What it’s like to live in the Hampshire South Downs
- Credit: Williams of Petersfield
Hidden in plain sight, Emma Caulton reluctantly shares the myriad charms of Hampshire’s South Downs
Google South Downs and search results are dominated by Sussex. Yet the range of chalk hills forming these downs stretches all the way to the Itchen Valley in the west, taking in a vast swathe of Hampshire’s countryside. Indeed, Hampshire’s contribution to the South Downs includes its highest point: Butser Hill, within the Queen Elizabeth Country Park, south of Petersfield.
The unspoiled landscape (under the protection of South Downs National Park Authority since 2011) is the draw for many moving here, with its opportunities to walk, run, cycle, ride or simply to stand and stare at the stunning views. That and the gentle delights of the old market town of Petersfield at the heart of the South Downs, and the hidden hamlets and villages discovered scattered down hedgerowed country lanes. It’s the perfect combination for those wanting to get far away from it all, yet still in need of decent access to London: trains from Petersfield take over an hour or so while car journeys via the A3 are about 90 minutes.
As for families, there’s excellent schooling. Impressive private schools include Churcher’s College in Petersfield, Bedales in Steep, known for its liberal ethos, and Ditcham Park, high on the Downs. Meanwhile high-achieving local state schools encompass Langrish Primary rated ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted, with Buriton, East Meon, Froxfield, Sheet and Steep Primaries and Herne Junior all ‘good’. Ditto The Petersfield School at secondary level.
In short: this is an area that has everything anyone could reasonably want for quality of life, and then some. Take Petersfield. A proper market pitches up in its pretty square every Wednesday and Saturday. This is complemented by a strong selection of independents – such as fashion boutiques Rhona Russell, Tiger Rose and Willow, Tallulah Fox homewares, One Tree Books, Happy Cow greengrocers and others. National names are good, too; think Joules and Waitrose.
Petersfield is also well-established as a foodie destination. It is home to one of Hampshire’s few Michelin-starred restaurants, JSW, as well as Good Food Guide-recommended Annie Jones and an array of interesting eateries – like Earth, Fez, Fork Handles Kitchen, Madeleine’s Kitchen and The Natural Apothecary.
But best of all are Petersfield’s unexpected treasures. These include its festival culture, the heated, open-air swimming pool (simultaneously old-fashioned and ultra-trendy), The Physic Garden, a peaceful oasis just behind the High Street, and The Heath – vast acres of open space with boating pond within a stroll of the town centre. Put it all together and you’ve a rather individual, special place, comfortable and countrified, yet with an undercurrent of creativity. Arty incomers can check out Petersfield Art & Crafts Society which holds an annual exhibition on August bank holiday week in Petersfield Festival Hall and has regular workshops such as Chinese brush painting.
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It is certainly an inspiring location for creatives. Above Petersfield’s medieval and Georgian townscape, rise the hills: beech hangers to the north and the chalk downlands to the south, stretching away on both sides – with villages and hamlets nestled among their folds and slopes.
A couple of miles north of Petersfield is Steep, once home to the poet Edward Thomas. This year is the centenary of the poet’s death and much of his work was informed by the spectacular landscape. At the foot of the Hangers, Steep is an elegant, manicured village, but it offers an opportunity to time travel in the form of The Harrow, an unpretentious, traditional country inn which dates from the 17th century and has been run by the same family since 1929. Those wanting to follow in Edward Thomas’s footsteps can walk to The Inn With No Name at Priors Dean, beyond Froxfield. This is the highest inn in Hampshire and a favourite with Thomas – it even featured in his poem, Up in the Wind, in which he describes the area’s spirit of wildness.
Buriton, two miles south of Petersfield, is perhaps more tamed, postcard pretty with pond and two well-regarded pubs. The village abuts the aforementioned Queen Elizabeth Country Park - its hundreds of acres of woodland and downland criss-crossed by bike trails and long-distance footpaths such as circular Staunton Way, Hangers Way and, of course, South Downs Way.
This is accessible countryside that appeals to walkers who appreciate a good pub. The theme continues west from Petersfield into the Meon Valley. Here delightful villages, such as East Meon, West Meon, Exton and Meonstoke, follow the water’s course. Each is a patchwork of thatch, flint and colour-washed brick, cottages, farmhouse and old rectories. And each has at least one pub, some are country smart gastropubs, others welcome muddy boats and dogs. A favourite pastime of mine is to sit in the garden at The Shoe Inn, Exton, looking towards Old Winchester Hill – another South Downs highlight topped by iron age hill fort with carpet of wild orchids and far reaching views.
This is the lifestyle many dream about – a country idyll with a village community and market town within easy reach offering a 21st century café culture. What’s not to like? And you can stroll along the South Downs, looking out over the great sweep of grazed chalk grassland with occasional lines of trees, like marks on a painting, and views to a horizon so wide it makes the heart soar.
Agent talk - Andy Woodcraft, branch manager, Williams of Petersfield
“Petersfield has been given the title “Gateway to the South Downs National Park” due to its location on the A3 and mainline railway station. This historic market town has always been a popular place to live with a wide choice of homes, from character cottages to large executive modern homes.
However, there are also villages around Petersfield that are hidden gems. To the north-east of Petersfield is the village of Sheet which has become especially sought-after since the A3 bypass around Petersfield was built. It is now a peaceful village with a traditional village green dominated by an ancient horse chestnut tree and overlooked by the Queens Head pub. Award-winning developers Metis Homes have just launched a small development of three and four bedroom homes which have been designed to be in keeping with the existing village.
Another location that has become more desirable over recent years is north-west of Petersfield, around the hamlets of Froxfield and Privett, which are very rural but close enough to Petersfield for your day to day needs. The properties here are mainly detached and often come with views over surrounding countryside. To the south of Petersfield, the villages of Buriton and South Harting, at the foot of the South Downs, continue to be sought after and offer a picturesque setting and predominantly character cottages.”
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