A weekend in the South Downs

I spent Coronation weekend in Hampshire. As thousands were heading towards London camp on the Mall, I smugly headed out in the other direction, knowing I was in for a a peaceful weekend break in the English countryside. The pouring rain did nothing to dampen my enthusiasm, because I knew I was headed for a cosy lodge, with everything I needed, including the perfect view of lush green fields, and even a steam railway! Here’s how I spent my weekend in the South Downs.

Sponsored content: I was gifted a two night stay at Watercress Lodges, as well as tickets to Gilbert White’s house and Hillier Gardens.

A stay at Watercress Lodges

At just one and a half hours from north London, Hampshire is so close to home that I’ve never considered it as an option for a weekend break. Usually I pick the Cotswolds, Somerset, or go even further to the Peak District. So I was surprised to find such beautiful countryside less than an hour from the M25. Watercress Lodges and Campsite Is a pretty little campsite where you can pitch up your own tent, or book one of their bell tents, or safari tents complete with wood-burning stove and proper beds.

The lodges at Watercress Lodges resemble the old railway cottages of the steam train line they overlook
The lodges resemble old railway cottages

If camping’s not your thing though, you can also stay in one of their railway cottage style lodges, which have their own fully equipped kitchens and bathrooms, as well as everything else you’d expect of a cottage stay. Even better, the lodges overlook the historic Watercress line, making them a unique place to stay, with a fascinating view, especially fun for children.

Watercress line steam engine train at Ropley opposite Watercress Lodges

I went with a friend, opting to leave my revision-stressed teenagers at home (we have GCSE’s and A-Levels happening at ours right now, so you can imagine!) I’d decided that rather than nagging them to come along, I’d make the most of time away to focus just on me. My friend is a fan of walks, good food, and a bit of mindfulness, so I knew that we’d be well-matched in terms of seeking out rest and replenishment – all in all a perfect, and much-needed opportunity to refill our energy stores.

Settling in on the Friday afternoon, we noticed a break in the clouds and leapt at the opportunity to get outside and explore the surrounding woodland – walking boots a necessity after all the rain last week! We quickly found woods filled with bluebells, and even a couple of deer who didn’t seem too phased by our presence. It felt glorious to be out in the fresh air, with nothing but nature to notice – no dinners to cook, lifts to give, or laundry to be moved from one space to another. Even that would have been enough to allow my shoulders to drop back down, but then we spotted the most gorgeous forest school, all set up ready for the next class, and had to take a moment to think about how lucky the kids are who get to hang out here.

A forest school in the woods of the South Downs in Hampshire, near Watercress Lodges

Heading back to the lodge along a country lane filled with wild garlic and cow’s parsley, we anticipated a glass of wine with the Cook! meal my friend had brought along (although we could have cooked up a storm if we’d felt like it – there’s a full oven, dishwasher and BBQ in each lodge). A relaxed evening spent setting the world to rights as we watched the moon travel over the old-fashioned railway bridge outside our patio doors.

The view from Watercress Lodges, overlooking the steam Watercress line at Ropley station
The station platform makes a great view

In the morning we had a packed schedule of walks and attractions to visit, but thanks to the stair rods coming down outside, we opted for a second cup of coffee as we watched the guests arrive at Westminster Abbey on the television provided, and wondered how on earth they would all manage to sit there for 5 hours without a visit to the loo. I know I couldn’t, and I spotted Joanna Lumley and Andrew Lloyd Webber in the audience, who have much older bladders than me! Royalty seen, flimsy dresses in the cold rain considered and gratefully dismissed as we layered up in our fleeces, we eventually decided that the weather was no match for us, and headed out to explore.

Gilbert White’s House

Our first stop was Gilbert White’s house. Now this is the thing I love about a rainy day in a new area – it forces you to find things to do, and I’m so glad we were directed to this gem of a museum. Gilbert White was an ecologist who dedicated his life to cataloguing and writing about the natural world. The house is part re-creation of how he lived his house, part museum to all of his work, including his book, The Natural History and Antiquities of Selbourne, where he lived. White’s original manuscript is preserved in one of the learning rooms, and is the basis of a book which ranks third only to The Bible and The Complete Works of Shakespeare in terms of publication volume.

The parlour in Gilbert White's house was his favourite room, and looks out over stunning gardens created by the English ecologist

As well as learning about how his work was the catalyst for the study of Physics, Biology and Chemistry as my son is buried in right now, I was fascinated by White’s character and way of life. I was particularly amused by this note – a diary entry from a friend of his – which lay on the dining room table:

A note on the table in Gilbert White's parlour describes his hedonistic parties

Gilbert White wasn’t someone I’d ever heard of before, so I feel grateful to have learned something completely new. But the house also hosts a large collection relating to another famous family who lived there more recently – the Oates. Lawrence Oates was the explorer who left Captain Scott’s doomed South Pole expedition, saying he was just going outside, and may be some time. He was never seen again, but diary notes suggest he knew he was dying, and wanted to unburden his team mates, so that they might live. They didn’t. The exhibition of items and films from the trek was really interesting, and I’m glad to have learned a little bit more about our history.

The gardens at Gilbert White's House in Hampshire

This attraction was the gift that kept on giving. White’s café served up a delicious Rarebit for lunch, and the chocolate tiffin cake was exactly what we needed to give us renewed enthusiasm for a walk in the rain. I’m in the middle of a charity Walkathon at work, so I was determined to get my steps in, whatever the weather. So out we ventured, into the stunning gardens of Gilbert White’s house. As you might imagine, with such an interest in the species around him, White was also something of a horticulturalist, so his gardens (impeccably maintained) were a joy to walk around, with stunning flower beds as well as fruit and vegetable patches on the brink of yielding summer supplies. We got a good mile or so just wandering the grounds, before heading over to the other side of the village to take a beautiful walk through woodland, and meadows full of lambs.

The view of Gilbert White's House from the main gardens

Damp, but happy, we headed back to the lodge to change, before driving out for some dinner. If you’re a fan of good pub food, I can wholeheartedly recommend The Three Horseshoes in Bighton. Between us we had a white onion and truffle soup with a slab of butter and sea salt for the bread (just the kind of comfort food you need after a long wet walk), some crispy, sticky Asian beef, and a perfectly seared tuna niçoise salad. Washed down with a glass of wine, and kept company by Hoover, the pub dog, who knows there’s a note on the table advising guests not to feed him, but hangs out doing his cutest poses just in case anyway.

The Watercress Line

The working signal box at Ropley on the Watercress Line steam train station

The following morning was dry! Before checking out, we opted to take some photos at the train station, crossing the little bridge to wait for a steam engine to come through. While we waited, we asked questions of the staff there, who were all so pleased to tell us about their work that we were even given a guided tour of the signal box. Well worth a visit if you have children with you, or indeed any engineering-minded teens, plus train geeks of all ages! So much fun.

Hillier Gardens

Then we headed half an hour south to the stunning Hillier Gardens (so big I managed 12 thousand steps there!) This 108 acre, award-winning garden complex is a vast space with both manicured flower and herb gardens, and natural meadows, with plenty of woodland and pond gardens mixed in. There’s even a large space dedicated to rhododendrons, with more colours and flower sizes than I’d ever imagined. The combination of colours was spectacular.

Rhododendrons at Hillier Gardens in Hampshire
Stunning rhododendrons

Established in 1953, the gardens and arboretum were created by Sir Harold Hillier, with the aim of bringing together the most comprehensive and unrivalled collection of trees, shrubs and hard hardy plants in the UK. Travelling overseas, he brought back new species, all carefully catalogued and labelled – I learned a lot of new plant names on this visit!

Hillier Gardens use pigs to clear sections of woodland of bramble and weed
Pigs clear the ground for an ecological solution!

All in all a glorious weekend filled with good conversation, time in nature – both wild and curated – lovely food, and most of all rest, despite all the exercise! I managed 49500 steps over the three days, and moved my team up the leaderboard for my challenge. Now I’m just wondering how I’ll live up to that pace now I’m back at my desk!

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