Hampshire's Beautiful Test Valley
The River Test runs through western Hampshire from the village of Ashe, near Basingstoke, to the Channel at Southampton Water, a distance of roughly 40 miles.
The Test Valley is home to idyllic villages, historic market towns, and some of the best fly-fishing in the world. The upper section of the river is fed by chalk streams, and its clear, shallow waters are a haven for avid fishermen. The river's course is best described as a meander, with water meadows ranged beside wide, sweeping curves of the river.
Much of the valley's charms lies in its villages; places like Wherwell, Nether Wallop, and Longstock, where picturesque thatched cottages line the ancient roadways. The 44-mile long Test Way leads walkers through some of the most picturesque landscape in England.
The river featured in Richard Adams' popular novel Watership Down, where the rabbits escaped from their enemies in a shallow-bottomed punt.
The Test Valley is centred around 4 main towns, each offering something slightly different to visitors.
Whitchurch is the smallest town in the valley, indeed, it is the smallest in all of Hampshire. Whitchurch is known for its early 19th-century silk mill astride the River Test, where you can see silk being made using historic Victorian machines.
In the north of the valley is Andover, a busy market town with a history dating back to the Saxon period. Andover has several popular museums, including the Museum of the Iron Age and the Andover Museum, while outside Andover at Middle Wallop is the museum of Army Flying, exploring the area's strong ties to the RAF.
At the southern end of the Test Valley lies Romsey, known for its superb abbey church. The church was built in the 12th century on the site of a Saxon nunnery and is one of the great Norman buildings of England. Opposite the church is King John's House, a restored timber-framed building dating to the 13th century and now housing a museum of local heritage.
Outside Romsey is Mottisfont Abbey, a stately home built from the ruins of a 12th-century Augustinian priory by Henry VIII's Lord Chamberlain. Alsop near Romsey is the Sir Harold Hillier Garden, one of the most popular visitor attractions in Hampshire. The gardens cover 166 acres and hold over 40,000 plants, including a Gurkha memorial garden with Nepalese plants and trees. South of Romsey is the country house of Broadlands, once home to Lord Mountbatten.
In the very heart of the valley, halfway between Romsey and Andover, lies Stockbridge. It the Test Valley can be said to have a capital, this is it. Look for the 12th-century 'Old Church' with its curious wall paintings and medieval door. The Grosvenor Hotel on the High Street is home to the Houghton Fishing Club, the oldest fishing club in the world. The town was once a famous 'rotten borough', sending two MPs to Parliament despite having a small population.
In the hills above Stockbridge is Danebury, an Iron Age hillfort offering spectacular views over the valley below. There are 5 acres of wonderful historic gardens at Houghton Lodge, an 18th-century Gothic cottage on a rise above the river.
I've been fortunate enough to visit the Test Valley on several occasions, including a wonderful week-long stay in the middle of June. Though I visited numerous historic attractions, it is the small villages I recall; places like Chilbolton, where thatched cottages come almost to the water's edge, and Wherwell, with its war memorial on a small village green, looking across to a picturesque row of thatched timber-framed cottages.
Some places are made to enjoy and move on, but the Test Valley is a place to linger, enjoy walking beside the river, stop at a riverside pub, put your feet up, and watch the water slide by.