All among the watercress

2nd February 1996 at 00:00
Carol Spero explores the countryside of Jane Austen and naturalist Gilbert White

It's quite possible, given imaginative planning, to combine the pleasures of a ride through the Alps on an historic steam train, a visit to the cottage where Jane Austen wrote and revised her most famous novels, and a walk in the 18th-century footsteps of England's first ecologist - all within a few square miles of East Hampshire.

The appealingly-termed Watercress Line, starting from Alton BR station and extending for some 10 miles to Alresford, was named after the watercress which still grows in the clear waters of the local chalk streams. In Victorian times the area was a major source of freight traffic, and in 1865 a railway line was opened to enable the growers to send their produce to the London markets.

When the line was closed in 1973, part of it was preserved. Today that section is open to the public. Each of the four stations on the pretty journey passing along the watercress streams has been restored to represent life at a different period of the line's history.

Ropley, framed in topiary, with its rows of orderly red fire buckets, is set in the style of the London and South West Railway which owned the line more than 60 years ago. Quiet little Medsted and Four Marks, with its working signal box and beautifully reconditioned booking office, is the highest station in southern England. It's close to the summit of the hills around Alton and Ropley, and quite a haul, making it easy to see how "over the Alps" became a popular phrase with crews taking heavy steam engines over the route in the 1950s and 1960s. Even today the steepness of the region requires the use of large steam engines to pull the carriages.

The round trip - Alton-Alresford-Alton - takes about two hours, but you can alight at Ropley, the engineering section of the railway, and see all the old engines and coaches stored in various stages of refurbishment.

You can lunch on the picnic site (with play area) and return in time to visit Chawton and the 17th-century red-brick cottage which was Jane Austen's last home, only a mile from Alton.

She lived here with her mother and sister Cassandra from 1809 to 1817, and although visited by hundreds, the place evokes a magical sense of Jane's presence. There she sat, revising Pride and Prejudice, writing Mansfield Park and Persuasion at that small round table in the parlour.

But even more fascinating than the display of costumes of the period and the simple 18th-century furniture are such touching objects as a songbook she used, two topaz crosses given to Jane and her sister by their brother Charles, a lock of her reddish hair, faded now, handkerchiefs she embroidered as gifts, and the patchwork quilt, which all three women sewed together, hanging in her bedroom: intimate relics of a gentle and unassuming life-style.

Picnicking in the surrounding garden, you might glimpse a shadow that could just be Jane, walking among the sweet Williams and mignonette and, in the background, Mrs Austen in her labourer's smock, digging energetically in her vegetable plot.

Selborne is a village in a hollow of woods, streams and meadows, four miles south-east of Alton. It was the home of the Reverend Gilbert White, the 18th-century naturalist, and author of The Natural History of Selborne.

But even if you didn't know this, and were just passing, something might make you pause, listen and observe, as Gilbert White did every day of his life. Birdsong seems more clear, the covert movement of wild things about the undergrowth more profuse and vivid. Meticulously noting the behaviour of insects, the migration of birds, the development of animals, plants, fruits in their season, the making of wines and preserves, alongside the everyday life of the village, he set it all down in his enchanting book, now a classic of its kind.

You can explore White's "hollow lanes" on either of two shortish walks, each taking about 90 minutes: one mainly on the level, the other, more adventurous, up the zig-zag he created, and along footpaths to the beech woods of Selborne Hanger. Both are described, with maps, on a free leaflet Literary Walks in East Hampshire (Selborne) from East Hants District Council.

Thus you may observe much that White did in the 1770s, for little has changed over the centuries in this lovely area, partly National Trust property. Follow White's footsteps, or visit his home, "The Wakes", in the centre of the village, now the Gilbert White Museum. His chain of dim, low-ceilinged rooms have been furnished in 18th-century style.

There are portraits of his family, an original manuscript, his first linen suit, and the long garden at the back is currently being restored with the plants and topiary he loved.

The adjoining museum shop is attractively and affordably packed with White-oriented gifts and books, a delight for both children and adults.

Watercress Line. Tel: 01962 733810 * Jane Austen's House, Chawton, Alton, Hampshire. Tel: 01420 83262 * Gilbert White's House and Garden, Selborne, near Alton. Tel: 01420 511275

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