Trails from the Rails 9: Medstead & Four Marks to Alton

  • Area: Hampshire
  • Local Train Operators: Mid-Hants Railway/ South West Trains
  • Length: About 8 miles
  • Points of Note: Jane Austen’s House, Chawton
  • OS maps – OL32 & OL33 (1:25,000) (crosses two maps); Landranger 186 (1:50,000)

This is a pleasantly rambling sort of walk which done in this direction has a predominantly downhill orientation. If done in reverse, it is more inclined to have an uphill feel about it.

Travellers coming from the west (Alresford and Ropley) are advised to check their return train carefully before leaving the Mid-Hants station at Medstead & Four Marks.

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To say Medstead & Four Marks is a rather well-preserved sort of station is rather like saying the late Wolfgang Mozart’s music is rather pleasant to listen to. A comparison with some “past” photos on display in the station eventually reaches the note that remarks the signal box cabin had to be replaced after the original was demolished. This fits in very well, and otherwise it looks much as ever.

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Medstead is the old community which thoughtlessly was founded some distance from the route of the railway. Four Marks, which mostly consists of mid-20th century houses, later grew up around the station. There is a certain air to the architecture of a place which stopped expanding when the station closed with the withdrawal of trains between Alton and Winchester in 1973.

Head out of the station using the footpath off the Alresford-bound platform and work through the back alleys (right, left, right, left, right, straight across) to the main road, emerging opposite the Chinese takeaway, which is next door to Tesco and just up the road from the chippie. Cross the road (the A31 to Winchester) and turn left up the hill.

At the top, just before the turning to Medstead, turn right down the gully and follow it through the housing estates until it skirts into open country and drops onto a road consisting of suburban villas. Cross this road and take the signposted path on the other side into the woods.

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Proceed down this path, which goes on for quite some distance along the edge of the wood. Eventually the path opens out into fields with attractive views off to the east.

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These are the fields of the rather wonderfully-named Pies Farm and, unfortunately, are actually after the required turnoff. Go back into the wood and take the right turn (left from the Four Marks direction) and continue along a different edge of the wood. From here the walk follows St Swithun’s Way to Chawton, but this is not overly well-signposted so the fact is not much use. Make do with enjoying the gentle falling gradient through the dappled light beneath the deciduous trees to the pungent scent of the pines off to the left. Eventually the path emerges again, this time at Upper Woodside Farm.

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Follow the road as it swings down the hill and over a little ridge until it reaches a hedge and takes a right-angle to the right. Take the left turn down a track along the side of a field, avoiding the bollard provided to discourage vehicular access. (This bollard is made out of a bit of old tree and makes a very strong and stable base for resting the rucksack while taking a drink, with the added benefit that it can be moved around as circumstances require – though the farmer would no doubt appreciate it finishing up where it started.)

Follow this track as it goes halfway up the field and then turns right across another field. At the cross-tracks by the barns turn left and up a new track which rises gently through the copse on a slight embankment, curving gently to the right. This is the former Alton to Fareham railway. An overbridge at Southfield Farm highlights the route’s former use.

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After the bridge the railway alignment abruptly ends where it has been ploughed back into the fields. After the first field the footpath turns right, drops down to a wood, goes through the wood, turns right down another field boundary and comes out on the A32 Alton to Fareham road.

Cross the road (obviously quiet as there is no need for the railway) and go up the path on the other side. This works alongside a field and into a cul-de-sac. At the end of the cul-de-sac, turn left.

This is the old route of the Alton to Fareham road, which proceeds northwards for a couple of hundred yards past cricket fields and cottages to the village green and a road junction with the old road to Winchester. On the right are two pubs next door to each other (“Cassandra’s Cup” and “The Greyfriar”). On the left is a large brick house, formerly part of the local landlord’s estate. In the early 19th-century the then-landlord let his widowed mother, his two sisters and their friend use it as a home rent-free. Thus it was that here, overlooking the junction between the two main roads from London to the various parts of Hampshire, several key ports and the Isle of Wight, the novelist Jane Austen revised two novels, wrote three-and-a-bit more and became a good-selling writer.

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Before her publisher started putting her name on the title page (instead of attributing the latest work to “The Author of Sense & SensibilityPride & Prejudice, &c.”) she inconveniently succumbed to a severe bout of ill-health and died at the age of 41, leaving the world a mere six satirical novels (as opposed to, say, a rather more desirable ten or twelve) plus a splendid collection of juvenalia, fragments and Lady Susan. The house is now a museum and Chawton has been firmly bypassed; the upshot is that the room interiors and the traffic levels outside are both much as Austen would have known them.

The option exists of dropping in on the museum for a couple of hours idle perusing. Otherwise carry on past the pubs and a couple of cottages beyond and take the footpath down the gully off to the right. Cross the following field next to the hump of an old wall, leaving the spinney to the left. Head through the gate on the other side, climb up through the copse and go through the gate into the field. Follow the signposts, the path through the grass and the shortest route to the next stile or gate. Austen fans can imagine her taking her afternoon walks with her sister Cassandra along this way.

After some little while the path comes to Whitehouse Farm and heads north up the access road to the B3006. Cross the road with due care and head through the hedge on the other side. The path emerges onto two tracks, separated by a fence, both heading in the correct sort of direction and neither obviously signposted as the right of way.

It appears the further path is the correct one, leading up to the farm buildings, running around the western and northern edges of the complex and then following the hedge eastwards on the far side down a designated double-fenced alley. The nearer path goes around much the same sort of route, passes through a builders yard and then picks up the correct side of the eastward hedge – via several wire fences. At the end of the eastward hedge the two options come together (with no signposting as to which side is preferred by the landowner). Head for a footbridge which carries the path over the stream into a nettle bed. On the other side is a minor road. Join it and turn left. (It is sorely tempting to follow the bank of the stream for a dozen yards until it passes under the road and pick up the lane there instead.)

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This is a very pleasant lane to follow for maybe a third of a mile until it comes to a sort of crossroads after a gate. Take the bridlepath (Water Lane) to the left towards Alton. This leads to the Alton bypass, which turns out to have been very cheaply built in 1970; the dual carriageway (with central reservation but no crashbarrier) passes above Water Lane but has to be crossed on the level. Visibility is reasonable. This is not an unusual state of affairs on British trunk roads; users are urged not to bring the fitness levels of British walkers into disrepute (or, indeed, bring the fine reputation of British road safety into disrepute and infer that truncating the duplicate railway might have been short-sighted) by carrying out experiments into whether cars react to people using public rights of way and generally contributing to the business case for a subway.

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As can be not-quite-seen in the picture, continuing along the lane will come to a bridge carrying a minor road under the bypass for those who prefer to chance narrow back lanes against sweeping bypasses.

Once past the bypass, clamber straight up the following hill into Alton’s outer suburbs. Drop gently down the other side, looking first for a turning in from the left (as a reference point) and then a discreet gully with a “No cycling” sign off to the right. It is maybe two hundred yards before the continuing road crosses the railway back to Medstead. Follow this gully, turning left at the end down a further gully and dropping down the escarpment via a flight of steps to Lower Turk Street.

Cross Lower Turk Street and follow the path alongside the railway embankment. This comes alongside King’s Pond, which in some sort of Spirit has been allowed to be largely separated from the path by a bank of trees. At the occasional breaks are warnings not to feed bread to the ducks. The locals get around this by giving them digestive biscuits instead. One feels this is a severe case of loopholery.

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Head out of the park at the other end of the lake into Waterside Court complex, turning right and then left to gain the main road adjacent to a gold postbox. Turn left and pass under the railway. The station is up the slope to the right. Following the road to the top and turning left will bring the walker to Alton’s takeaway.

Alton station is one of several good examples of shared National Rail/ heritage railway station facilities. The Mid-Hants comes in round the back on platform 3; platform 2 offers a through connection for the occasional special running straight through to Alresford plus periodic stock moves. The original footbridge survives, though sealed off, at time of writing following a campaign that it is part of the heritage air of the station. Its replacement is fitted with lifts and is a considerably longer walk for anyone unfortunate enough to find their train home leaves from the 2/3 island.

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“Swallows” on celuloid

Some while ago I heard mention that there was a new film coming out of Swallows & Amazons. For those unfamiliar, this is a book by the journalist and author Arthur Ransome, who after reporting on the Russian Revolution came home to the Lake District, wrote comment articles for the Guardian and then met up with the family of a girl he once proposed to. With the encouragement of girl and her husband, he taught the children to sail. When they returned home to Syria (nice people, Syrians) he wrote a book of imaginary adventures for enthusiastic 1920s children with a boat, two tents and some form of access to an island in the Lakes. (What sort of access is never discussed, except in Secret Water. This is one of the bits of fantasy in the books.)

Swallows & Amazons was what might be called a sleeper hit, but the series became iconic after the sequel (Swallowdale) came out and Ransome was able to live comfortably on the proceeds of the (eventually 12) books for the rest of his life – along with his wife Evgenia, who before their marriage had been Leon Trotsky’s secretary.

The Swallows books are often accused of being rather quiet and slow these days. Obviously anyone who says such things hasn’t read:

  • several bits of Swallowdale;
  • the middle of Pigeon Post;
  • We Didn’t Mean to go to Sea;
  • the wet bit of Secret Water;
  • very much of The Big Six;
  • the key scene in The Picts and the Martyrs; or
  • any of Peter Duck or Missee Lee (but particularly the climaxes).

What they do offer is a remarkably egalitarian fantasy world. If you already happen to live in a fantasy world, you too may enjoy adventures out of Philip Pullman’s creations. If you have access to a large rambling house with empty rooms and wardrobes unvisited for years, it is quite possible that you might find yourself in a despotic dictatorship with a deeply entrenched class system where lions provide eternal distant government and beavers talk at you. If you get to dig in old gravel pits outside your house, there may prove to be a Psammead down there as delightfully promised by Edith Nesbit. J. K. Rowling offers a glorious world of more entrenched class systems for people who turn out to have magic powers, and then goes on television to complain about class.

These are all excellent bits of escapism that have entranced children (and adults) with imaginations of a world that they cannot really visit.

But Ransome’s landscape involves no magic. It is accessible to anyone who can get hold of a tent and a boat, and some of the more peaceful bits of the Lakes could still be borrowed for such adventures. Failing that there’s always a Scottish loch or four (Loch Morar is nicely out of the way, well-endowed with islands and apparently home to Morag, the Loch Morar Monster). It can remain believable as a possibility, and his characters are so real and human (especially the Swallows, being based on real people) that they almost walk out of the page. There is no need to abandon the family altogether and there is no class system.

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This all meant that I was looking forward to this new film with interest. Here’s the trailer:

Oh gawd.

Aside from the curiosity that Ransome made Susan the sensible one and she seems to have been all but written out of the trailer…

Err…

Ransome of course never did expand on Captain Flint’s backstory, but the “retired pirate” is never really confirmed beyond Titty’s imagination (Nancy merely says that it is “quite a good thing for him to be”). By Pigeon Post he seems to be connected with mining in some way. What is certain is that the character in the books was not thin or built for clinging onto trains of 1950s suburban stock. He was also always rather polite to Mrs Walker, although as they didn’t meet until after he’d slandered her son this may be for more reasons than his amiable personality. All-in-all, there is an air of “from the stable of the films of The Chronicles of Narnia“. As with Narnia, the cast look alright and have a family-ish air which probably works better in the full thing.

I liked the Paddington update, bringing the concept into the present day, giving the children more vim and building a new adventure around the base idea of the original short stories. I’ve been enjoying the Professor Branestawm adaptations the BBC has been doing as well (again, building up short stories). When reading bits of Swallows books that I am too familiar with, I like to picture how to update them to a bunch of modern kids with mobile phones. (The “Better drowned than duffers” telegram is clearly an email written in a hurry; the lack of mobiles is simply because Wild Cat Island has no mains electricity so they all go flat by sundown; Mother thinks she can trust the children without life jackets – I’m fairly sure I’ve been rowing without a life jacket; candles can be replaced with battery lanterns; the boats haven’t changed much and Coniston is still not all that busy.) Actually, bringing the Swallows into the present day would be rather appealing.

Part of the concept is to bring in elements of Arthur Ransome’s life, which actually would warrant a film of their own. (Even with his “Ransome already left” embellishments to his autobiography.)

We’ll leave it there. It looks like something that might have been better under a different title (Blah & Witter, based on Swallows & Amazons). That doesn’t necessarily do you any harm (see the recent Lady Susan film adaptation, done as Love & Friendship but clearly the same story from one look at the trailer – Lady Susan might have no name recognition, but I’m never quite sure Swallows is that widely read these days). Under a different title I might be interested in seeing it, but as Swallows it feels like I’d be coming back in and picking up the book to make sure nobody’s changed it in my absence. I might, on reflection, go and see it, but then I might sit in and put this on – the trailer (in a way which suggests the 2016 Swallows may be better than it looks) fails to fully grasp its innate humour, humanity and liveliness:

But Susan looks happy in this older one, and I like the ’70s Titty. She has a blog, in case anyone’s interested; I picked up her book while holidaying in Coniston. Being in the area of course provides an opportunity to take way too many pictures of the Lakes, so here’re a few.

Peel Island 01 JPG My sunset picture of Peel Island on Coniston, which found its way onto here with a lengthy description back in October.

Lake Windermere 04 JPG.jpgWindermere, at Bowness, as I saw it on arriving late on a Saturday evening – astride an overladen bicycle, fresh off the train, looking for a chip stall and ready to sail to Ambleside.

Lake Windermere 05 JPG.jpgThe cross-Windermere ferry, mentioned in the previous post.

Old Man of Coniston 01 JPG.jpg The landscape – high above Coniston, on the quiet way across from Ambleside (with bike), looking across at the hulking form of the Old Man of Coniston. I should have cycled over earlier that day and gone up him that morning; the view would have been something. I saved it for the last day of the holiday, by which point the weather had broken and the Old Man was wearing hat and balaclava.

Stable Harvey Moss 1 JPG.jpg Swallowdale Country, in the form of Stable Harvey Moss near Torver. It is easy to picture the Swallows tramping across this towards Kanchenjunga or Titty and Roger getting horribly lost in the fog (who needs guns when you have fog on boggy moorland?). This is where the bike proved less handy; it is impossible to hunt out Swallowdale with a road bike and aside from trying to stretch the lock round a tree by the road there is (it being the sticks) nowhere to secure it.

May Bank Holiday News Summary

In this weekend’s exciting news, Private Eye is preparing the headline “Woman Has Second Baby”.

Meanwhile, a politician has told people to vote for his party rather than a different party.

He appears to be concerned that people think they can have a Government involving his party without actually having to vote for him.

Support for the different party is expected to rocket on the news now that supporters of the different party know that their vote won’t actually be used to support the first party that they voted for last time and would vote for this time if they actually wanted to have them in Government.

Whether the woman successfully having a baby will have any impact on national feeling, Government popularity or the election result remains to be seen – we should know by this time next week.

In other news, the author of this website has visited Alton in Hampshire, taken some pictures and updated the takeaway list.

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Above – the view off London Kings Cross station footbridge of the scenery south of Ropley station.

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(This is the second May Bank Holiday Saturday in a row that I’ve spent time being towed around by a large green locomotive called Wadebridge. Last year she was in Cornwall, near Wadebridge. This year she was at Alton. The former home of the late novelist Jane Austen is in nearby Chawton, hence the business park.)

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Above – Wadebridge at Alresford. Below – the Austen family house in Chawton. Austen followers have to find their way to Winchester – which was a trifle easier before the Alton to Winchester railway was shut – to find where she is actually buried.

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