The sweeping woodlands of the New Forest? The historic maritime coastline with Portsmouth and Southampton at its heart? Winchester Cathedral and the final resting place of Jane Austen?
All of the above.
But then a whole lot more, as well. Including the lush Test Valley and the second of its two National Parks: the South Downs.
They tell me this historic county epitomises “England at its finest”: a natural playground on London’s doorstep; a quintessential England, with national parks, rolling hills, ancient woodland, heritage cathedral cities, and a south-facing coastline steeped in history.
‘They’ also tell me it’s a place where some of the UK’s most highly regarded chefs are now choosing to base their gastro pubs and restaurants, as Hampshire hikes its credentials as a top foodie destination ever higher.
But what they failed to tell me was how you simply need scratch the surface of Hampshire’s soil (which is one of the real reason’s behind the county’s fine produce) to find something of interest at every twist and turn on the roads and country lanes that link together its market towns and historic villages.
Who knew, for example, that this is where Sweet Fanny Adams came from? That it’s the birthplace of Britain’s first naturalist, Gilbert White? Or that – just 40 miles from London – you’ll find more thatched cottages that you can throw chocolate box at?
Occasionally, it is like stepping back in time.
And then it’s like stepping back in time even further.
Jane Austen’s House & Museum in Chawton is a terrific example. A surprisingly quiet village, given Austen’s popularity world-wide, you cross over from the village car park and step into an 18th century world of literature and lifestyle.
East Meon – and its country cousin West Meon, and Selborne where visitors still go to visit the Gilbert White House – are just a coupe of the nearby villages in a landscape fittingly described by White himself as “a rural, sheltered, unobserved retreat”.
Busy, colourful New Alresford, at one end of The Watercress Line, with its upmarket high street filled with interior design shops and fashionable boutiques, is a great place to take in the sights, sounds and smells of the preserved Mid Hants steam railway which rattles along the same tracks which once carried fresh produce to the capital.
And if the clear, fresh flowing, life-giving rivers help to distinguish Hampshire from so many other counties of England, then it’s the watercress that is it emblem.
Don’t miss out The Wallops – especially Over Wallop where the thatch seems to have taken root as strongly as the watercress. And, if gardens are your thing, then it’s a simple thing to combine visits to Hillier Gardens with the National Trust gem,Mottisfont House.
Back down The Watercress Line you’ll find Alton, a well lived-in market town with a curious connection to one of the country’s most infamous sayings.
It’s here, in the churchyard you’ll find the grave of Fanny Adams, a young girl who was brutally murdered by solicitor’s clerk Frederick Baker in 1867.
A couple of years later, new rations of tinned mutton – introduced to the sailors in Portsmouth – failed to impress the British seamen, who even went as far to suggest it might be the butchered remains of poor Fanny Adams. “Fanny Adams” duly became national slang for mutton and stew, and then for anything that was worthless…from which comes the current use of Sweet Fanny Adam or “Sweet FA”.
It’s one of the many little known facts about Hampshire. And also about as far removed from the current appeal of the county as a tourist destination that you can get!