The ruddy-faced man in Stockbridge High Street (flat cap stuck with fishing flies, Barbour, cord breeches, brogues, black Labrador strictly to heel) might have been posed there by Central Casting this crisp blue winter’s morning.
First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
The long, linear Hampshire village is famous for outdoor pursuits in the surrounding countryside, most especially fishing. Stockbridge straddles the Test, England’s best trout fishing river bar none. Jane and I hung over the bridge watching the olive green fish sinuating with the water weed. Then we struck out across the roof of Houghton Down, following flinty trackways that might well predate the Romans.
Brilliant scarlet rosehips and bryony berries, blush-pink spindle, the soft bloom of unfrosted sloes, crimson haws – the thick hedges flanking the old green roads of the downs were bursting with fruit. Among the bare branches moved darting flocks of fieldfares, russet-breasted thrush cousins over from Scandinavia for the winter, busy gobbling as many berries as they could get down their handsomely spotted necks.
A quick nasty smack of the A30, and we continued our high course along the green lanes. Two horses came cantering towards us, the riders grinning as they passed, their weatherbeaten faces cracking into multiple lines like a brace of kindly sea captains. In a trackside copse a wartime pillbox crumbled silently, its cheap utility bricks scalloped by rain and wind into artistic-looking hollows.
Shuffling through drifts of beech leaves, we followed the snaking track down off the ridge into Houghton, as quiet as a chapel on Sunday. The Test gurgled and chuckled under its footbridges, a mazy system of backwaters and sidestreams spreading a net of water through the shallow valley. The sun struck late colours out of the trees along the river – crimson dogwood, acid green willow, yellow birch, vivid against the smeary pearl of a wintry sky.
At Blacklake Farm a tiny terrier, trembling with eagerness, pushed his face through the garden fence and begged us unavailingly to take him along. We turned for home along the disused Sprat & Winkle railway line, now the Test Way footpath. A final detour through the rushy acres of Common Marsh, and we were walking the black peaty banks of the Marshcourt River, with Stockbridge church spire and hot buttered teacakes in Lillie’s Bakery as twin aiming points.
Start and finish: High Street, Stockbridge, Hants SO20 6HF (OS ref SU 357351)
Getting there: Bus (www.stagecoachbus.com) – 68 (Winchester) or 78 (Salisbury). Road – A30 from Winchester or Salisbury
Walk: (7½ miles, easy, OS Explorer 131): West (Salisbury direction) along Stockbridge High Street (A30). Cross River Test; up hill; at right bend (350352), left up Roman Road. At turning circle, ahead on paved path, then green lane. In ⅔ mile, rejoin A30 (339354); ahead for 200m (take care), then left (337353, ‘Byway’) on stony roadway for 1 mile. At road (323344), left (‘Byway’) along green lane. In ¾ mile, left at bench (322331) on green lane down to Houghton. (NB To reach Boot Inn, left on path by recycling bins).
At road, right (342321); in 300m, left (341319; fingerpost, ‘Monarch’s Way’). Cross River Test and pass Blacklake Farm. In another ⅓ mile, left (350316) along Test Way. In 1⅓ miles, left through gate (354336; NT sign); bear right across Common Marsh beside Marshcourt River. At north end of Common Marsh, through gate (355347); path to Stockbridge.
Lunch: Boot Inn, Houghton (01794-388310)
Tea: Lillie’s Bakery, Stockbridge (01264-810754)
Accommodation: Three Cups Hotel, Stockbridge, Hants SO20 6HB (01264-810527; www.the3cups.co.uk) – beamy, low-ceilinged, warm, friendly.