A taste of the countryside of Hampshire

2008-05-12 00:00

Horndean, Monday, May 5. Cloudy, mild weather graced my first four days in England, but today is wet. Spring is well advanced, the darling buds all sprouted, bluebells in full dress, the daffodils already over.

At Gatwick airport (where all my precious, expensive biltong was confiscated) I took a train to Guildford. After the throngs at baggage collection, passport, and customs, the station was calm and quiet though busy. Trains stopped every few minutes, bound for names remembered from books and news in years gone by (England is very much part of my cultural heritage): Bristol, Portsmouth, Southampton. They glide softly in. Passengers get off and on in orderly fashion, without shoving and screaming. The train glides out.

At the next platform, people waited for a train that never arrived. The loudspeaker system kept them well informed about the problem and what was being done. Did they burn the place down or set fire to other trains? They did not. The station is sparkling clean, not a scrap of litter to be seen, the many clocks are on time to the second, and my train was just as punctual.

My niece, Caroline, met me at Guildford station and drove me to their home near Petersfield. There isn’t space to tell you about their pretty and comfortable house and large garden set almost on the edge of a beech wood, in the grounds of an old estate. A small flock of fowls scratches under ancient yew trees. That night, the screams of a rabbit close by told of a fox’s hunting success.

In the afternoon I went for a walk into Petersfield, their town. Centuries old, it is as pictures-que and charming a place as you could wish to see. The story-book village square, complete with spreading chestnut tree and statue of Billy the third astride his horse, is surrounded by neat shops with relaxed shoppers going safely about their business. Narrow streets framed by leaning yews twist and turn so that I was soon hopelessly disoriented, but the natives are friendly and happy to help a stranger.

After supper we went to a cosy pub for an ale. Other people arrived too, with dogs: it seems to be accepted that the pooch goes along to the local. This calls to mind a big difference between home and this place: the passage of walkers in Hilton is normally announced loudly by the neighbourhood’s dogs, which usually turn a pleasant stroll into a gauntlet of cacophony. It seems not to happen here.

My son, Guy, fetched me on Friday evening. They also have a nice, comfortable home, but are cheek by jowl with dozens of look-alike houses. Cars all park on the street, for the garages serve as storerooms. It is unnaturally quiet — no loud music, no motorbikes or speeding cars, no dog barks. In fact, I recollect hearing barking only once since arriving in England.

This area, nearer Ports-mouth, is just as pretty as Petersfield but a little “wilder”. Saturday began with an early walk in the woods behind the house. Masses of bluebells and choruses of blackbirds served for red carpet and royal fanfare: I felt so very privileged. The path wanders in and out of the woods, over meadows with friendly horses and indifferent sheep, to the local church set in the inevitable graveyard. It’s all very quaint, with ancient trees and green lawns embroidered with cowslips, Bellis perennis and more bluebells.

Later, I cycled to Waterlooville, a most satisfying experience. For one thing, the traffic is civilised, disciplined and courteous. No cowboy taxis or GP cars selfishly barge and hoot, breaking all the rules of the road and generally behaving worse than cattle. I miss them in a negative, pleased way.

Sunday we drove over the South Downs so that I could see where to go cycling in the next few days. The sky was overcast all day, so my photos are barely adequate — the yellow rape fields and emerald lanes are coloured in anaemic pastel where shimmering oils are needed, and from the hilltops the villages surrounded by woods in the valleys seem to be hidden in a thin veil of mist.

Time to go riding.

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