Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 23, 2021
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Return to the River

A travel writer who grew up on the mystical River Test rediscovers the countryside of his youth

To grow up in a small Hampshire village in the valley of the River Test in the innocent years before the Second World War was surely the luckiest of childhoods. The summers seemed endless, horses were still more common than tractors, the pace of life was slow and there was an idyllic countryside to explore. After seeing much of the world in the years since then, I still marvel at my good fortune.

I marvel as well at how little the Test and its lush valley have changed in the last 50 years. Some of this is due to tough heritage-protection laws, which ensure that the character of the valley's historic villages is not compromised.

Whenever I return to England, I find myself drawn to the crystal-clear waters of the river at some point during my travels. Now, for the first time, I was standing where the Test rises out of the Downs, a picturesque region of chalk hills in southern England. Our young lives were played out along a short stretch of the river at Longstock, 25 kilometres downstream. As children, the thought of standing where "our river" began would have seemed almost as exotic as standing at the source of the Amazon.

My wife and I were here at this special place in order to trace the river's course to the sea at Southampton, 55 kilometres away, something I had long wanted to do. Our idea was to keep as close to the river as possible, and this pond near Overton, with its curious group of munching heifers, was the place to start.

The young river quickly becomes several feet wide, gliding with scarcely a ripple through a tranquil landscape rich with wildlife. But to the characters in Richard Adam's classic fantasy novel Watership Down, this part of the river was a fearful and forbidding place. It was the Test near Overton that the unforgettable rabbits had to cross in their search for a new home.

Our first stop was at Whitchurch to see one of England's few surviving silk mills. Built on an ancient water-power site, the present mill dates from about 1800. Its looms, winding and warping gear and water-powered machinery remain almost unaltered from the end of the last century. Silk from China comes into the mill in hanks after being dyed in Huddersfield or Suffolk. The looms are used to weave silk for legal and academic gowns and theatrical costumes, as well as for the mill's gift shop.

From Whitchurch we headed for Hurstborne Priors and then turned south to Longparish, stopping to visit St. Michael's parish church with its castle-like tower. Here the character of the river changes. The single channel divides into several streams and carriers which meander off on their own before returning to the main course. This maze of waterways has created countless reed-covered islands rich with moorhens, coots, mallards, tufted ducks, widgeons and teal.

About five kilometres further on is the village of Wherwell, one of the prettiest in the valley. It has a particularly fine group of crooked timbered cottages with thatch swept up over their windows in the Hampshire style. Near here, from a long-derelict airfield at Chilbolton, allied aircraft left on their missions over occupied Europe during the Second World War. The name conjured up memories of those days and of the kindness that American servicemen on the base showed to us as local children.

Less than two kilometres downriver from Wherwell is The Mayfly, a pub that in my childhood was called The Seven Stars. At the bottom of the pub's garden the River Anton comes in to join the Test. People now come from miles around for Sunday lunch at the Mayfly, where you can enjoy a pint of ale in the garden and feed the swans or watch for trout darting among the weeds.

The Test's fat trout look very inviting in the clear water, but take warning: Don't fish unless you have permission. The river, stocked from hatcheries, is hallowed among dry fly anglers as one of the great trout streams of the world, but access to its banks is strictly controlled and signs promise dire happenings to those foolish enough to trespass. The Houghton Fishing Club, one of the oldest and most exclusive in existence, has sole rights to 24 kilometres of the manicured river banks. Even its tiny membership list is secret, although General Eisenhower was a guest here after the D-Day Normandy landing and Prince Charles fished here on his honeymoon.


Guy Robinson, a water-keeper who manages a prime stretch of the river near Longstock, loves to talk about why the Test is so special. "As a chalk stream, the Test is usually crystal clear, winter and summer. You can look through over a metre of water and see every stone on the bottom. An angler can actually see the fish he's going after, so you're not fishing blindly. That's what people pay for!"

The village of Longstock, where I grew up, straggles along the road on the west bank of the river and has some fine timber-framed cottages dating from the 17th and 18th centuries. Like the ones at Wherwell, they're thatched around the upper-floor windows to give a "raised eyebrow" effect. Longstock also has an ancient Danish earthwork, locally called "The Moat," where Viking longboats once came up the river from the sea, as well as the Iron-Age hill fort of Danebury west of the village. Fewer magnificent beech trees crown its ridges than in my memory, but the site still offers fine views of the surrounding countryside.

At Longstock we crossed the river to visit Leckford, pausing on the way at the bridge across the main branch of the Test. In mid-stream is a much-photographed tiny thatched fishing hut which has always represented Longstock to me. On either side of the hut, eel traps can be lowered into the river to catch one of the Test's other delicacies. Here, as children, we never tired of watching water rats, otters and other river wildlife. It was like seeing all of the characters in The Wind in the Willows come alive before our eyes. We also watched World War II engineers practice building portable bridges across the stream at this point.

Leckford also has some fine thatched cottages, particularly those numbered 16, 17 and 18, a single thatched terrace probably dating from the 17th century. Nearby is the 15th-century parish church, the dumpy exterior of which hides a Norman Purbeck font, large altar paintings and carved choir stalls that wouldn't look out of place in a grand cathedral.

We moved on to Stockbridge, a good place to stay overnight, and then passed through the villages of Houghton (pronounced "Howton") and King's Somborne. Each of these villages has churches dating from the 12th and 13th centuries. Just below King's Somborne is Mottisfont Abbey, given to the National Trust in 1957. The present mid-18th-century mansion is built, like its Tudor predecessor, around the remains of an ancient priory church founded in 1201. The chief glory of the house is the Whistler Room, occasionally open to visitors. The name commemorates Rex Whistler, the artist who created the trompe-l'oeil fantasy on the ceiling of the room. A tributary of the Test flows through the abbey grounds, which contain extensive gardens and some magnificent trees, including the largest plane tree in England, now over 250 years old.

About five kilometres south of Mottisfont is the town of Romsey, the largest community on the river. We headed first for Romsey Abbey, originally the site of a Saxon wooden church which was rebuilt in stone in the 11th century. The purity and simplicity of the abbey's interior make it one of England's finest late-Norman buildings. From the abbey's south door, a pleasant walk leads along the river to Memorial Park.

The abbey is the burial place of Earl Mountbatten of Burma whose home, Broadlands, just south of the town is open to the public. With the Test flowing serenely through its grounds, Broadlands was built in the mid-1700s by Viscount Palmerston as a Palladian-style mansion combining the talents of Henry Holland and Robert Adam. Josiah Wedgewood also participated by creating a magnificent room with white friezes and mouldings on a traditional Wedgewood-blue background.

Below Romsey, the valley begins to widen as it approaches its estuary at Southampton Water. Not surprisingly, it is here where most changes have occurred -- including the river's passage under the M27 highway. We left the river long enough to visit my parents' grave in Southampton and then retraced our steps a mile or so to experience briefly one of the welcome additions to the valley: the Test Way long-distance footpath.

The footpath begins at Totten near Southampton and follows the river to Wherwell. Here the route leaves the Test valley and follows one of its tributaries, the Bourne Rivulet, into the highlands of Northern Hampshire ending at the Inkpen Beacon. But that was for another day. I hardly need an excuse to come back to this valley, but it's nice to know I've got one.


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