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     On Easter Monday I found myself in Soberton with a mind to explore one or two undiscovered gems of Hampshire's Meon Valley. For all of my countless ventures into what is (in my opinion) the most beautiful part of Hampshire, there were still one or two places I had yet to visit. Old Winchester Hill is probably the one spot in Hampshire I'd visited more than most, even long before I got into walking, but there was one part of it that still remained unknown. My parents used to take me there as a child. Back in the 60’s and 70’s it had not long been opened to the public as much of this beauty spot was deemed unsafe due to unexploded bombs from the time it was a military training ground during WWII. In later years its parking bays were better known to local lovers as a place for, shall we say, substantiating the deep respect they felt for each other! Today it sits proudly within a National Park and rightly so, Old Winchester Hill is a wondrous spot. At a height of over 640 feet its Iron Age hillfort commands a breathtaking panorama in virtually every direction. Although it is around 2,500 years old, the burial mounds within are 2,000 to 3,000 years older still. The northern ramparts of the old fort look over an extremely steep scarp that drops away to a stunning valley. Long have I gazed into this drop but never ventured within, so this was the day to put that right. I followed a highly rewarding 2 mile circular walk from the fort's eastern edge which includes a descent and climb that tests every sinew. The hill is a place of mystery, not least because of its name as it has nothing to do with Winchester, that lies out of sight 11 miles away. Some have suggested the name is Roman from when they had first intended to develop the site but I don’t buy that, for me it is intrinsically linked with its neighbour across the Meon Valley, the slightly higher Beacon Hill. The two communities that once lived in both of these hillforts may have been enemies or occupied at different times, but the strategic advantage they both command over any approach along the wide sweep of the Meon gap cannot be overlooked even when you look down into the valley floor today. Beacon Hill is the less striking of the two but for reasons that become evident later in the day, it should not be ignored. This was the first time I had ever combined a visit to both hills in one day.



     Beacon Hill was reached via Meonstoke, Corhampton and Exton where the River Meon can be seen at its best. The village churches brought their own rewards at Easter because of the fragrant flowers on display whilst Corhampton's delightful little Saxon 'Church with no Name' was a real gem. A linear climb from Exton to a trig point on the 659 foot Beacon Hill arrives at a recommended detour to the east for the best view of the Meon Valley with Old Winchester Hill across the divide. It is one of the most breathtaking panoramas in Hampshire and on a good day such as this chances are you will stand there gawping in the company of others doing much the same. With so much yet to walk, I found it hard to tear myself away.


     A long and gradual drop through Beaconhill Beaches and Wheely Down past some shaggy longhorns brought me to Warnford and the manic A32. A few yards along this was a permissive path to the 'Church of Our Lady' which provides the only access into the private grounds of Warnford Park. Here I discovered the ruins of St. John’s House, a rare 13th century hall for the south of England. It was first built around 1210 of stone and flint with a central area holding four columns on octagonal bases, one of them practically complete. I came to see the church but found one of the most remarkable medieval ruins in Hampshire. From Warnford I made for West Meon along a higher footpath to St. John’s Church.

     At West Meon the hour was getting late and with 5½ miles back to Soberton, the obvious answer was the Meon Valley Railway which provided a direct route, but as I was to discover even the line itself had a few secrets to reveal. I passed temporary closure notices indicating that it had been closed throughout March and this was to be extended through April for resurfacing work. Luckily, they had opened it for the Easter weekend and I could see what a transformation the old overgrown line was undergoing. West Meon Station was practically tree free, I had never seen it so clear. So much more had been done even since my visit in January. For practically the whole of the way down to Soberton this normally muddy surface had been covered in ballast. These improvements are down to the line being within the South Downs National Park boundary and most welcome they are too, but for how long I wondered. The same had been done ten years earlier along some sections but this line has a habit of resurfacing itself with mud in next to no time once the rainwaters drain down the steeper cuttings. Still, despite the inconvenience of temporary closures, it was all very welcome and to be enjoyed by all over the next few years.


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