What a fabulous trail is Hampshire’s Test Way which starts high on Inkpen Beacon, “next a hangman’s gibbet”, and not that far from Highclere Castle, made famous by the television series Downton Abbey.
Oh, how often my wife Jenny and I have sped down the busy A34 en- route to Portsmouth and the ferry to France with absolutely no idea of just what we were missing only a stone’s throw away.
Now my trekking companion and poet Peter Gibbs and I were setting out on our first eleven mile walk through the rolling North Wessex Downs to the picturesque village of St Mary Bourne, which could easily have been the set for an Agatha Christie Miss Marple mystery.
We came across delightful hamlets with centuries old churches, thatched cottages and houses built of distinctive flint or red brick all along this lovely rural way.
On an impulse that perfect August morning we stopped at a cottage door displaying a Hampshire Open Studios sign in the village of Linkenholt and stepped inside to meet local artist Suzie Masser-King who presented me with an amazing coincidence.
For there on her easel was a sandy beach scene just around the corner from the Karma Hotel on St Martin’s in the Isles of Scilly, some twenty- eight miles beyond Lands End, where Jenny and I had stayed only a few weeks earlier.
While the Scillies are also one of Suze’s favourite holiday haunts, she is busy planning to walk the 630 miles South West Coast Path in forty-five days and to paint a small picture every day to be sold for charity.
We picnicked above Ibthorpe and walked down into the tiny hamlet to find father and son thatchers Paul and James Raynesford hard at work.
Paul has carried out his ancient craft in and around the Bourne Valley all his working life and is now rethatching cottages and house that he worked on over twenty years ago.
We reached The George in St Mary Bourne after a walk over wooded hills and enjoyed a pint sat outside in the late afternoon sunshine.
This excellent inn with rooms has recently reopened after a £250,000 refurbishment and leaving it the following morning the way led us past a large fishing lake created by a local benefactor as a haven for wildlife.
Climbing the lane opposite, we chanced upon a tiny field mouse sitting on the verge who kindly allowed me to take its picture.
Our next lane encounter was with local delivery driver Matthew Brand who works four days a week and spends the other three walking for miles around the local highways and byways with his pet Loki and often stopping to chat with Test Way walkers.
After a morning making our way ever onward through rolling and often wooded countryside, beside huge wheat fields and under giant skies, we arrived in the small village of Longparish and picnicked in the St Nicholas churchyard close to a small tributary of the River Test.
But the river was very much in evidence later when we dropped down into the village of Wherwell and crossed a long wooden foot bridge over the quiet waters.
Here we came upon a delightful scene of local families having fun around a series of pools set amid open grassy grounds in the late afternoon.
Now we were on the last four- mile leg of our thirteen and a half mile walk along the river valley into the small town of Stockbridge with its wide and picturesque High Street.
And here our imaginary companion, The Cosmic Joker, chose to play a cruel trick on two by now quite weary walkers.
We were overnighting at The White Hart, which we knew was in the High Street, but we failed to spot it set back behind a large tree screened roundabout at the top of the town and so walked all the way to the bottom before a friendly local pointed out our mistake.
The following morning, we re-joined the old railway track bed we had followed on the last leg of our walk into town and soon came upon a very old friend.
For a couple of miles further on we reached the point where The Test Way crosses the twenty- six- mile long Clarenden Way between Salisbury and Winchester which Peter and I had followed over thirty years ago on our first epic cross country walk from Weston super Mare to Dover.
A couple of miles further on, we branched off to cross the River Test and to walk via meadows and quiet lanes to the tiny hamlet of Mottisfont where we picnicked in the grounds of the 12th century St Andrew’s Church.
Now followed quite a long afternoon spotting Test Way arrows and weaving our way through patches of tangled woodland, through stubble- gold open country and along overgrown field paths until we came at last to our overnight stop in the historic market town of Romsey with its many fine period buildings.
Here we stayed overnight at the comfortable Palmerston Rooms. named after the famous 19th century politician, Lord Palmerston, whose impressive statue has pride of place in the town centre,
Early the following morning we made our way back to the impressive 16th century Sadler’s Mill, from whence we’d entered the town and after a short walk along a busy main road, we were back in open country with Broadlands the famous Palladian mansion and home of the Mountbatten family soon coming into view,
The River Test is one of the finest of only two hundred chalk streams in the world and was very much in evidence on our final nine- mile trek to journeys end at Eling Wharf on the Solent.
One final highlight was the long board walk which snakes its way through the wild and marshy Lower Test Nature Reserve.
We used the Cicerone guide book Walking Hampshire’s Test Way by Malcolm Leatherdale together with the OS Landranger maps 174, 185 and 196.
My walking companion Peter has just published Let The Good Rhymes Roll a book of poems, some featuring our walks, now available on Amazon.
Nigel Heath, Mature Times travel writer.