am just going outside and I may be some time.”
In 1912, on the return journey from the Pole, the party were facing appalling conditions, including exceptionally adverse weather, a lack of food, injuries and frostbite. Oates’ feet were badly frostbitten and he was weakening faster than the others. Scott wrote in his diary on 5th March: “The poor soldier is very nearly done”. On 15th March, Oates suggested that the others should leave him in his sleeping-bag, but they refused. So he walked a few more miles that day but, on the morning of the next day, he walked out of the tent into a blizzard, and was never seen again. It was his 32nd birthday. Scott recorded in his diary:
“We knew that poor Oates was walking to his death, but though we tried to dissuade him, we knew it was the act of a brave man and an English gentleman”.
Behind the village rises Selborne Hill, topped by Selborne Common, a designated SSSI (site of special scientific interest), managed by the National Trust. These particular Hampshire hills are part of the series of steep-sided wooded hills known as ‘hangers’, because the ancient woodlands of beech, lime, yew and ash seem to hang from the high slopes. On the Selborne ‘Hanger’ is an extraordinary zig zag path, which is pretty steep. The top is 91 metres above the Selborne’s High Street from which there are wonderful views over the village and surrounding countryside.
Of the village and its setting, Gilbert said:
“At the foot of this hill, one stage or step from the uplands, lies the village, which consists of one single straggling street, three quarters of a mile in length, in a sheltered vale, and running parallel with the hanger.”
A little closer to Selborne than Farringdon is Tisted station, serving the village of East Tisted, and then comes Privett. The station buildings of both Tisted and Privett survived the dismantling of the railway and were converted to private houses.
After Privett station comes West Meon, five miles from the site of the famous Battle of Cheriton of 1644, an important Parliamentarian victory in the English Civil War. The battle took place on 29th March and resulted in the defeat of a Royalist army, which threw King Charles I onto the defensive for the remainder of the year.
In the last week of March, 1644, the parish of East Meon was overrun by thousands (10000 or so?) of Parliamentary troops under Sir William Waller. 6,000 or so Royalists under Sir Ralph Hopton were camped on high ground, overlooking the Parliamentarians. (Stated numbers on either side vary but it does seem clear that the two sides were not evenly matched numerically-speaking.) There were skirmishes between rival patrols in and around the area, and on the 28th March, Waller withdrew, apparently via Vinnel’s Lane in West Meon, and marched to Cheriton, where he lodged himself at Hinton Ampner House, the home of Lady Stukesly, a Parliamentary sympathiser.
By 28th March, the Royalist forces were in Alresford and, thinking that battle might be engaged the following day, Hopton deployed his troops along Cheriton Lane, a road that ran along a ridge of high ground. The Parliamentarians were about a mile to the south.
Battle was engaged the next day, with the armies drawn up on opposite ridges with Cheriton Wood on higher ground to the east. At first, the struggle was for control of the Wood, but, later, fighting broke out around Hinton Ampner, and continued on both flanks throughout the day. At length the Royalists were forced down from their position and Hopton decided to retreat. It is thought that about 60 Parliamentarians were killed or injured, but as many as 300 Royalists.
Hinton Ampner house is managed by the National Trust, though it is a very different house from the one used by William Waller as his HQ, for it has been rebuilt a number of times since 1644. However, you can follow a walk from the grounds that takes you around the site of the battle and, if you stand at the bottom of the garden, you can look across towards where the battle raged, and a plaque….
This map, from the britishbattles.com website shows well the juxtaposition of the battle site and the house.
An associate, although not a son, of West Meon is Thomas Lord, who played first-class cricket from 1787 to 1802, overall making 90 known appearances. He is best known as the founder, in 1787, of Lord’s Cricket Ground, in St John’s Wood, London. But it was to West Meon that Thomas retired, and he died there in 1832, and is buried in the churchyard of St John’s Church. There is a pub in West Meon named after him.
Another occupant of the churchyard of St John’s is Guy Burgess, the Soviet spy, whose family had lived in West Meon since 1924. Burgess died in Moscow in 1956, but his ashes were returned to England, and on 5th October 1963 were interred in the family plot.
Hereabouts, the countryside is also of great archaeological interest, for West Meon is just three miles north of Old Winchester Hill, confusingly perhaps 11 miles away from Winchester! At the top of the hill, which is about 650 ft high, is an Iron Age hill fort, within which are Bronze Age barrows, which date from 4500-3500 BC. The fort was probably built between 600 and 300 BC and abandoned around 150-100 BC. Old Winchester Hill is a SSSI and a National Nature Reserve. In March 2009, it became part of the South Downs National Park. The chalk downland is home to very many species of butterfly, and also several types of orchid, including fly, bee, frog and butterfly orchids, as well as the more common early purple, pyramidal, common spotted and fragrant orchids. I have myself seen very many both butterflies and orchids.
Old Winchester Hill is a wonderful place to walk and affords astonishing 360º views of the surrounding countryside, as far as the Solent and the Isle of Wight to the south. But on a chilly day, it feels wild and bleak, and it must have been a challenging place to live for those Iron Age ancestors of ours!
After West Meon station, comes Droxford. I wrote about Droxford on The History Girls back in June, so I won’t repeat that here. But, as we have already had mention of Thomas Lord, I should not fail to mention also nearby Hambledon, only four miles to the south east.
Hambledon is home of the Hambledon Cricket Club, which started life in 1768 as a social club, but gained its fame for organising inter-county cricket matches from 1753-1781. By the late 1770s, it was the foremost cricket club in England. The club’s first ground at Broadhalfpenny Down is considered the “Cradle of Cricket”, although cricket as a sport predated both the club and the ground by at least two centuries. In 1782, the club had to move from Broadhalfpenny to Windmill Down, about half a mile away towards the village of Hambledon, because The Bat and Ball Inn, which is next to Broadhalfpenny Down (and well worth a visit for its wealth of cricketing history memorabilia), had been requisitioned by the military, although a couple of years later they moved again to another ground. Hambledon’s great days ended in the late 1780 when the cricketing world shifted its centre to London, and Thomas Lord’s new cricket ground was established as the home of the new Marylebone Cricket Club in 1787.
After Droxford, there is a halt at Mislingford, and then comes Wickham station. Wickham is another place I have written about before, so we will pass it by for now, except for looking at this postcard image of the station on the last day of passenger service on the Meon Valley Railway in 1955.
From Wickham, the line continues on to Fareham but, in 1907, a halt was built a few miles north of Fareham, at Knowle, to serve the village of Funtley and Knowle Hospital, which was opened in 1852 as the Hampshire County Lunatic Asylum, and became a psychiatric hospital that operated until 1996. The halt was little more than a platform and a shelter, yet became one of the first rural stations in Hampshire to be lit by electricity, taking its power from the hospital’s generators.
But for the area around Mislingford, Wickham, Knowle and Fareham, the arrival of the railway would provide support for the burgeoning fruit-growing industry. But more about this, and other commercial and operational aspects of the Meon Valley Railway, next month.