With its spectacular beech hangers and dramatic downland, the countryside of east Hampshire is great for walking. Much of it has thankfully changed little since Edward Thomas, a famous Edwardian poet, strolled here and was moved to write about this glorious landscape in his work.
Following in his footsteps, the walk passes the Red House, where he lived for four years, and Berryfield Cottage, his first home in the area. The route also climbs onto Shoulder of Mutton Hill, with its wonderful views, where the sarsen Poet Stone, a memorial to Thomas, is situated.
The partly Norman church of All Saints at Steep includes a Victorian bell turret, a lychgate and a memorial window dedicated to the poet Edward Thomas who features prominently at a later stage of the walk. The window, designed and engraved by Laurence Whistler, was dedicated in 1978, the centenary of Thomas's birth. Whistler was also responsible for the engraved church window at Eastbury in Berkshire, commemorating the life of Helen, Thomas's widow, who spent her final years in the village.
Next door to the church is Bedales School, one of Britain's most famous public school institutions. Bedales was founded by John Haden Badley who died aged 102 in 1967. Headmaster Badley was a man of great vision; he was far from conventional. His ideas on education and discipline were quite revolutionary and he was regarded as a controversial figure by his more traditional peers. Badley did away with the idea of rigid regimes and traditional doctrine. Instead, he advocated the principle 'spare the rod, spoil the child', believing that children should be given the freedom of thought and expression.
1. With the church at Steep on your right, walk down the road through the trees and in due course you reach the Harrow pub on your left. Walk through the car park, follow the wooded lane at the end and pass a sign 'unsuitable for vehicles'. The sound of traffic on the busy A3 can be heard drifting through the trees. Cross a footbridge over a stream and pass to the left os some pretty timber-framed cottages avoiding a footpath on the right. Follow the path up the slope and through some trees. The stream can just be seen below, wonderfully secluded and only just visible amid the overhanging boughs of the beech trees. Near here is Kettlebrook Meadows, the home of the late Sir Alec Guiness, one of Britain's most versatile film and stage actors. Guiness and his wife moved here in the 1950s, remaining at the house until their deaths in 2000. On reaching a lane at a fork, keep left and follow the narrow lane between trees and hedgerows. Pass a house called Venables and some brick and flint buildings on the right. Turn left just a few paces beyond them and follow a track alongside paddocks to a stile. Keep right in the field and make for a second stile in the top boundary. Follow the path as it descends dramatically through the trees and turn immediately right on to a path at the foot of the hill, avoiding the track here.
2. Follow the woodland path, cross a stream and make for a cottage in the trees. Cross over the drive and continue on an obvious path. Further on you reach some silos and outbuildings. Look for a fingerpost here. Veer left to a stile and gateway and follow the field perimeter to the corner. Head for a gap in the trees and take the path uphill, along the woodland edge. Go over a stile in the right-hand boundary and cross the field, keeping parallel to power lines. Look for a stile by a metal gate and join a path running up above some woodland. Stay on the enclosed path as far as the lane.
3. Turn right and keep left after about 400 yards, when the lane forks. Turn left after a few more paces to a stile and follow the path between rows of trees, up the tumbling hillside to a stile in the woodland perimeter. Turn left and follow the green lane as it climbs steeply through the trees. Avoid paths on the left and right and eventually you pass a green sign for Ashford Hangers, followed in about 200 yards by a barrier. Further on, the walk coincides with a stretch of the 21-mile Hangers Way, which runs from Alton to the Queen Elizabeth Country Park, south of Petersfield.
Climbing to the top of Shoulder of Mutton Hill, it's not hard to see why Edward Thomas loved this area so much. Everything that we appreciate about the English countryside is here and on a fine summer day, with long hours of glorious sunshine and a gentle breeze stirring in the trees, there is surely no finer place to be. Although Thomas is regarded as a war poet, essentially his work concentrates on the English landscape. Studying his writing, you can see how his poetry and prose reflect the unique beauty and magical quality of nature. His passion for the countryside is unmistakable, its changing character and variety of scenery providing a constant source of inspiration.
Thomas's writing also underlines his love of walking, and it wasn't unusual for him to hike up to thirty miles a day, between dawn and dusk. After moving to the village of Steep in 1906, Thomas spent many happy hours roaming this corner of East Hampshire, savouring the glorious beech hangers, the distant downland glimpses and the sheer beauty of the landscape. He knew every inch of this area and one of his favourite haunts was Shoulder of Mutton Hill. From the top the views to the south are magnificent, accurately described by Thomas as 'sixty miles of South Downs at one glance'.
Edward Thomas was born at Lambeth in 1878 and published his first book at the young age of nineteen. In those early years, as well as being a nature writer, he was regarded as something of a literary critic. It wasn't until 1913, with the outbreak of war looming on the horizon, that Thomas began writing poetry. His premature, needless death in the Great War evokes disturbing images of bitter conflict, bloodshed and brutality - the sheer futility of it all. He was killed at the Battle of Arras on the Western Front in the spring of 1917, a man not yet forty years of age, in the prime of life and with everything to live for. Twenty years later, in 1937, the then Poet Laureate Walter de la Mare unveiled a sarsen memorial stone to Edward Thomas on the summit of the hill. De la Mare paid the poet a moving tribute, claiming that 'when he (Thomas) was killed in Flanders, a mirror of England was shattered'.
4. To visit the Poet Stone, follow the Hangers Way to the left, then straight on when the path veers right after a few paces. Descend steeply to the stone and pause here to savour one of Hampshire's grandest views. Standing on this remote hillside, you can sense the spirit of Edward Thomas and, with a little imagination, picture him exploring this evocative landscape on foot. Return to the main track, turn left and follow the lane. Eventually it runs between houses. Look for the Red House and continue down to the road junction.
5. Turn left here, then immediately left again to follow a sunken bridleway. Descend quite steeply and continue to a fork. Keep right here and rejoin the Hangers Way, following it as it crosses a stream and cuts between trees. On reaching the road by a barrier, turn left and pass Old Ashford Manor. Walk along to Berryfield Cottage on the right, followed by Ashford Chace. Continue for about 60 yards and turn right at another sign for the Hangers Way. Follow the track and as it bends right by a private sign, veer left to follow a woodland path. After the path bends right and left, turn right and go down some steps to a waterfall.
6. At the road beyond it, keep right and walk along to a right-hand turning. Veer left here, passing through a kissing gate. Turn right and skirt the field to reach a plank bridge and stile in the corner. Cross it into woodland and follow the path to a small playing field. Head across the grass and emerge at the road opposite Steep church, where the walk began.
The starting point of the trail is Steep church. Follow the A272 between Winchester and Petersfield and head north at Stroud for Steep. Go straight over at the crossroads and park by the church.