Take St Swithun’s Way off the B3047 south from Alresford in Hampshire, just short of the roundabout where gypsies park caravans, where a greyhound lies in the shade of a cart and a shire horse grazes the kerbside, and pass from the 21st-century dual carriageway into an ancient drove lane, narrow and winding under an avenue of tall beech trees.
June sun blasts though a lime-green canopy and dapples the curving road in a pattern like the spots on trout. The lane snakes downhill into a cave of shadows, under cliff-faces of fractured chalk, ferns and a cascade of beech leaves, then levels out as it hump-backs a wrought-iron bridge, under which flows – darkly, quietly – a small spring-fed stream. It is one of many that thread and braid their way through the damp thickets of wild wood and water-meadow all about. You are now in the upper valley of the River Itchen.
Hear the sounds of a Hampshire summer’s day: voices in a garden, a tinkle of crockery, the soft ‘take-two-coos-taffy’ call of wood pigeons. All around the electric fidget of chirruping birds: reed warblers, willow warblers, sparrows. And a lilting ripple. Water is everywhere. The river slides languorously under an ancient brick bridge. Other streams and tributaries join from north and south, burbling here and there, so that it feels as if the land were floating on water, and partly mobile, the roads and paths only stepping stones. Stamp and the ground wobbles.
The heart of chalk country
The Itchen is a chalk stream that, like the Test, its sister in the next valley, flows through the heart of chalk country, the rolling landscape of south-east England that might call to mind wheat fields under billowing clouds in summer, or warm beer or novels by Thomas Hardy, or equally the M3 through Twyford Down.
Chalk builds a landscape that is friendly and malleable. So much of it is built over or riven through with fast roads that it is all too easy to take chalk for granted, and not to see that beyond the suburban margins and industrial-scale wheat fields that cover much of it lies an older, slower England, and nature at her most fecund and beautiful. The French call their equivalent France profonde. Deep England perhaps?
At the end of the lane beside a pub called the Bush Inn, the path to Itchen Stoke is effectively a causeway across streams. The narrow, reed-fringed trail seems perched on water that is invisible but for the shimmering reflections and the domed tresses of swaying weed beneath. The surface is dotted with constellations of white flowers – stream-water crowfoot – the banks are a bunting-lined street of yellow flag iris. Pilasters of sedge and dog rose rise out of the marshy peat like the stumpy remains of an ancient temple.
For a long time no one quite knew the true origin of chalk. It took a microscope to see that this white rock, which more or less defines us in the defiant and luminous cliffs of Dover, is made up of the tiniest of tiny shellfish. And it took the surveyors of the Atlantic floor – working on inter-continental electric telegrams – to discover that the very same stuff is at the bottom of the sea in a wide and even and unbroken plain. Our chalk hills were once the bed of the sea too – a prehistoric sea. They were built from tiny shellfish that died and sank and took millions of years to accumulate; millions more to become
the surface of a European landmass; and millions again to erode away into the solitary wave that is left, a line of whiteness that stretches from Dorset to Yorkshire, taking in most of the home counties and East Anglia between. But Hampshire is at its centre, where the chalk hills extend to the horizon in all directions and the rivers are the most perfect expression of an already perfect entity.
Across this heaving white bosom of English chalk, rain falls and sinks underground so that an ocean of it is trapped within the rock until gravity, the lay of the land and the impermeable seams of clay and flint that intersect the chalk deep underground, all combine to force that water to the surface. It may surface beneath a yew tree, or in a church yard, or deep within the copse on the side of a hill, or perhaps in some unprepossessing sheep field. And when this happens a chalk stream is born.
Charged by the alchemy of the rock, chalk streams are cold, clear and fertile. Nurtured by their ceaseless and equable flows, chalk stream ecosystems are as vibrant and varied as any on Earth. And in England there is deep history, too. People have lived beside, with and because of chalk rivers for thousands of years.
Heart of the community
Not far from here, close to the source of the river in Alresford, a thatched fulling mill bestrides the waters. A notice high on the wall cautions passers-by that fishing is prohibited. The sign is dated 1275. This 13th-century millhouse is most likely built on the site of another. Chalk rivers have worked mills for thousands of years: grinding corn, washing wool, mashing rags to make paper. Nearby stands the old tanning yard, a smelly place once, but a polite neighbourhood nowadays. A little further on huddles an eel house, only 200 years young. And at the end of this path, I cross the flow again, between water-meadows. Here, an arched brick culvert spans a small stream and is flanked by two ash trees that have been there so long their roots have woven together to form the structure of the bridge, its parapets and pavement. Not far away, a brick-lined hatchway lies buried in the nettles. Look about and the field is dotted with structures like these, that hundreds of years ago governed the washing of water over riverside fields in winter, to bring on early growth in the grass and to protect it from frost.
Back to the river and fish shimmy away and shimmy back again. Occasionally a brown trout rises to take an insect and leaves a splashy whorl on the surface. Once in a while you might see someone fishing for them here, their fly line flicking back and forth in the air, landing like thistledown. It is a bewitching spectacle and baroque too, given the same fish can be caught just as easily, in fact far more easily, with a worm. But the cult of the dry fly – fishing with a hook dressed with special feathers to represent not just an insect, but a particular type, sex or stage in any given insect’s lifecycle – was born on the Test and Itchen, in part because these chalk rivers are so fertile.
Around 150 years ago, the leisured gentlemen of Victorian London began to travel here by train and experiment with elaborate imitations of the zooniverse of insects that thrive in these chalk waters. They mounted their creations on silk lines and threw them at pernickety trout. And followers of the religion – though some say it is more serious than that – have been doing the same ever since. The trout play along in as much as that, for a reason no one quite understands, they will focus on one insect and eat only it to the exclusion of all others. This is the fishing version of The Times crossword and utterly addictive. You might ask that angler how he’s getting on and if he answers at all he’ll shrug his shoulders, while the fish rise all about him. Don’t worry. That’s the whole point.
It is mesmerically still and peaceful here. The river glides serenely under banks of willow and sedge. Catkins and mayflies drift by on the surface. A pair of bright blue dragonflies spar and dogfight among the reeds. I sit on the bridge a while, just watching. I could watch all day. As I sit, an old lady walks down to the river; her border terrier 50 yards ahead crosses the bridge, turns and jumps in, like an old man going for his constitutional. “He looks like he does that every day,” I say to her. “He does,” she says, “I reckon it’s good for him and so does he.” The dog has made it to midstream and holds station there paddling below us, huffing and puffing. The old lady pauses on the bridge and for a while all we can hear is the breeze skittering leaves into a dry, lazy, summertime rattle, the ‘chu chee, chu chee, chu chee’ rise and fall of reed warblers, the buzz of flies. And her dog taking his daily exercise. “It’s not a bad spot is it?” I ask. “Not bad?” she says. “It’s the best place on Earth.”
Chalk stream wildlife
It’s all The Wind in the Willows by a chalk stream. Indeed, the book was written with one in mind. Look out for otters (if you’re very lucky and it’s early or late) and water voles, or Ratty. He scuttles along the bank edge under your feet, shy but out and about in the daylight. Dancing in rise and fall loops, you’ll find mayflies on their mating flight. Two years in the mud living like a worm; one day in the air living like an angel, that’s the life of a mayfly. Eating them with some enthusiasm will be brown trout, the prettiest fish that swims. Look out also for white-clawed crayfish – you’ll need keen eyes for them – kingfishers, herons and the fish grayling, minnows and bullheads. The pretty water-weed with daisy flowers will be stream-water crowfoot, or the one that looks like an Assyrian beard will be starwort. In the meadows you may see southern marsh-orchids and flag iris.
Make the most of your time among these beautiful chalk rivers with our guide to the best places to eat and stay
– plus things to do while you’re there
Hampshire is well served by main roads. From London and the east, the M3 bisects the county, passing through major settlements such as Basingstoke and Winchester, before ending in Southampton. The A34 runs north-south through the county from Newbury and Oxford, while the A303 links Hampshire with the west and south-west.
By rail, a regular service runs from London Waterloo through the county to stations such as Basingstoke, Micheldever, Winchester and Eastleigh. From Bristol and the west, change at Southampton Central for Winchester. There is a direct service from Manchester, Birmingham and Oxford to Winchester.The Test Valley is served by irregular bus services from Andover, Winchester and Romsey. Plan your journey at www.travelinesw.com.
Unmissable day out:
If you only have one day to explore the beautiful chalk streams of Hampshire, go to the town of Stockbridge in the Test Valley, pause for a coffee at the Thyme and Tides café (www.thymeandtidesdeli.co.uk) and then take the National Trust Marsh Common walk. Afterwards, drive downstream for lunch and an afternoon at the National Trust Mottisfont Abbey (www.nationaltrust.org.uk/mottisfont), a country estate and once the site of a 13th-century Augustinian priory.
Howard Taylor of Upstream Dry Fly can arrange fishing days for beginners or experts on the rivers Test and Itchen. Learn how to cast a fly, improve on your skills, take a day with a guide, or take a day on your own. You can even buy a day’s fishing as a gift voucher for a special present.
Tel: 01425 403209
Places to stay:
The Peat Spade Inn
Peat Spade Inn has a great menu and wine list. Locals prop up the bar – a good sign – and diners fill the restaurant. The rooms are comfortable. Take a dawn walk along the lane to the eel pots at Leckford before returning for breakfast.
Address: The Peat Spade Inn Longstock SO20 6DR
Tel: 01264 810612
The Yew Cottage
Yew Cottage is a wonderfully peaceful bed and breakfast. There are two pubs in the village of Longparish that serve food in the evenings and there is also a lovely walk across the water-meadows to the banks of the River Test.
Address: Longparish SP11 6QE
Tel: 01264 720325
Fabulous coffee, tea and sandwiches, and not far from a riverside walk beside the River Alre.
Address: Alresford SO24 9AR
Tel: 01962 738730
The Bush Inn
Just about the best chalk stream pub you’ll find. Can be busy – the secret is out. Excellent beer and excellent food. Try the cheddar ploughman’s for a truly English experience.
Address: Ovington SO24 0RE
Tel: 01962 732764
The Plough Inn
I’ve eaten here several times, usually when staying at the
Yew Cottage, and the food is always excellent.
Address: Longparish SP11 6PB
Tel: 01264 720358
Park at Tun Bridge on the road between M3 J10 and St Cross, Winchester. Climb St Catherine’s Hill for sweeping views of the surrounding countryside. And then follow the Itchen Navigation south. It stretches for around 14 miles to Southampton, so you can follow it for an hour or a whole day if you wish. Don’t worry – it might sound like the name of a canal, but in fact the navigation is a beautiful chalk stream, albeit ‘improved’ by man in the early 18th century, just one arm of a braided river.
To start this walk, park on the High Street in Stockbridge. There are plenty of cafés, galleries and gift shops to browse here, so leave time for a browse before you set off. When you reach Lillies Tea Room, take the footpath south until you reach Common Marsh, a National Trust reserve that runs for a mile or so beside the beautiful River Test. This is the perfect place to eat a picnic and read The Wind in the Willows. The walk takes an hour to the far end of the common and back, so it’s not far back to Stockbridge, where you can stop for refreshment.
You are in a watery place anyway, so if it rains, put on a coat and wellies and pretend to be a duck. Or go to Mottisfont Abbey. Or Winchester, where you can still walk beside the River Itchen, but take refuge in shops, cafés, restaurants and the cathedral, a place of worship for more than 900 years.
Image: © Copyright David Martin and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence