It’s mid-April, so after Easter, but it seems most of East Hampshire is still asleep. Well, those city workers are awake, zooming up and down the A3 that happens to be just 100 metres from our pitch. But every campsite is closed, under development or not geared up for us. And there aren’t even that many to choose from.
We’re staying at Old Barn Farm near Liphook. It’s a vast field and it wasn’t until our fourth day that we saw a soul. In that time, we built a few mysteries around the three giant American motorhomes and two caravans, fuelled by seeing only glimpses of our (distant) neighbours who didn’t seem to be on holiday. The field has a ‘tourist hut’, with out-of-date leaflets and stacks of carpet samples you can take for your caravan or tent, and beyond the field are lots and lots of newish sheds, stables and outbuildings, all padlocked. A motley collection of cars and vans come and go. On a run, I saw two cars in a field and a mighty brazier brazing, but still no people.
The lovely owner. Nic Gilbert, appeared on day four to welcome us – and the mysteries were solved. It’s such a laid-back place that, as well as caravan rallies and odd campers like us, there are people staying here while they wait for a house to be finished and other such scenarios. Nic’s company builds wooden buildings…so another question answered!
There are no toilets, showers or washing up facilities, although there are hook-ups and taps all around the edge of the field. We were invited to use the farmworkers’ immaculately kept and brand new shower room and kitchen – a healthy quarter-mile round trip from our pitch, but this isn’t available most of the time. The decision to have no facilities in the field was forced on Nic (and his wife Nadine) by the sad fact that too many people are too disgusting.
“As long as it’s OK while they’re here, they don’t care how they leave the place,” says Nic. So, no parties of teenagers chucking cans in the hedges and scorching the grass, and Nic keeps a discreet but careful eye on what sort of person turns up.
Because of the road noise, which is constant and loud, we tried to find an alternative. Upper Parsonage Farm near East Meon was stunningly pretty, green fields sitting in a dip in the hills near the Butser ancient farm and the Queen Elizabeth Country Park. But, facilities under development so not open. Not far down the road on the Bereleigh Estate, Cedar Valley had perfected its luxury safari tent set-up but the (sloping!) camping field facilities weren’t built.
There were others we didn’t try because they warned in advance about their lack of facilities – so suitable only for motorhomes and caravans on short stays. The final possibility was Watercress Lodges and Camping near Alresford. This is a very new-looking strip of a site along the Watercress heritage railway line. Big showers, great disabled access, a nice kitchen area with fridge, but no option for campervans and, unless you love the trains, a not-so-picturesque view of engine sheds and rolling stock.
So, we returned to Old Barn Farm and came to love it. The A3 faded into the background, as we ran through the MoD woods behind the site or meandered through the fields. We couldn’t understand at first how previous campers had called it “peaceful” with the A3 so close, but we soon found it to be a really easy and relaxing place to be.
East Hampshire itself is more of a dilemma. It’s not the Hampshire of the New Forest and it’s not the Sussex of the South Downs. Instead, there are lots of gentle ‘tourist attractions’. We’ve picnicked on the lovely hummocky nature reserve at Noar Hill, strolled around Gilbert White’s house and garden in Selborne, wandered down the sunken lanes, visited Hinton Ampner and Uppark, seen inside Jane Austen’s house at Chawton, taken a trip into Winchester and cycled and couch-to-5k’d through Alice Holt woods (which might just be in another county, because this part of Hampshire merges into Surrey and West Sussex).
But this is the land of the wealthy commuter. The countryside is beautiful with woods, rolling hills and well-tended farms, but there’s a sense that it’s off-limits – a countryside you can either inherit from your family or buy with city or offshore money. It’s an exaggeration and there are plenty of ordinary people living here (some of them are even poor), but here you sense a ruling class like nowhere else. Every mansion hidden up a tree-lined drive, every ‘private woodland’ sign and tall yew hedge asserts ownership, not just of a patch of Hampshire but of England’s most beautiful areas.