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Window on Wessex, England

Wallops and gin, and brushes with royalty and film sets

Anyone who watches Escape to the Country, a UK TV series about families who dream about leaving the city to settle in or near a village, knows that many of these people also have ideas about keeping a few sheep, some alpacas, several horses - or a pig or two!

In many ways Britain is a nation of farmers, it seems, and even those who don't have 'a place in the country' love to visit farm shops such as the one we did recently, the Wellington Farm Shop near Basingstoke in Hampshire, a county south-west of London.

Many city escapees almost always want space for a vegetable patch, proving they are gardeners at heart.

For those unsure about the name, Wessex, let me explain. It is an archaic name, not really used much today, but it works here because not only did our time in the area include Hampshire, but we also explored a little of Berkshire to the north, and dabbled in Wiltshire. Wessex was the Anglo-Saxon name for the area for several centuries until around 900AD. It meant 'kingdom of the West Saxons', and although today there is no county of Wessex, it does explain those whose names have survived: Essex (east Saxons) and Sussex (south Saxons).

Another dream of many escapees to the country, is to have their own hens. Eggs, fresh and warm from the nest, seem the ultimate 'Good Life'  achievement, and who can blame them? The Wellington  Farm Shop has gone further than any other we have seen, recreating a nest complete with free-range eggs to gather and take home for breakfast tomorrow morning.

This country does farm shops like this extremely well and, as you travel rural Britain, watch out for signs to them. They usually also have cafes where a pot of properly made tea is always available, too. Coffee and cakes, of course, and usually light meals of locally made pies or soup, and fresh sandwiches.

Some, like this one, also have animals which are a real drawcard for children, and as much a valuable learning experience, as they are entertainment.

The Valais blacknose sheep (above) were so friendly, almost begging for us to sink our fingers into their soft greasy wool. Our new best friend, the pig (pictured at top) was desperately keen to be noticed too, as you can see.

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That evening we joined some friends at this roadside hotel-restaurant which we has heard was highly rated. The Wellington Arms is an award-winning pub on the Hampshire-Berkshire border. It has been voted #2 in The Times 'Best Places to Eat in the Countryside', and Jason King has been named the 'Best Pub Chef' by the Good Food Guide.



 

The dining room had an intimate, relaxed atmosphere, and I felt even more comfortable once I cracked open the flaky pastry top of this potpie of venison braised in red wine and cooked slowly with root vegetables. It was filling and delicious - a very generous serving.

The menu offers carefully crafted, unpretentious dishes using home-grown produce, and the best from the local area. 

We had seen the pub's herb and vegetable garden outside and had known then that we were in for a treat.

 

Unfortunately the  first part of the meal had been so filling that on this visit we decided to pass on sampling Rustic Rachel from the cheese list (above) or any of her other companions.

Maybe next time, we said, and I made a note to myself that we might then stay over in one of the ensuite bedrooms in the pub's recently-converted oak barn, or even upstairs above the pub, in The Apartment, a one bedroom suite converted from the landlords’ accommodation.



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Lacock

Only rarely do we get to travel with other people, but on this occasion we were staying with friends from the area, locals who knew just where to take us next day. Lacock Abbey is home to the Fox Talbot Museum and the entire complex and village is now administered by the National Trust.

It is located in Wiltshire, near Chippenham, on the banks of the River Avon, and the village played the part of Maryton in the BBC's Pride and Prejudice. 

The Abbey was built on the foundation of a former nunnery, and Ela, the founder, seems to have been a firm and strong leader of her community. Originally the Countess of Salisbury, at 47, on the death of her husband, she decided to establish a nunnery. In fact on the same day, she rode 15 miles to the Hinton Charterhouse of Carthusian monks. 

A countess in her own right, she was a powerful and wealthy heiress and both she and her husband had royal links. Ela already had experience in leadership. While her husband was on a crusade in the Holy Land, she had acted as Sheriff of Wiltshire on his behalf. Later she became the Abbey's first Abbess and died here.

These days the Abbey is also known to a younger generation. Some interior sequences in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets were filmed at Lacock, including the cloister walk where Harry comes out from Professor Lockhart's room after serving detention and hears the basilisk. Scenes from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince were also shot here too. 

Two other, younger, tourists were very excited about seeing these rooms, and were busy taking photographs and reliving the story.

It was because of our interest in photography, though, that our friends had brought us here. Fox Talbot was a pioneer in the very beginning of film photography, as the sign (above) explains.

And this is the latticed window through which he took the image that would revolutionise the craft.

 

Unfortunately Fox Talbot was a clever, but shy man, lacking in confidence, and he lost his one great chance for fame. This museum at least does something to repair that mistake and provide a glimpse of his life and genius. 

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Another night, another dinner, and we are at The Wellington Arms Hotel. But NOT the one we had visited earlier. This was our third contact with 'Wellington' so we had to ask why the name keeps cropping up in these parts. It turns out that a local property in the north-east of the county, Stratfield Staye House was given to the first Duke of Wellington after he had led his troops to victory in the Battle of Waterloo.

This charming hotel was just right for us, and a light meal of perfectly deepfried whitebait and aioli was all I needed. Sadly, since our visit, though, this hotel has closed.

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The names of pubs in England often reflect the historic importance of hunting game. Even that word (game) underlines the attitude, especially by the aristocracy, that a shooting expedition was a form of sport, the word also meaning joy, amusement, and merriment in earlier times. For the hunter only, of course.

Britain is criss-crossed by canals, and while today they are very much the playground for people who either own, or have hired a boat for their holidays, in the beginning they were the roads of industry.

Two hundred or more years ago, these were used for barges hauling coal or iron, equipment or other industrial necessities, and they were vital links for manufacturers and producers. As times changed and trains began to be used, then trucks, and later industry itself changed, the canals settled into becoming quiet backwaters.

Still, they are a delightful place to sit and watch the boats as they pass through the locks. Each lock can take minutes to open and fill, and so the boaties are often happy to chat for a while as they wait. Usually there is a pub nearby where you can sit and enjoy lunch, or take a pie or a sandwich with you to eat canalside.

 

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One afternoon we strayed into royal territory. We had heard about a manor house in the area, but also that, in peak season - which is when we visited -  the waiting list to visit it was enormously long. So we decided to check another upper-class place we had heard about.

The name Buckleberry rang a bell, and then I realised that this is the Duchess of Cambridge's home territory. We stopped for a while in the bar of this hotel, knowing that we could perhaps have a brush with fame, as the royals are quite often seen in the village when they visit Catherine's family nearby.

We were fascinated by the name of this pub, but this helpful sign answered our questions. Britain is great like that. History is everywhere, but there is usually someone around who can explain it to you. Just make sure you have a glass in your hand and some spare time, as these explanations can go on a bit! In this case all we had to do was read it. There seems to be a legend or story about almost anywhere in England. The whole place has so many layers of history and much of it has been excavated and explored and recorded.

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Not much further on, the Bombay Sapphire Distillery took our attention. Somehow it seemed surprising that a major distillery would be here, in the sleepy farmlands of Hampshire. Located in Laverstoke Mill, it is just 15 miles from Winchester and 60 miles from London.

For 225 years these Victorian and Georgian buildings spanning the River Test were used to produce banknote paper for the Bank of England and, in fact, the entire British Empire.

Now it has become a state-of-the-art sustainable distillery that produces every drop of Bombay Sapphire gin anyone has ever tasted. Ten botanicals are used in the making of Bombay Sapphire. Of course you can stock up here, and also do a tasting which will uncover your personal taste profile.

And in case you are wondering, all the spirit distilled here is gin-clear. Only the bottles are coloured that mesmerising sky blue.

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What would you do if you saw a sign like this?

Well, of course we took the turn off from the main road to Salisbury and went to look for ourselves. In Over Wallop, we discovered a village of mostly thatched and painted houses, like the endearing Little Thatch. The villages were cathedral quiet except for the occasional car or riding group, or maybe a bicycle.

Thoroughly hooked on this part of Britain which we did not even know existed, there was no question that we would also visit the other one as well.

Nether Wallop sprawls in two parts, divided by a creek. In the upper part of the village we met Judy who was so friendly she showed us through her centuries-old home.

Just up the road is St Andrew's, the village's 11th-century church. One home in this village was used as Miss Marple's house in the TV series.

The name on this place, Honey Cottage, says it all. It was extremely difficult to tear ourselves away from this idyllic part of the world.

Rather than meaning something argressive, the Wallops are named from Old English words which mean 'valleys of springing water'.

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The city of Salisbury was our destination on this day, and of course we planned to see the well-known cathedral, but instead we found ourselves caught up with Day One of the local food festival.

There was a list of places to see which were offering discounts and tastes, and we couldn't believe our luck to have coincided with it.

Fudge is big business in Britain, it seems and Roly's Fudge Pantry is the place to come. There is every flavour you can think of and it is freshly hand-made all day.

This gargoyle didn't seem too welcoming, but I guess that was his job!

Regardless of all the tasty things in town we felt we had a tourist's duty to at least drop in to the  cathedral. Interestingly when we did, filming was going on. The crew were tightlipped and wouldn't divulge which film or series it was for, so all I can say is if you see people in Elizabethan gowns with the background of Salisbury Cathedral, then that might have been what we saw.

Salisbury Cathedral does not allow photography inside, but we entered anyway, and stayed for a little while inspired by the soaring ceiling and gentle organ music. It is always mind-boggling to imagine how these mighty buildings were completed when everything was hand-hewn and shaped. No 3D plans on computers for the people who brought these great buildings to completion.

Completed in only 38 years, from 1220 to 1258, it seems miraculous when you gaze at the complexity and beauty and coherence of it all.

Out of the gloom of the cathedral, we emerge blinking in the sunlight of the High Street and this bright spot which seems to be channelling France more than Hampshire.

Yet, just steps away, the landmark spire of the cathedral pops up again.

Food festival or not, on a hot day, what could be better than an ice cream?

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On another day we head for Winchester, the other major cathedral in the area. Unlike Salisbury, there was a lively feel to this place with young people from the nearby Pilgrim School relaxing on the grass or strolling through the grounds. 

This cathedral also allows photography inside, and now you can see the symmetry and strength of the building. 

The aesthetic appeal is almost tangible.

Read what is written on this bench.

Winchester is very old, inhabited since prehistoric times, although this building near the cathedral would date from the Middle Ages. 

The locals refer to it as the King's City, and that is because .....

 

...this is where King Alfred ruled his kingdom for 28 years. He was King of Wessex, but also styled himself 'King of the Anglo-Saxons'.

There is so much history in many English cities, that to visit them is like dipping in and out of a time-warp. There are old buildings like Abbey House, now the mayor's official residence built on the site of a nunnaminster founded by King Alfred's wife, Ealhswith.....

.....and then, just steps away, modern cafes like this where a cup of flat white is not out of the question.

Lucky again, this time we stumbled on a market in the main street. Just look at those 'straws' as they call them. Northern hemisphere berries are usually excellent because of the cool conditions combined with long hours of sunshine.

Cheeses have always been of major importance in the British diet, and today, artisinal cheeses such as these are made in many regions and are of the highest quality. Of course there were quite a few French and Dutch varieties in that showcase too. And why not, when those countries are just across the Channel?

If you have good cheese, then obviously you need good bread to go with it.

In the midst of the market this tower, Buttercross, again honours King Alfred. It is a marvellous early 15th-century pinnacled market cross and is also known as City Cross, or simply High Cross.

Yet again, old and new mix. Eclectic dressing.....

...and an ancient laneway, leading to what else but the Baker's Arms, a pub.

Some parts of England have all the mystique and appeal of a fairy tale. As we leave Winchester, and prepare to travel home to Australia, the thrill of discovery stays with us. We realise there is so much more to see in this area, and that another trip to Wessex is a must.

It's already on our list!

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More information on Hampshire....

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Words and images: ©Sally Hammond

Videos: ©Gordon Hammond

 
 

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