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     One fine day in April I departed a train at Overton to search for the source of the River Test which rises in a field south of Ashe and flows for 40 miles to the Solent Estuary. This 15 mile circular walk took me around the Hampshire countryside west of Basingstoke to explore its fascinating villages, footpaths and history associated with arguably our greatest author. The first mile headed south from Overton before a further 2 mud laden miles in a southeast direction took me beneath the Winchester line to the lovely little village of Steventon. George Austen was rector at the neighbouring village of Deane between 1764 to 1768 before the family moved to Steventon. Of his eight children, the youngest of two daughters was Jane Austen, born 16th December 1775 at Steventon Rectory. She lived there for twenty-five years and wrote Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility before the family moved to Bath. Today all trace of this building has disappeared, demolished in 1824 by Jane Austen's brother, Edward, who built a new rectory further up the hill which is now the private 'Steventon House.'

         

     Beyond the village hall I turned right and followed a narrow lane between fields to an even narrower one off to the right that climbed through a leafy glade to the Church of St Nicholas. Somewhere in the corner of this junction within the field was where the rectory once stood. Nothing of it remains save for an iron pump surrounded by railings that once sat in the backyard of the rectory. Along with the nearby lime tree planted by eldest brother James Austen in 1813, this is the only artefact of Jane Austen’s to be found at this spot today. James, eldest of George Austen's children, took over the parish between 1805 and 1819. I peered over the iron fence from the road and found it easy to recognise but hard to image this quiet and unassuming field corner as the place where three of the greatest books of the English language were written. It was but a short climb up the lane to the church which had altered little since Jane Austen’s day, a lonely and peaceful spot set well away from the village itself. A mile on from there windswept field edges brought me to North Waltham, a lovely village never quite free of the background noise of the M3. Beyond the village store another mile in the same south-easterly direction brought me to the A30 and the ‘Wheatsheaf Inn.’ This eighteenth-century posting house once sat on the main coaching route from London to Winchester and Jane Austen often wandered along this very road to collect the family post, perhaps stopping a while to observe the upwardly mobile folk of the day. From the M3 a footpath to the left took me into Dummer, once home to Sarah Ferguson's father who was a keen supporter of the Wigmore Club and the little known sport of toe sucking. A narrow footpath by a cemetery took me to a lane which I followed back over the M3 alongside clumps of bewildered daffodils. From Trenchards Lane an intriguing 2 mile stretch of footpath took me along the line of a Roman road that hugged the south-western edge of Basingstoke. I had my doubts about this at first but it turned out to be one of the best bits of the walk. It started as an undulating path through woodland but as the suburb of Kempshott was reached the path, or track, became a defining line between housing and countryside. The most exciting part of this section was a red kite flying over me as it swooped low over the houses, its large wingspan made it look like something out of Lord of the Rings. Red kites have seen a welcome return to the Hampshire, Wiltshire and Berkshire countryside in recent years. The Hawk Conservancy Trust near Andover began a red kite release project between 2003 and 2005 and since then numbers in the northwest of Hampshire have increased significantly. After 9 miles the track turned sharp left by Pack Lane to the Winchester line by a black bench where I decided to stop for lunch. The bench was put there in memory of twelve year old Steve Paul Millington who died on the 4th January 2007 whilst out cycling. A life taken away too young.

 

   

      Beyond Battle Down Farm a left turn began a 5½ mile westward route via a chain of intriguing villages. Through Well’s Copse the cycle track ended at East Oakley where a muddy path took me across the railway line via a green footbridge. A left turn at Oakley brought me to St. Leonard’s Church and a fascinating selection of footpaths into open grassland. I took the middle one of three just as the rain fell. The Wayfarers Walk took me over the B3400 into Deane where I passed Deane House and All Saints Church to the village of Ashe. Beyond St. Andrew’s Church was Ashe House, formerly Ashe Rectory, onetime residence of Thomas Lefroy. He was the love interest of Jane Austen as portrayed by James McAvoy in the film Becoming Jane and possible inspiration for the character of Colin Firth, aka Fitzwilliam Darcy. Of more interest to me was a lake in a field to the south from which the first trickle of the River Test curved into the next field. From there just over a mile remained as I followed the serpentine bend of the young river to a stile and waterlogged footbridge. From Polhampton Farm the final stretch through Quidhampton to the station saw me finish in time for the 17:20 train. As can often happen on my walks, I came in search of one thing only to be rewarded by much more. This 15 mile circular, perfect for exploring Jane Austen country and a lot more besides, can be followed by downloading the route finder below and using with the OS Landranger 185 map. Enjoy!

 
 

 

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