Every year we flock in our millions to the far flung quarters of the globe to experience beauty and culture without realising it is here at home. We received 40 million visitors in 2018 to explore Great Britain’s beauty and heritage, what is it they know that we don’t. There are many beautiful areas we fail to visit and one is the Test Valley, an area of 250 square miles in West Hampshire, named after the River Test.
My journey begins at GambledownFarm, set in the glorious Hampshire countryside, a working farm operated by Tamara and Richard that has been changed in part into a self-catering centre, ‘Glamping’. Safari style tents accommodating up to 6 people in comfort, a former barn that has gone through extensive renovation to form two modern spacious living areas.
The ‘Cart Shed’, one of these living areas, it has to be said had been transformed into a 2-bedroom apartment that oozes quality. Each bedroom has its own bathroom, the main area of lounge, dining and cooking is immense, floor to almost ceiling windows on one side affording views to the patio, lawn and farmhouse beyond. Good use has been made of modern appliances, fridge, freezer, glass top electric hob, quality cutlery, pots and pans, it’s all there. The pop-up tower in the breakfast bar houses 2 USB ports, numerous electrical sockets adorn the area, one in the floor by the settee. Add to this comfortable bed, more than enough hanging and storage space, under floor heating, sky television, free Wi-Fi, the list is endless. For those not wishing to go shopping there is an ‘Honesty Shop’ stocked with everything from fresh meat to washing up liquid and BBQ fuel.
Under 5 miles away stands the National Trust property and gardens of Mottisfont Abbey extending over 1,645 acres where we meet our guide, Fran, who provides a very comprehensive talk and tour of the grounds. Starting life in 1201 as an Augustinian Priory, since when the premises have had several owners. Henry Vlll during his dissolution of the monasteries gifted the premises to Sir William Sandys who transformed it into his country home. The 18th century saw the property change hands to the Mill family who changed the appearance of the premises and in the 19th century it became a centre for various sports and pastimes. It was in 1957 that the premises were gifted to the National Trust who are now responsible for the upkeep of the house and extensive grounds with the help of, depending on the season 40-50 gardeners and 500 volunteers who act as guides and assist in running the visitor centre, ice cream parlour, refreshment and exhibition area. During summer months the premises are best visited during the week days when it is quieter thus avoiding queues and crowds. Don’t forget the well stocked second hand book shop and after all this try a ‘Cream Tea’ scones, jam, clotted cream and tea. Still don’t know which goes on the scone first, jam or cream!
Time to start thinking of dinner, but where to go is the question. Eventually we decide on the Royal Jaipur Restaurant on Southampton Road. Excellent food, good service, and a delightful White Zinfandel at prices that won’t break the bank.
Following a good night’s sleep in a very comfortable bed it’s time to cook breakfast with ingredients supplied by the farm, they don’t get much fresher than that. Breakfast out of the way a day of exploring this beautiful region begins.
First stop, the Hawk Conservancy Trust at Weyhill, open all year round but from spring to autumn 10am -5.30pm, entrance fee £15.25 for adults with reductions for children, students and the over 60’s. The onsite Feathers Restaurant operates 9am – 5.30pm so if arriving early and a cup of tea or coffee beckons before the visit this is the place to welcome you. The conservancy began life as the Weyhill Zoo in 1966 but in the 80’s changed its name to the Hawk Conservancy specialising in birds of prey. The conservancy has built an enviable reputation over the years, the birds featuring in TV programs such as Sir David Attenborough’s ‘The Life of Birds’ and even a James Bond film. During the late 90’s and early 2000s, the Hawk Conservancy Trust won awards as both a visitor attraction and a conservation organisation, now, with over 130 birds of prey, 40 plus staff and in excess of 60,000 visitors each year it is no wonder this is Hampshire’s No.1 attraction plus operating the National Birds of Prey Hospital.
11am, it’s time to attend the Vulture Aviary to receive the keepers talk on the species. From here it’s the first display of the day, ‘Wings of Africa’ flying display with excellent commentary by Gary. The conservancy have developed a very large area that replicates the African Savana and here the display takes place, and what a display, various species flying the area, swooping to collect fish from the pond before soaring from location to location. A display of how a Secretary Bird kills snakes in its native habitat, who has ever seen a bird karate kick a rearing cobra! Don’t worry the snake’s a replica. The finale is almost beyond description, fire on the Savana whilst the birds perform their final display to background music of ‘Now We Are Free’, it leaves a lasting impression. Time to meet the burrowing owls inside their aviary with an informative talk about them, again from Gary. Never had an owl perch on my open hand before. Lunch follows in the Feathers Restaurant.
Next port of call, Sir Harold Hillier Gardens at Romsey, home to some of the worlds most important plant collections featuring in excess of 42,000 varieties, who would ever imagine there were that many. Although open year round, April – October it’s 10am-6pm, entrance fee of £11.25 for adults but with concessions for children and others. Established by Sir Harold Hillier in 1953 the gardens, all 178 acres, were left under the sole trusteeship of Hampshire County Council and are now run as a charity. The administrative offices of the gardens operate from Jermyn’s House, a property bathed in history dating back to the 18th Century. During WW2 it was used as the HQ for the local Home Guard. With such extensive grounds you will do a lot of walking as you wander along the paths admiring, plants, trees, vegetation and carvings from around the world. From the viewing area take in magnificent views of the rolling countryside followed by a welcoming stop at the light and airy tea room which is also open all year. For those less able there are mobility scooters for hire at very reasonable cost but these need to be booked in advance. Anyone looking to purchase plants etc. the area has its own garden centre.
Soon the sun is dropping into the west and its time to head back to Gambledown Farm for dinner.
Come morning, our last venue on this whistle stop tour of the Test Valley, Houghton Lodge Gardens at Houghton near Stockbridge, situated amongst 14 acres of countryside. The Walled Garden is home to numerous varieties of fruit, vegetables and flowers. They are set in orderly rows and patches with paths allowing the visitor to navigate the area with ease. Wander through the iron gate, cross the grass which is littered with colourful wild spring flowers to the small bridge straddling the Spring Ditch. The Spring Ditch is a stretch of water meandering through banks and trees to the River Test beyond. Built in 1793 Houghton Lodge is set on the banks of the River Test and said to be the best example of a Cottage Orné from the 18th century in the UK. What is a Cottage Orné you ask? Well, it’s also known as a Decorated Cottage and dates back to the days of the romantic style when people wanted to experience a more natural way of living away from the large architect designed houses. From the terrace the River Test flows silently by affording a wonderful peace and tranquillity.
A new addition to Houghton Lodge Gardens is the six well equipped ‘apple’ rooms finished in August 2018 and each room named after a variety of apple tree. They come in various sizes with kitchens, bed sitting rooms, bathrooms and are accessible. This is an ideal location for those looking to spend a few nights whilst touring the area. A visit to the tearoom is a must, recently renovated but originally converted from a cow shed.
The Test Valley is certainly an area that deserves a visit, personally I wish I had spent more time there, but now, I have the excuse to re-visit this beautiful area that has so much to offer.
My special thanks to Tamara and Richard for making me so welcome.