The sun peeks through the trees in Hampshire.
|As soon as we turned off the A3 and followed the signposts for Priors Dean, there was a hush. We could hear the car’s low hum as the road narrowed and the hazy, green cropland closed in behind us. The rustling of tree leaves ushered us uphill and around a corner. When a car came in our direction, Keith pulled off to the side so that it could pass.
This is East Hampshire, the district in England’s southeast where Jane Austen wrote the famous words, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” It is also where my boyfriend, Keith, was born.
While he has neither a fortune nor a pressing desire to marry, he did recently need a break from London.
So, we rented a simple Rover for a day and headed to East Hampshire. Our windows were rolled down and we had turned off the radio. Now the bleating of a lamb or the crackle of our tires rolling over fallen twigs were lonely interruptions.
Bordered by Surrey and West Sussex counties on the east and by the rest of Hampshire on the west, East Hampshire is comprised of several market towns and about 20 villages. While it is most famous for its literary history — Jane Austen and poet Edward Thomas hail from here — it is also home to noteworthy Roman archeological finds, steam-engine trains, working farms and reputable breweries.
As throughout much of the southwest, Romans inhabited East Hampshire villages between A.D. 43 and 410. After them, the Normans and Saxons lived here until the 1400s and 1500s. During this time, the area’s population grew and its markets were highly profitable.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, Austen and ecologist Gilbert White lived and wrote industriously here. Within a hundred years, the Hampshire town Alton had gained respect in the growing brewing industry. “Alton Ale Shops” that sold beer and a sandwich for under a shilling reached as far as London.
By the early 1900s, writers Edward Thomas, one of Robert Frost’s close friends and contemporaries, and Flora Thompson, who wrote a highly regarded collection of essays on her country childhood, drew further attention to the area.
I thought about Thomas and the literary legacy here as Keith and I continued uphill. The signposts that we had been following were replaced with wooden arrows pointing right for Petersfield and left for Priors Dean. Thomas’ favorite drinking haunt, the White Horse Inn (known locally as the Pub With No Name, as there is no signage for it), was lost somewhere nearby among the wooded bluffs, slender beech trees and old, stout yews.
Thomas was deeply struck by his home’s beauty in the midst of an ever-encroaching and destructive modern world. In 1914 he wrote Up in the Wind, about the solitary Pub With No Name, and how its signboard was stolen and thrown into a pond. Keith turned left, saying that he’d never been here before. To the right, a rocky road led farther uphill to a private farmhouse and fields caressed by the long, slanted rays of the afternoon sun.
After driving haphazardly for an hour, signs for Petersfield, the closest town, appeared again. Keith suggested heading in that direction so that we could get a pint and stretch our legs. Once back on the main roads, the terrain was flatter, and reminders of modernity reappeared.
The houses are modest and suburban in character. Local pubs are ubiquitous, always within walking distance of homes. I knew that English actor Colin Firth had grown up in East Hampshire, and wondered if he had ever frequented these pubs as a teenager.
But, it’s not Colin Firth’s name, or even Jane Austen’s that keeps money flowing into East Hampshire. It’s cereal. East Hampshire is rural, and depends on grain crops, as well as some orchard and animal products. Its market towns are well populated, and serve as commuter hubs for London workers. Local businesses include a Coors Brewery.
In addition, small independents, such as the Triple fff Brewing Company, are winning “Real Ale” awards, which a consumer organization called CAMRA bestows in an effort to support and promote traditional beers.
Real Ale winners, Keith and I agree, are well worth trying. Where we disagree is Jane Austen. He detests her.
To my surprise, he suggested trying a pub that required passing through Chawton, the village she lived in between 1809 and 1817. According to her biographies, Austen was very happy during these years, and not only revised Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, but also wrote Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion.
The Jane Austen House and Museum is a simple structure made of brick. On the day of our visit, tourists were walking across its small front yard. Inside, the desk that Austen once used for writing is on display, as is some of her jewelry, needlework and several first editions of her novels.
The house has been restored to take you back in time, and the details are evident inside and out. The Old Bakehouse in the courtyard behind the home houses a refurbished donkey carriage that Austen used for traveling after she fell ill toward the end of her life, and there’s also a garden composed of plants and herbs in common use in the late 18th century.
Five minutes down the road, we reached our destination, the Rose and Crown. It’s believed that Austen’s brother, Edward Knight, built it in 1810. It, too, had an unassuming brick façade. Inside, dark wood floors and a log fireplace formed a backdrop to the bar, which featured a selection of local and national brews. Locals were consuming hearty meals of steak, green peas, salad and chips.
We ordered crisps and a pint of Alton’s Pride, a smooth bitter that won a CAMRA award in the 2004 Great British Beer Festival. A group of customers had brought their Labradors, and were drinking outside. It was a mild, cloudless afternoon, so we went outside, too. In one direction, we had a view of the Rose and Crown’s picnic-tabled garden; in the other, a golden field set in a broad valley.
Till now we had spent the day sitting on car seats and picnic benches. If we wanted to walk, Keith said, we could drive to neighboring Selborne. This village is home to the historic house of Gilbert White, widely considered England’s first ecologist.
We headed up compact, hilly streets, then parked next to the Mouth and Foot Painting Artists Gallery, dedicated to works painted by disabled artists with mouth- or toe-held brushes. We climbed to Saint Mary’s Church, built in 1180, where White was once curate. In back, we found a modest cemetery dotted with sunken gravestones and faded engravings.
Keith and I walked along the cemetery and down a vale past sheep that looked at us curiously, then nonchalantly continued eating.
Beyond a “kissing gate” — designed to prevent stray livestock, which only one person at a time can pass through — was a path. We followed it into a wooded area, passing an occasional home or fallen tree.
The day was beginning to fade, though remaining bits of sunlight peaked through the gentle forest brush.We ventured only so far before remembering that dinner was calling and the car still had to be returned.
Back on the motorway, we turned on the radio and I fell asleep after counting 30 rabbits on the road’s shoulders. When I awoke, the car was stopping and starting with the traffic signals and the rabbits’ red eyes had been replaced with signposts to Elephant and Castle. I asked Keith if he liked Jane Austen any better after our lovely day. His answer was still no.
If You Go
Jane Austen’s House
Campaign for Real Ale
To find local pubs that serve up the best ales, visit: www.camra.org.uk