This is a walk through gently undulating scenery in the north of Hampshire, passing several quaint churches and a fine country house or two, not to mention the source of the River Test. But it also has a big interest for literary fans as it takes you to the place where the writer Jane Austen grew up, and past several places that she would have known.
This is in fact Jane Austen's literary landscape. In a letter to a niece, she famously described her novel-writing technique as "getting two or three families together in a country village", and in doing this she was recreating the place where she lived for the first 25 years of her life.
On this walk you pass the site of her childhood home in the village of Steventon (the actual house was demolished soon after Jane's death by her brother Edward), and can walk up the lane to the surprisingly small and remote church where her father was vicar.
You also pass Ashe House, where Jane famously flirted with Tom Lefroy (an event that was used as the basis for the film Becoming Jane, which suggested - almost certainly erroneously - that this was Jane's great thwarted love), and Deane House, which is typical of the kind of grand house where the Austens would have socialised.
Further information about each place and the associations they had for Jane can be found in panels within the main walk directions. All of these places are in the first five miles of the walk (ie up to and including Steventon church).
The Deangate Inn, 4km (2.5 miles) into the walk, closed as a pub some years ago but in early 2019 it was being refurbished with a view to reopening as a restaurant. If so, it might provide an early lunch stop for the main walk or a lunch stop for the shorter walk
Otherwise, the lunch stop for this walk is The Fox in North Waltham (www.thefox.org 01256 397 288), 9.8km (6.1 miles) into the walk). This is a popular pub with a large table-service restaurant and a smaller bar area where the full menu is also served. In summer it has an extensive area of outside tables. It offers both more gourmet meals and cheaper pub classics. Food is served from 12-2.30pm and 6.30-9pm daily.
If The Fox is full or you arrive there too late, a 700 metre walk up a road, admittedly with some fast moving traffic, brings you to the Wheatsheaf Hotel (01256 398 282) on the busy A30. Despite being a chain pub, this is surprisingly characterful place, with an an extensive menu that is served all afternoon. It even has associations with Jane Austen, who almost certainly came here to collect mail or see visitors off by coach.
For picnics, Steventon churchyard is a very pleasant spot
The recommended tea stop, if you can get there in time, is the Overton Gallery (01256 773 143), which has a small tea room (three tables) in winter, but much more space in summer, when its pleasant back garden is also pressed into service. It is open till 5pm on Saturdays and till 5.30pm Tuesday to Friday, though its tea room sometimes closes earlier. The whole place is closed on Sunday and Monday.
Otherwise the best tea option is the White Hart Hotel (01256 770237) which has now been thoroughly revamped. Most of the pub is dedicated to restaurant tables which staff can be reluctant to relinquish to drinkers even when they are unoccupied, but it does have a bar area with sofas and a sun deck out the back. It serves tea in pots and other hot drinks and often has cakes on the bar. Food (eg puddings) is served all afternoon.
Other pubs in Overton include the Greyhound, the Red Lion and the Old House at Home, all of them more traditional "locals". The Red Lion does hot drinks but is closed on Monday and Tuesday evenings and only opens at 6pm Tuesday to Saturday. The Old House at Home opens at 5pm Tuesday to Thursday and all afternoon Friday to Sunday, but is closed on Monday.
There is nothing in the vicinity of Overton station, which is 20 minutes walk (1.4km/0.9 miles) from the centre of the town.
|Points of interest
Early in the walk notice how clear the waters of the River Test are. This is characteristic of rivers on chalk, and makes this one of the finest rivers for fly-fishing for trout in the whole country. The river runs for 40 miles from here to Southampton Water and fishing rights are jealously guarded throughout its whole length.
Ashe House was the home of Jane Austen’s aunt, Anne Lefroy, and it was here in 1796 that the 20 year old Jane had a flirtation with a young relative of her aunt’s, Tom Lefroy, who was visiting from Dublin. Vast quantities of ink have been spilled over this brief encounter (it lasted only six days) with many exciteable Janeites wanting to see it as their writer’s great lost love. The film Becoming Jane was based on this premise. However, we only know about this liaison at all because it happens to be mentioned in two letters from Jane to her sister Cassandra. “Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together,” she says, and later: “At length the melancholy day has come when I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy.” But these comments come in the middle of a stream of chatty gossip, all of it written in Jane’s trademark ironic tone, and it is impossible to tell if she is being serious or sarcastic. Given Cassandra’s jealous guarding in later life of her sister’s privacy, it is highly unlikely that she would have let the letters survive had this been a significant romance. The truth is almost certainly that this was one of many casual flings Jane had as a young woman – and was no more meaningful than that.
Deane House looks like it could have been the model for the Bennets' house in Pride and Prejudice, and who is to say that it was not? It would have been very familiar to Jane Austen, who lived just up the road and knew the family that lived in it. Her eldest brother James was also the rector of Deane church and lived in a house on the right just before the main road (long ago demolished). It was James who took over the family home - and the post of vicar of Steventon - in 1800 when Jane's father retired to Bath. As an unmarried daughter, Jane had to accompany her father, leaving the world she had grown up in. It is easy to imagine that she drew on her feelings at this time when writing Persuasion, which sees Anne Elliot torn away from her childhood home when her feckless father moves to Bath. James, incidentally, reckoned he was the writer in the family. As a young man he ran a literary magazine and he also wrote poetry. What he thought of his sister's efforts is not recorded.
A small fenced area in a field - the site of a well - is all that marks the site of the house where Jane Austen grew up. In her day it was a substantial two storey house standing with a curved driveway. Until very recently there were two tall trees (whose stumps are still visible) that the Austens were said to have planted. Across the road was a barn where Jane performed plays as a child with her siblings. The fields around you were the glebe lands - the farm from which Jane's father made his living. The house was demolished in 1823 by Jane's brother Edward, who was adopted by rich relatives and inherited the entire Steventon estate. He built a replacement vicarage - the fine white house on the hill visible behind you as walk up the lane to Steventon church.
The thing that strikes you about Steventon church is how small it is. As vicar of this, Jane Austen’s father cannot have been that wealthy, and in fact he both farmed and took pupils to make ends meet. Yet as gentlefolk the family would still (just about) have qualified to socialise in the grand houses round about. You can easily see this idea of being poor relations on the edge of a wealthier world reflected in Jane Austen’s novels (think of Fanny Price in Mansfield Park). In the church, which is usually unlocked, are various memorials to Jane’s relatives. Her eldest brother James (died 1819), who was rector of the church after their father died in 1800, is commemorated to the left in the chancel, just before the altar. A poem on his memorial perhaps reflects his literary ambitions (see the section on Deane House above). On the right in the chancel you can see a monument to the Reverend William Knight, one of Jane’s many nephews, who was rector here for 50 years until 1873. Note the memorial below to his three daughters, all of whom died of scarlet fever within six days of each other in 1848. There are also various Digweeds, who lived in Steventon Manor next to the church (still there, but the building you see dates from the Victorian era), some of whom Jane would certainly have known.