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Many will pass through Hampshire without stopping - perhaps driving on the A303 or M27 to the West Country, or on the A3 or M3 en route to the ferry ports. It's not a county you might strongly associate with tourism - it has no sandy beach resort1 for example - yet it is an area of contrasts, with some fascinating places to be discovered by the curious traveller.
The name is modern. The county has only officially been Hampshire since 1959, prior to which it was known as the County of Southampton or Southamptonshire. The name is often abbreviated as Hants.
Being centrally-located on the south coast of England, it doesn't easily fall into the category of West Country, nor does it belong to the South East. Its neighbours, Dorset to the west and West Sussex to the east, are far easier to categorise in this respect.
Its East-West affiliation was far better defined when it formed part of the ancient Saxon kingdom of Wessex. The county town of Winchester was King Alfred's capital, and the Saxon and early Norman kings held court here as well as in London.
Looking further back, we know that Hampshire has been inhabited since Mesolithic times. There are Bronze Age farmsteads at Quarley, near Andover, and an Iron Age hill fort at Danebury, near Stockbridge. The Butser Ancient Farm project, near Chalton, has recreated an Iron Age farmstead, and conducts research into the farming methods of the Iron Age and Roman periods.
After Belgic tribes invaded in around 100 BC, the region was the territory of the Atrebates, whose capital was at Calleva, aka. Silchester. Vespasian's 2nd Legion then took the region for the Romans, building a town alongside Calleva. This town's grid system is clearly visible in the Silchester excavations. The Romans also built a massive shore fort at Portchester, where the original walls still stand today.
The Saxon conquest of the region began in 495 AD when the warrior Cerdic landed on the west side of Southampton Water. Jutes also invaded the Meon Valley, driving the British north west by 552 AD.
When power struggles ensued between the three Anglo Saxon kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia and Wessex, Mercians briefly held the region until the accession of Egbert, who eventually became Saxon overlord of Britain.
West Saxon kings Ethelred I and Alfred the Great repelled Danish attacks and established the region at the centre of the Saxon kingdom.
The New Forest was a favourite hunting ground for Norman kings; William the Conqueror's son and successor William Rufus was killed there in a suspicious hunting accident. The abundance of oak woodlands led to a shipbuilding industry and the growth of the ports of Southampton and Portsmouth. In the centuries since, the coast has been heavily fortified to protect these strategic harbours.
For the record, Hampshire is bordered, clockwise from the west, by the counties of Dorset, Wiltshire, Berkshire, Surrey and West Sussex - and the Solent, the busy strait which separates Britain's mainland from the Isle of Wight. It is the third-largest English non-metropolitan county by population2.
The landscape is characterised by gently rolling hills with both arable and dairy farming. Weyhill, near Andover is the site of an ancient sheep fair, the largest in the country for many centuries. Hampshire Downs sheep are a popular breed, and locals are often known as 'Hampshire Hogs', supposedly deriving from the term 'hogget' for a young sheep.
Large tracts of land have been requisitioned for military training, particularly around Aldershot, Bordon and Andover.
There are a number of AONBs4, including East Hampshire, the South Hampshire Coast5, and the southern part of the North Wessex Downs, which includes Watership Down, the setting for Richard Adams's eponymous leporine best-seller.
Two unitary authorities administrate Hampshire's two largest cities and rival ports Southampton and Portsmouth. Eleven further districts comprise:
Basingstoke and Deane - Covering the very north of the county, bordering Berkshire. Basingstoke is the largest town, much expanded in the 1960s and hosting a dazzling array of roundabouts. It is also the site of the tallest building6 between London and New York. Deane by contrast is a tiny hamlet.
East Hampshire - A rural district to the east of the county. The largest towns are Petersfield and Alton.
Eastleigh - An area east of Southampton, including the town of Eastleigh, as well as other dormitory towns to Southampton and Portsmouth. It also includes Southampton Airport, Hampshire's only international air terminal.
Fareham - To the east of Eastleigh, more dormitory towns in a conurbation spread along the M27 motorway, the largest of which is, naturally, Fareham.
Gosport - Lying to the south of Fareham, Gosport is a large town on a peninsula on the western side of Portsmouth harbour. It contains a number of naval installations.
Havant - This conurbation to the far south-east of the county includes the towns of Havant, Waterlooville and Emsworth.
New Forest - A large rural district to the far south-west of the county, covering the bulk of the New Forest National Park. Larger towns include Ringwood, Lymington and New Milton.
Rushmoor - A district in the far north-east of the county containing the towns of Aldershot and Farnborough.
Test Valley - A picturesque rural district around the river Test, famous for its trout fishing. Towns include Romsey, Stockbridge and Andover.
Winchester - Another rural district covering most of the county's central region, including the county town and cathedral city of Winchester.
Employment rates are generally high compared with other counties. In the 1960s and 1970s, Winchester boasted the lowest unemployment rate in the UK. Many are employed across the county in MOD8 establishments and with defence contractors like BAE Systems.
Southampton is the UK's leading vehicle-handling and container port, as well as the UK's principal cruise port. Transit vans roll off the production line at the Ford plant in Southampton, and light shipbuilding takes place along the coast.
Incongruously situated on the edge of the New Forest is Esso's Fawley oil refinery, while a BP oil storage and distribution facility blots the landscape at Hamble.
The IT services companies IBM and CSC have their UK headquarters in the county. IBM's striking North Harbour office is one of Portsmouth's landmarks, and has provided a filming location for Doctor Who on more than one occasion.
Finally, the most successful money-making business has to be the De La Rue plant at Overton, which produces the paper for the Royal Mint's banknotes.
Defence of the Realm
You're never far from the British armed forces in Hampshire. The British Army garrison at Aldershot is the headquarters of the 4th Division, as well as hosting a number of other units including the 1st Battalion The Royal Welch Fusiliers, the 1st Batallion Coldstream Guards and 101 Logistics Brigade. Further south at Bordon is the Army's School of Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. Further units, including the Army Air Corps at Andover, are based in the north-west of the county, close to the major training area on Salisbury Plain.
The naval base at Portsmouth is home to almost two-thirds of the Royal Navy's surface ships, including the three aircraft carriers, Type 42 destroyers, Type 23 frigates and two mine countermeasure squadrons, as well as fishery protection and training units. Many facilities are based on the Gosport side of the harbour, including the prominent SETT Tower, the 100ft-deep submarine escape training tank.
The Royal Air Force has a smaller presence, although the heavy lift Chinook helicopters operate out of RAF Odiham, and military satellite communications are controlled from RAF Oakhanger, near Bordon.
The former Royal Aircraft Establishment base at Farnborough is now an aerospace technology park, and the airport operates light commercial flights. It is also the home of the Air Accidents Investigation Branch and the British National Space Centre.
Southampton has historic links to aviation through the Supermarine factory at Woolston. Originally set up to produce seaplanes in the early part of the 20th Century, it went on to design and build the Spitfire fighter, which played a pivotal role in the Battle of Britain. The factory was not surprisingly targeted by the Luftwaffe throughout World War II.
Hampshire has a number of further education colleges, and two popular universities:
Southampton University, a highly-rated establishment, with its own medical school.
The University of Portsmouth, formerly Portsmouth Polytechnic.
Thirsty Work, This!
It is often possible to discover a little more about a location by looking at the history of some of the local pubs9. Hampshire is no exception, and here are a few tasters for the thirsty traveller:
The White Horse Inn, at Priors Dean - known locally as 'The Pub With No Name', owing to it having no sign and being exceptionally difficult to find for much of the last century. The pub was the local of poet Edward Thomas, and was immortalised in his poem 'Up in the Wind'.
The Still and West Country House - Prominently situated at the very edge of the harbour entrance in Old Portsmouth. Watch warships and cross-channel ferries pass within inches of you as you sup your pint.
The Jolly Sailor, on the river Hamble at Bursledon - the pub featured in the 1980s BBC TV soap 'Howards Way'.
The Bat and Ball at Hambledon - the birthplace of English cricket. The village side was certainly a match for any other, and famously inflicted an innings defeat on an all-England side in 1777. While we're on the subject, Sir Thomas Lord, founder of Lords Cricket Ground is buried at nearby West Meon. Hampshire was also the home of the broadcaster and Test Match Special commentator John Arlott, from Basingstoke. His much loved 'Hampshire burr' was typical of the local accent.
Comedian10 Benny Hill lived in Southampton and is now buried in Hollybrook Cemetery. Other famous graves in the county include those of Florence Nightingale at East Wellow, actor Alec Guinness at Petersfield, and aviation pioneer Thomas Sopwith at Little Somborne. Jane Austen and King Alfred are buried at Winchester11.
Green and Pleasant Land
Benefiting from one of the warmest climates in the UK, Hampshire is naturally popular with gardeners. Three back yards worthy of mention are Alan Titchmarsh's TV garden Barleywood12, near Alton; Exbury Gardens in the New Forest; and Mottisfont Abbey Garden, near Romsey, with its national collection of old-fashioned roses.
Something in the climate must have attracted some of the rich and famous to set up their homes in the county. Notable piles include:
Stratfield Saye House, the home of the Dukes of Wellington.
Highclere Castle, the family seat of the Earls of Carnarvon, including the 5th Earl, George Herbert, who financed the Tutankhamun excavation, and the 7th Earl, Henry Herbert, who was the Queen's racing manager from 1969 until his death in 2001.
Broadlands, the home of Louis Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India and uncle of Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh.
Beaulieu Palace House, home of Lord Montagu, and site of the National Motor Museum.
The Tourist Trail
As well as the Motor Museum, other family fun days out in the county include:
Portsmouth's Historic Dockyard, housing not only the Royal Naval Museum but also Nelson's flagship HMS Victory, The first iron-clad warship HMS Warrior and the recently recovered wreck of Henry VIII's flagship, The Mary Rose. Nearby is the 170m Spinnaker Tower, opened in 2005, the centrepiece of a massive redevelopment of the harbour area.
Paultons Park, a theme park for younger children.
Marwell Zoo, near Winchester, which specialises in the conservation of endangered species.
The Royal Navy Submarine Museum at Gosport, where you can take a guided tour of the post-war HMS Alliance, and clamber within the RN's first submarine, Holland I.
The Hollycombe Steam Collection at Liphook, a wonderful collection of restored Edwardian steam-driven fairground rides.
Equally fascinating, but at a slightly slower pace are:
Milestones, a 'living history' museum, at Basingstoke. If anyone's ever told you your home technology device should be in a museum, well, it's probably in this one.
And finally, you might like to visit one of the regular events hosted by the county. Three well-known ones are:
Farnborough International Air Show - practise craning your neck upwards to get the best out of this biennial aerospace technology extravaganza.
Portsmouth's International Festival of the Sea - another biennial show, where you can clamber all over the Royal Navy's finest specimens17.
Southampton Boat Show - enjoy the festivities, while putting your name down for a luxury 40 foot cabin cruiser.
Hampshire has good road links to London - the M3 motorway links Farnborough, Basingstoke, Winchester and Southampton to the M25, as does the A3 through Portsmouth and Petersfield. The M27 south coast motorway links Portsmouth, Southampton and the New Forest.
A mainline rail service runs between London Waterloo and Southampton (linking with Winchester and Basingstoke), as does another between Waterloo and Portsmouth. Further lines link Portsmouth with Brighton and Portsmouth & Southampton with Bristol.
Southampton Airport at Eastleigh has flights to many UK and European destinations.
Cross-channel ferry services link Portsmouth with the Channel Islands, Caen, Cherbourg, Le Havre, St Malo and Bilbao. Isle of Wight car ferries sail from Portsmouth, Southampton and Lymington. In addition, faster catamaran passenger services to the island sail from Southampton and Portsmouth, as does a hovercraft from Southsea.