Alton Circular walk
Long but gentle walk visiting Selborne and Chawton, which inspired Jane Austen (writer) and Gilbert White (naturalist)
Gilbert White's Selborne and Jane Austen's house
Main walk 20.4 km (12.7 miles)
Short walk to Chawton 12.1 km (7.5 miles)
Alternative ending Adds 2km (1.2 miles)
|Maps||OS Landranger Map 186. OS Explorer Map OL33 (formerly 133)|
|Toughness||4 out of 10 (6 out of 10 via Selborne Common, 2 out of 10 on Short Walk to Chawton)|
|Features||The quiet corner of Hampshire through which this walk passes seems like the kind of countryside in which nothing much ever happened. Yet in the late 18th and early 19th century it inspired two famous writers - Gilbert White and Jane Austen. After a section over wide upland fields to East Worldham, the walk first plunges into the delightful arcadia of woods, hangers and hidden pastures that surround Selborne, about which White wrote his famous Natural History. From there, it crosses wooded Selborne Common and gentle ridges of downland to Chawton, the home of Jane Austen for the last eight, and most productive years, of her life. On the way you can reflect on Austen's remark in Persuasion that two villages only three miles apart "will often include a total change of conversation, opinion and idea": though only a few miles apart, even today Chawton and Selborne seem like different worlds.|
a) Short walk to Chawton: This follows a direct route from Alton to Upper Farringdon, joining the main walk route there. This makes a total walk of 12.1km (7.5 miles). This is a useful option if you want time to visit Jane Austen's House in Chawton, 9.3km (5.7 miles) into the walk.
b) Alternative ending from Chawton to Alton: This route avoids the road walking through the centre of Alton, partly reversing the outward route of option a) in the process. Note that it is somewhat afflicted by noise from the A31 in places, if the wind is in the wrong direction. It is 2km (1.2 miles) longer than the main route, and so 4.8km (3 miles) from Chawton to Alton railway station compared to 2.8km (1.8 miles) by the main walk route.
Two trains an hour run between Waterloo and Alton (one hourly on Sunday; journey time about 1 hour 10 minutes). Take the first train after 9am from Waterloo to get to lunch in time, or to have time to visit Jane Austen’s House on the short walk. For those driving, Alton station has a pay car park, or you can park anywhere in the centre of Alton and walk to the station to start.
The Church St Mary, East Worldham dates from the 12th century, though it was extensively renovated in the fifteenth century. Shortly afterwards, it was given by the Bishop of Winchester to his newly founded Magdalen College in Oxford. A 14th century effigy in the south wall was once thought to mark the burial place of Philippa, wife of the poet Geoffrey Chaucer, though this is now disputed. Chaucer's son Thomas was Lord of the Manor here.
Gilbert White's famous Natural History of Selborne, based on his observations in the countryside around the village, was published in 1789, and it has never been out of print since. His grandfather had been vicar of the Church of St Mary' Selborne from 1681 to 1727 (it is this Gilbert White, not the famous naturalist, who is named in the historial list of vicars at the back of the church), and White himself was born in the Vicarage in 1720, moving to The Wakes, where the Gilbert White Museum now is, when he was nine years old.
White was ordained in 1747 after studying at Oxford University, but failed in his attempts to find a parish of his own, and returned to his native village to become a curate (that is, a paid deputy for an absentee vicar) in All Saint's Church, Upper Farringdon (visited on this walk). He stayed the rest of his life in this relatively lowly post, passing his time developing his garden and studying the nature around him.
In this he was not unusual among 18th century clergymen, but he stands out for his detailed observations, living writing style, and his fascination with ordinary flora and fauna rather than exotic rarities. As a result he is now considered one of the world’s first ecologists. He died in 1793 and is buried in the north east corner of the churchard of St Mary's Selborne. At his request, the stone was simply marked GW 26 June 1893.
The Gilbert White Museum (tel 01420 511 275) in The Wakes, Selborne, not only recreates his house and garden, but also has a section on Captain Lawrence Oates of Scott of the Antarctic fame - the man who stepped out of the tent to die in a blizzard saying: "I am just going outside. I may be gone for some time". The reason is that in 1953 when the Gilbert White Society were trying to raise money to buy The Wakes, the Oates family offered to help on condition their family collection was exhibited too. The museum is open 11 am to 5pm daily except for the week after Christmas.
Chawton. Though her novels are set elsewhere, Jane Austen was always a Hampshire girl at heart and she was devastated when her father retired in 1801 as vicar of Steventon, a small North Hampshire village, and moved his family to Bath. Jane hated Bath and wrote nothing during this period. Worse, when her father died four years later, she, her sister Cassandra and their mother were left with little money and no fixed home.
It was Jane's brother Edward who finally came to the rescue. He had been adopted by the wealthy but childless Knight family, and so had inherited the Great House at Chawton (now Chawton House and recently opened as a library of women writers of Jane Austen's time). Edward found his sisters and mother a house in the centre of the village, and they moved there in July 1809.
Jane was delighted by "our Chawton home", and immediately started writing again. Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion were all written here, and it was while living in Chawton that she first won outside acclaim as a novelist when her youthful novels - Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility - were at last published. The house is now run as Jane Austen's House by the Jane Austen Trust (tel 01420 832 262) and is open 11.00am to 4.30pm from March to November, on weekends only December to February. Among the exhibits is the creaking door to the room where Jane did her writing. The hinges in the door were kept deliberately unoiled so that she could conceal her work if anyone came in, writing novels not being considered a suitable profession for a lady.
Alas Jane's happiness at Chawton proved shortlived, as in 1817 she fell ill with a mystery illness, and died in Winchester, where she had gone for medical treatment. Because she was the daughter of a clergyman, she was buried in the north aisle of Winchester Cathedral. Cassandra and her mother remained in Chawton for the rest of their lives, however, and are buried in the churchyard around the back of the St Nicholas's Church, which like the Great House is passed on this walk.
The walk from Chawton to All Saint's Church, Upper Farringdon was a favourite of Jane's, not just because it passed through her brother's estate, but because she was friends with the family of John Benn, the vicar there: in her letters she writes of walking over to Farringdon for tea. Gilbert White was also curate here from 1761 to 1784 (that is, some time before Jane Austen lived in Chawton, though he knew and visited with Jane's father when the latter was Vicar of Steventon). Note the amazing and very ancient hollowed out yew tree in the churchyard (to the left of the church door, as you approach it from the road)
The curious red brick building across the road from Farringdon church is Massey's Folly. Designed and built by the Reverend Thomas Massey, with only three local labourers to help him, it took 30 years to complete between 1880 and 1910. The design was apparently influenced by the daughter of an Indian civil servant, who used to visit Massey secretly. The building stood empty for 15 years after its construction; it was then turned into the village hall and school
|Lunch and tea||
Three Horseshoes East Wordham (01420 83211) Situated 4km (2.5 miles) into the main walk, this is a possible early lunch stop, serving food from 12-2pm Tuesdays to Saturday and 12-4pm on Sunday
Selborne Arms Selborne (01420 511247). Situated 10.2km (6.3 miles) into the main walk, this is pleasant rural pub with a garden, and is the suggested lunch stop. It serves food 12-2pm Monday to Saturdays and 12-3pm on Sundays. Dinner is from 7pm and the pub is open all afternoon for drinks at weekends.
White's Cafe-Bar Selborne (01420 511275). This cafe, attached to the Gilbert White Museum but accessible without paying an entrance fee to it, serves quiches, jacket potatoes, soups and light bites from 10.30 to 4.30pm Tuesdays to Sundays and bank holidays.
The Selbourne Tea Room (01420 511033) is a cafe in Selborne open to 4.30pm Tuesday to Sunday, serving sandwiches, paninis and cakes. 20 metres away is a delicatessen serving pies and bacon baps.
The Rose & Crown in Upper Farringdon, 6.3km (3.9 miles) into the shorter walk and 14.6km (9 miles) into the main walk, is an upmarket pub that serves food 12-2pm Monday to Friday, 12-2.30pm Saturday and 12-3pm Sunday, and again in the evening at 6pm Monday to Saturday. It is open all afternoon for drinks at weekends, but closed 3.30pm to 6pm weekdays. Booking is advised on all days, but especially on Sundays.
Cassandra’s Cup Chawton (01420 83144). If you can get to it before it closes at 4pm, this tea room opposite Jane Austen’s House serves fine home-made cakes. An alternative tea stop in the village is The Old Kitchen Tea Room in Chawton House, accessible without paying admission to the house and grounds, but again only open until 4pm daily (from early March to early December).
Greyfriar Chawton (01420 83841, www.thegreyfriar.co.uk). Opposite Jane Austen’s House, this pub and its small garden another possible refreshment stop in Chawton, open all afternoon for drinks daily. It serves food from 1pm to 3pm and 6pm to 9pm Monday to Saturday and from 12pm to 5pm on Sundays.
Alton also now has a Caffè Nero open till 5.30pm Monday to Friday and 6pm weekends and a Costa Coffee open till 6pm Monday to Saturday and 5.30pm on Sundays.
Picnic: There are several fine places for a picnic on the section between East Worldham and Selborne, particularly the pasturelands around King John’s Hill and the clearings in the Binswood. The Long and Short Lythe valleys on the last half mile into Selborne, as well as the hill leading up to the church, are also particularly enchanting picnic spots. A possible picnic spot is also mentioned in paragraph 139 on a) Short walk from Chawton, though the churchyard in Chawton might be even nicer.
An earlier version of this walk was published in Time Out Country Walks near London volume 2. We now recommend using this online version as the book is dated.
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Out (not a train station)
Back (not a train station)
National Rail: 03457 48 49 50 • Travelline (bus times): 0871 200 22 33 (12p/min) • TFL (London) : 0343 222 1234
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Full directions for this walk are in a PDF file (link above) which you can print, or download on to a Kindle, tablet, or smartphone.
This is just the introduction. This walk's detailed directions are in a PDF available from wwww.walkingclub.org.uk