Saxon History, Jane Austen and Hardy Country
Tucked between the southern counties of Sussex and the West Country proper sit the shires of Hampshire and Dorset, both rich in maritime history and a gentle, rolling landscape steeped in centuries of agrarian tradition. This was Wessex, the kingdom of the West Saxons, which rose in the 9th century under its visionary king, Alfred (the only monarch in British history styled “the Great”), to forge a united England. Here is a diverse, rewarding exploration of Wessex, with easy drive times throughout.
Day 1: To the Wessex Capital of Winchester
From the M25 south of London and Heathrow, take the busy A3 to Guildford. Then, turn west on the A31 along an escarpment known as the Hog’s Back, with views over the South Downs. At Farnham, you might detour a mile or so on the B3001 to visit the ruins of Waverley Abbey. The remains of the oldest Cistercian monastery in England (1128) sit in the watermeadows open to visitors anytime.
It’s just a few miles along to the village of Chawton. Jane Austen’s home and garden remain very much as she knew them. The Hampshire hamlet is the epitome of the country setting Jane Austen loved for her novels. Carry on to the ancient West Saxon capital of Winchester. Its broad thoroughfare is guarded by the statue of Alfred the Great, and Winchester Cathedral is one of the great historic cathedral visits. There are museums and antiquities to explore galore in Winchester. Stay the night, and if you’ve an extra day, it repays a full day in this small, historic city.
Day 2: Shiver Me Portsmouth Timbers
Turn south this morning less than an hour to seaside Portsmouth Harbour, home of the Royal Navy. The historic waterfront is highlighted by visits to Nelson’s HMS Victory, Henry VIII’s ill-fated Mary Rose, and the famed Victorian ironclad, HMS Warrior. You might also visit Portchester Castle, whose Norman keep is surrounded by the most complete Roman curtain wall in Europe, or the D-Day Museum in Southsea.
If you have another day or two, from Portsmouth you could take a ferry to the Isle of Wight—pay a visit to Cowes and Osborne House, and do a scenic drive around the island from the Needles to Shanklin Sheen.
Day 3: Ponies and Peugeots in the New Forest National Park
In the market town of Romsey, known for jam and basket-weaving, do call in at Romsey Abbey. Now the parish church, the abbey has Saxon roots with King Alfred’s sister. In summer, you might choose a visit to the homey mansion of Broadlands on Romsey’s outskirts, where the Queen and Prince Philip spent a part of their honeymoon.
Just down the road lies the New Forest. Only in England could they call a forest named by William the Conqueror “new.” The place to start is the New Forest Visitors Centre in Lyndhurst, the unofficial capital of the forest. Wild New Forest ponies graze placidly on the village greens and across the open moors. Drive the magnificent Rhinefield Ornamental Drive especially when the rhododendrons are in bloom. Or turn a few miles east to Beaulieu to the National Motor Museum (see “Great British Motor Museums,” September 2015). Encamp in Lyndhurst, where accommodation options are many (but have reservations on summer weekends).
Day 4: Dawdle on to Dorchester
However you place it in the day’s agenda, it’s only a couple of hours of drive time today. When it is time leave the Forest, make for the A31 to Ring-wood and into Dorset toward the county town of Dorchester. Near Wimbourne Minster, you might seek out the Georgian mansion of Kingston Lacey and its magnificent gardens. It’s a great place to see Downstairs as well as Upstairs life. At Tolpuddle, stop to catch the story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, widely regarded as the founding event in trade union history. You’ll also pass the gates of Athelhampton, one of England’s finest Tudor manor houses—and a memorable visit.
In the very center of Dorchester, the classic coaching inn is The King’s Arms—a convenient, moderate and historic place to stay. Hardy used to write poetry in the bay window. Dorchester’s TIC nearby offers many alternatives, and a range of maps and information on current events in town.
Day 5: Roman Crossroads and Casterbridge
By all means, take a day in and around Dorchester; the Dorset market town was Casterbridge in Thomas Hardy’s novels. Even if you’re not a Hardy fan, there’s a wealth history and heritage to be explored. The River Frome curls around the town and separates the High Street from the beautiful Dorset countryside. Dorchester was Durnovaria in Roman times. On the West Walks, catch a slice of the Roman Wall. Just to the south, check out the Maumbury Rings, a henge of prehistory, and later a Roman amphitheater. For the full story on Dorchester’s history, visit the Dorset County Museum in the heart of town (where Thomas Hardy and his study are a star attraction), and the Dorset Military Museum in the keep at Top ’o Town.
In the immediate neighborhood, take a short drive out to the Iron Age hillfort of Maiden Castle, largest in England. It was deserted when the Romans forced the Celts to move into Durnovaria. By way of contrast, you’ll pass through Poundbury, the new planned community on Prince Charles’ Duchy of Cornwall land. East just a couple of miles, visit the thatched cottage in Higher Bockhampton that is Hardy’s birthplace and Thorncombe Wood, where centuries-old beech trees form a canopy for the holly bushes on the floor below.
Day 6: From Journey’s End
If you have to turn back toward London today, it’s a comfortable drive with a couple of stops for exploring along the way. Or, turn north on the A352 to visit pretty Sherborne’s abbey and castles, then continue north to Bath or veer east to Salisbury. Yes, again, we are only spoiled for choice.