Alresford’s a popular Hampshire market town, near Winchester on the edge of the south downs. It’s a hidden gem, surrounded by the Hampshire countryside.
Tucked away in the southern part of the country, it boasts charming streets, a scenic river named Alre.
Exploring Alresford means discovering not just a town, but a place filled with history, nature and a whole lot of Watercress!
There’s the beautiful Georgian New Town which for many centuries was a prosperous wool town, and the village of Old Alresford a mile to the north.
Whilst Old Alresford is mentioned in the Domesday Book, New Alresford didn’t come into existence much before 1200 when a Great Weir was built to create Old Alresford Pond as a fishpond for Bishops of Winchester.
During the reign of Henry VIII, lots of clothiers, dyers and tanners worked around here, in part due to the abundance of the fresh water.
This also helped the area develop its watercress industry, although it didn’t become a major business until the 1860s and the arrival of the railway which could carry the perishable cress to distant markets.
You’d have thought with all the water around here that fire wouldn’t be a major concern but Alresford’s been damaged by quite a few fires over the centuries. The most destructive was in 1689 which destroyed 117 houses as well as the Church and Market House.
Sir Christopher Wren, famous for St Pauls Cathedral and many London churches, played a part in the rebuilding of Alresford by releasing building materials from Winchester’s unfinished royal palace.
Good communications are always a benefit, and being located between Winchester and London has been good for Alresford. For hundreds of years, pilgrims to and from Canterbury found it convenient to use the route. Once proper roads were built more and more coaches and freight wagons passed through, trade increased for the local inns.
Over time, Alresford became an important staging post and key amongst the staging inns were the George Inn owned by Winchester College who, along with the church, were one of the main property owners in the area. Formerly the Angel, it changed name in honour of King Henry V’s victory at Agincourt. Although no longer an inn, you can still see an archway to the old stables.
Places to visit
Old Alresford Pond
Old Alresford Pond was built in the 12th century to supply fish to the Bishop of Winchester. After all, fresh fish was a luxury in the Middle Ages.
Pike, perch and bream would be eaten fresh on fish days and during Lent, and were delicacies enjoyed by only the very wealthy. In later years, sluices were added so they could use the water to power the local mills.
Some of these sluices have been restored and can be seen down a path to the right of The Globe Inn.
The large pond attracts significant numbers of wetland birds and today is one of the best inland sites in Hampshire for migrant waders, as well as other wildfowl and otters.
Who doesn’t love an otter?!
There’s lots of lovely walks to enjoy in this picturesque town, the riverside walk is a delight, although can be muddy in wet weather!
One building to spot straddling the River Alre is a 13th century timber-framed Fulling Mill.
The word ‘Fulling’ is a milling term. The fulling of cloth is a process to tighten and shrink the cloth into a closely woven product.
For many years, this was done by human feet in shallow streams. With the arrival of waterpower, fulling mills were built and for centuries the area resounded to the sound of hammering as they prepared the cloth.
Another building straddling the clear waters of the River Alre is a historic Eel House, one of the last buildings of its kind. As its name implies, it was once used to trap eels as they set out to breed.
On dark moonless nights between August and November, eels would set off from the tributaries of the Old Pond, travelling down the Alre to the River Itchen and onto the sea to return to their spawning grounds.
Some say they’re thousands of miles away in a place called the Sargasso Sea.
For hundreds of years, river keepers would take hurricane lamps and open the sluices, set traps and manoeuvre the catch into a boat shaped eel box. When full, they would wait for the arrival of merchants from London who would take the eels away in tanks.Embed from Getty Images
The Eel House was recently restored and is open several days each year when you can see what has been done and also a small exhibition on eels and the Eel House.
What you said
“I like how the mechanisms work and how fascinating it is. They come down to breed and the other fish don’t because they’re like, “this is a strong current, I don’t want to go there.” So they put down the net and then they swim through and there’s three bits and it separates. It looks like a little shack and it’s quite confusing because there’s all these different types of nets. In springtime they would stand up but in winter they would go in and they would put the chairs out and wait for something to go into their nets. You can go on a walk and you can see it.“
The Old Fire Station
Alresford has been damaged by fire on a number of occasions.
At the bottom of Broad Street is The Old Fire Station – another fascinating piece of history. Built in 1882, it was used until the Second World War. It’s recently been re-furbished and currently houses a horse drawn Victorian steam driven pump fire appliance.
You can go inside on several days a year.
What’s interesting is that when the Fire Station was built, fire engines were comparatively small and pulled by horses, and it was relatively unknown for a small town to own and run a fire station.
For many years, insurance companies organised the fire engines, although they’d only put out their own fires. Buildings that they insured had a ‘fire mark’, a small plaque on the front wall. If their fire fighters were called to a fire and didn’t see their plaque, they’d turn tail and let the flames do their worst.
It was definitely worth making sure you’d paid your insurance!
Around the corner from the Fire Station and down a path to the right of The Globe Inn is Soke Gardens. Something to look for here is a plaque which honours Captain Robert Cogswell.
On 26th September 1943, he was piloting a B17 Flying Fortress called “Lady Luck” with a full bomb load.
Whilst flying over Alresford, the engines failed.
Cogswell ordered his crewmen to bail out, but remained on board in an attempt to steer the bomber away from the town.
He steered the plane just east of Old Alresford Pond and was able to jump to safety just before it crashed.
That was so brave. Can you imagine the fire if the bombs had exploded?
St John’s Church
For something more peaceful, you might like to visit one of Alresford’s historic churches.
St. John’s stands on a site where Christian worship has continued since 1200. It continues to serve the needs of Alresford and its visitors, and is open every day for prayer and for people to admire its mix of architectural styles.
Watercress in Alresford
The clear chalk streams here have attracted people for many centuries and created perfect conditions to grow watercress.
Originally, it grew wild, picked and eaten by local people, but over the years it became an important crop to grow, especially so when the railway arrived in 1865.
Railways really turbo charged the way we could move things around. They were an enormous benefit for perishable crops like watercress. Until the railway, it could only move by horse and cart along rickety roads, so it only had a local market.
It would have wilted and rotted before it reached Covent Garden in London. With the coming of the railway, it became commercially viable to pick cress in the afternoon, transport it by cart to Alresford Station in the evening and be on sale in Covent Garden in the early hours of the following morning.
Dozens of new and bigger farms, and modern ways of cultivating this tasty crop, meant that by the 1920s many smaller growers were squeezed out.
It was a shame but it was all part of making things more efficient. One big change was digging bore holes to bring warmer water from deep underground to help keep the watercress free from frost. In fact, on cold winter’s day, steam can be seen floating over the beds.
Don’t forget to try some watercress for yourself! It’s best between April and October.
Hampshire is still the main watercress producing area in the country, although machinery now does what was previously a labour-intensive task and the annual watercress festival takes place on the third Sunday in May.
We’ve mentioned that the railway arrived in Alresford in 1865.
Called the Mid Hants Railway, it ran for 17 miles from Alton to Winchester to serve not only the local population but to also provide an alternative route between London and Southampton.
The railway played an important role during both World Wars, carrying military traffic between the army town of Aldershot and Southampton. The US Army’s 47th Infantry Regiment was headquartered in Broad Street between 1943 until D-Day.
Although the original railway closed in 1973, the Watercress Line has been a popular heritage railway since 1977 running between Alton and Alresford.
Between Alton and Ropley, the line crosses the watershed between the Thames and Itchen basins, and the resulting steep gradients are commonly called by railwaymen as “Crossing the Alps”.
For film fans, the Watercress Line has appeared in a number of films and TV series, including ‘Call the Midwife’ and the footbridge at Ropley will be very obvious to fans of Harry Potter.
It’s the bridge at Kings Cross where Hagrid gives Harry his first Hogwarts Express ticket in The Philosopher’s Stone. It was rebuilt here in 2013.
What you like
- “We like walking on the Alre Valley Trail along the river – you can see ducks and swans and even see trout in the river!”
- “My family comes every year for the Watercress Festival – my dad makes a really good watercress and bacon soup.”
- “I love going on the old steam trains – because they have preserved them and you can go for a ride.”
- “My name is Oscar and I’m talking about the Alresford station and Good Shed. During both world wars the line carried military traffic between Aldershot and Southampton. The station platform still has the gas lighting and it changed its name to the Mid Hants Railway in 1865.“
- “My name’s Nancy and I’m going to tell you about the watercress beds. Did you know when watercress is in a dark space like in a cupboard, it can still stay alive, it will just change colour?
The Millennium Trail
Alresford is a pretty cool place to explore, for young and old. As well as Broad Street with its shops, why not check out The Millennium Trail that links footpaths around the town with illustrated boards with information on the history of Alresford, its inhabitants, wildlife and countryside. The walk is about one mile.
The Watercress Way
A slightly longer walk is a 27-mile circular route for walkers which uses sections of two old railways and other rights of way between Alresford, Kings Worthy and Sutton Scotney.
Don’t forget you can watch the beautiful countryside roll pass the window on the Watercress Line, running 10 miles from Alresford to Alton where it connects to the National Rail network.
Getting to Alresford
Hop on a South Western Railway train to Winchester station and then jump on a bus to Alresford to explore!