Alton is a market town in East Hampshire, around 50 miles from London and near the source of the River Wey.
It’s a delightful mix of historic buildings and modern shops and arcades, and is well known for its regular market days and fairs. It’s also great for outdoor activities like hiking and cycling.
The natural beauty of the area makes it a popular location for those seeking a tranquil and idyllic escape.
Alton’s always been a popular place to live – there’s even evidence of a Roman posting station nearby where a ford crossed the River Wey. Alton was on a Roman road that ran from Chichester to Silchester.
A significant hoard of Iron Age coins & Roman jewellery was found in a nearby field in 1996.
Two hoards were found – the second containing 206 coins, including ones of the Iron Age Kings, Tincomarus and Verica. The coins were probably buried at the time of the Roman invasion around 43AD.Embed from Getty Images
What’s interesting is that even though the coins were of Iron Age Kings, the designs were quite Roman and a Roman gold finger-ring was also discovered with this hoard, which could mean that Britons traded with Rome before their invasion.
The town grew around a Saxon settlement. It’s believed the name comes either from the Saxon word eawalton meaning ‘the place of beautiful springs’ or aewielltun meaning ‘farmstead at the source of the river’. There’s been quite a few Saxon discoveries, including the famous Alton Buckle which can be seen in the Curtis Museum.
Having invaded England, the Danes loved to plunder and terrorise, and did that when when they reached Alton. Whilst many Danes were killed in a battle, ultimately they won!
A famous treaty was signed here in Alton in 1101. It was between William the Conqueror’s eldest son Robert Duke of Normandy, and his brother Henry 1st of England. After the death of William I, Robert ruled in Normandy and Rufus ruled in England. Rufus was killed in the New Forest and his brother Henry became king here – although some thought that Robert should have been King of England as the eldest son. Robert is said to have landed at Portsmouth and marched to Winchester. Henry though had thought that Robert would land in Sussex and so rushed back…
Alton has been a prosperous market town since the Middle Ages. In fact, the first recorded market was held in 1232.Embed from Getty Images
The town’s connections made Alton a popular coaching inn stop in later years.
In 1750 a coach named the “Alton Machine” travelled between Alton and London each day. Coaches between London and Southampton would have also stopped in the town.
When you look around the town, you’ll spot several coaching inns where travellers would have had a rest and something to eat.
One, the Swan Inn, has existed since 1499 and by 1674 had 18 chambers, a parlour, brewhouse, malthouse, and wine and beer cellars.
The Murder of Fanny Adams!
Sadly, there’s a darker side to the town’s history.
The murder of Fanny Adams. She was an 8 year old girl who was murdered in Alton on 24th August 1867.
It’s said she was playing with two other children in Flood Meadow only 400 yards away from her home.
Her mother, Harriet, had no reason to suspect the children were in any danger, and certainly not from a solicitor’s clerk who worked locally, 29 year old Frederick Baker.
What drove him to his vicious act we’ll never know but, the jury at his trial took just 15 minutes to deliver their unanimous guilty verdict.
In front of an angry crowd of 5,000, Baker was hanged outside the county prison, the last public hanging to be held at Winchester.
A very sad story. It’s strange that her death led to a popular, if gruesome, saying amongst sailors – they’d refer to their paltry tinned meat rations as “Sweet Fanny Adams”.
Places to visit:
The Town Hall
One building not to miss is the Town Hall.
Built in 1813 by public subscription and replacing a medieval market hall, the Grade II Listed building has had many uses.
In the 19th century, it was a school and dance venue, and has even been a cinema, Fire Station and Library.
The Market Square
Now, you can’t have a market town without a thriving market square!
Alton had a busy livestock market for hundreds of years until 1966.
Whilst the Market Square has undergone major changes, it’s still host to all sorts of events across the year.
St Lawrence Church
Churches are always places packed with history and one not to miss is the 11th Century Church of St Lawrence, which has witnessed a battle or two.
Alton was the scene of a famous Civil War battle, when parliamentarians rose up against the royalists, seeking to overthrow the monarchy.
The Royalist Leader Colonel Bolle was killed at the church and you can still see bullet holes in the south door.
The church’s history stretches back even further – the font dates to Saxon times and the pulpit is Jacobean – and another scene where a number of Royalists were killed fighting with the Roundheads.
A more pleasant part of the town’s history can be found at Alton Assembly Rooms off the High Street.
The building was designed by the great grandson of Sir Charles Barry who was responsible for designing Westminster Palace.
Initially privately owned, the building’s seen various uses including a Red Cross hospital during the First World War, before being passed to the town’s ownership to commemorate victory.
The Curtis Museum
The Curtis Museum is a great way to introduce children to the local history.
There are artefacts from prehistoric times, Roman pottery reconstructions and displays showing Saxon burials, the Battle of Alton and about hop picking and the local brewing history.
Check out the Alton Buckle, which would have fastened a belt. It has a silver gilt body and is inset with garnets and glass. It was found in the grave of an Anglo-Saxon warrior alongside a sword, shield boss and spear heads.
Gilbert White’s House
If you’re a fan of the natural world, check out the Gilbert White & The Oates Collections at Gilbert White’s House.
Gilbert had a life long fascination for the natural world, writing the world famous book ‘The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne’. He’s been described as the David Attenborough of his day!
His story is told within the walls of his family home and its unique 18th century garden.
The Watercress Line
We can’t call this podcast Trackside without mentioning trains!
If you’re a fan of heritage railways, why not visit the Watercress Line!
The line between Alton and Winchester opened in 1865 and as well as serving the needs of the local community, it also helped establish commercial watercress growing. This highly perishable crop need rapid transport to get it to the busy London markets.
Alton is the eastern tip of the Watercress Line, sharing the station with South Western Railway (who use Platforms 1 & 2). Either side of Medstead and Four Marks the line climbs a rather steep 1 in 60 gradient which is often described as going ‘over the Alps’. Ropley is a country station famous for its topiary and home to the engine shed and the King’s Cross bridge where Harry Potter received his Hogwarts Express ticket. The final station is Alresford in the beautiful Georgian market town and home of Hampshire’s watercress industry.
Climb aboard a steam train and embark on an incredible 10 mile journey through Hampshire’s picturesque countryside from Alton to Alresford. Close your eyes, and imagine you’re in the 1920s on your way to a holiday.
What you like
We caught up with some children to find out their favourite places to visit in and around Alton…
“I like going to Alice Holt Forest to ride our bikes, and they have climbing activities too.”
“My favourite place to visit in Alton is the Curtis Museum. They’ve got a really cool roman cup and a the alton buckle which is from Saxon times as well as lots of other fun things like a gallery about childhood things from the past.”
“I love trains so it was really cool to go on a real steam train on the Watercress Line.”
Famous People in Alton
Alton’s been home to all sorts of famous people across the centuries.
Green fingered William Curtis was born in Alton and was an influential botanist, who spent his life studying British plants.
His lavishly illustrated magazine ‘The Flower Garden Displayed’ launched in 1787 and continues today as Kew Magazine.
Cardinal John Newman was an English Catholic who, at the age of 15, moved to Alton after his father took over the Baverstock Brewery.
Their house was at 59 High Street dates to 1769 and bears a blue plaque.
Newman went on to become the first rector of the Catholic University of Ireland and made a big difference to the thinking of the church at the time.
Jane AustenEmbed from Getty Images
Perhaps the most famous resident of Alton is the famous author Jane Austen.
Her books take readers on magical journeys to the past – to a time when stately homes, balls, elegant crescents, horse-drawn carriages and elegant tea parties were all the rage with the rich and well connected.
She used pen and ink to create captivating stories filled with romance, wit and charming characters – and usually a little bit of mischief!
Perhaps her most famous work, Pride and Prejudice, follows the turbulent relationship between Elizabeth Bennet, daughter of a country gentleman, and Fitzwilliam Darcy, a rich aristocratic landowner, and how they have to overcome pride and prejudice in order to fall in love and marry.Embed from Getty Images
Some of her other popular works are Sense and Sensibility and Emma.
These books have been turned into more films and television shows than we can count – although, of course, that was well after her time!
It’s said she had a unique way of poking fun at the silly and sometimes absurd habits of people of her time.
She used her sharp wit and clever observations to make readers laugh and think about the world around them.
You would hardly believe some of the social customs and challenges of her day!
She was a keen observer of human nature understanding the complexities of relationships, the joys and sorrows of love, and the importance of making wise choices.
If you’re a fan of Jane or just curious to know more, you can visit Jane Austen’s House at Chawton – a short hop from Alton.
It’s the most treasured Austen site in the world.
In this inspiring cottage, Jane lived the last eight years of her life.
Here, her genius flourished and she wrote, revised and published all six of her globally beloved novels.
Today, Jane Austen’s House is a cherished museum with an unparalleled collection of treasures, including items of furniture, paintings and household objects.
You can discover Jane’s personal letters and first editions of her novels, items of jewellery that she cherished, portraits of her friends and family, and the tiny writing table at which she wrote.Embed from Getty Images
Don’t forget to check out the impressive gardens too – an idyllic spot to while away a summer afternoon and enjoy the garden wildlife amongst the flowers, herbs, trees and shrubs in a beautiful setting beside the old village green.
If you want to explore more of Alton’s literary past, the Writers Way Walk is a beautiful trail that takes you through Alton and surrounding villages.
It’s 13 miles takes you on routes regularly taken by Jane Austen and Gilbert White, and it’s said to have inspired him in his work as a naturalist, ecologist and ornithologist.
We caught up with some children to find out about Jane Austen and her house…
“Jane Austen was a famous local author. Her house at Chawton, formerly known as Chawton Cottage, is the most treasured Austen site in the world, and she lived there for the last eight years of her life. Her most famous books are novels including Sense and Sensibility and Emma. Her house was built in the late 17th century and was originally home to local farmers. It was also once a public inn. Jane played piano every morning before breakfast and she enjoyed walks in the Hampshire countryside. So, the house looks quite big and it’s made of brick and the windows are quite rectangular with like lots of squares and there’s also a lot of chimneys and tiles on the roof”.