Going loco on a Hampshire steam line with great pubs and 3 breweries to visit
Added: Monday, February 10th 2014
The railway that used to carry watercress from Hampshire ran “over the Alps and on to the mainline towards Waterloo” – that’s how engine drivers described the Mid-Hants Railway due to the steep inclines that reach their summit at Medstead and Four Marks, the highest station in Southern England.
The now preserved line runs almost exclusively large locomotives that have the power needed to haul trains up the steep gradients, making for a journey that effectively demonstrates the power of steam. The line begins and ends with historic market towns, stopping at quiet country villages in between. Three breweries exist within the vicinity of the line, easily accessible to passengers, as well as a number of good pubs serving beer from a number of locations, including the local breweries.
The railway started running in 1865, joining the Hampshire town of Alton -- which was already connected to London -- with Winchester. The nickname the Watercress Line was adopted due to the watercress beds in the Alresford area, with the railway used to transport the plants to London markets. It was operated at first by the London and South Western Railway, then the Southern Railway and then the nationalised British Railways Southern Region.
The line survived the Beeching Axe of the 1960s but was closed in 1973, two years before a group of volunteers got together to purchase the line from British Railways. Just two years later, the line was running steam between Alresford and the village of Ropley and by 1985 the line was extended to Alton, reconnecting with Waterloo.
And Alton is where we begin our journey, having easily reached the town via the line from London. Its historic status is reflected by the fact that it’s mentioned in the Domesday Book, where it was recorded as the most profitable market in the country, and its origins date back even to Roman times. The town is well known for its brewing history, with hops and barley grown in the area. There have been many different breweries in the town since 1763 and it is now home to an outlet of the Molson Coors group. Cask beer enthusiasts needn’t despair though because there are several pubs serving locally brewed ale that are worth a visit before boarding the train.
The Eight Bells (33 Church Street; 01420 8241), ten minutes’ walk from the station, dates from 1640, sitting as part of a row of timber and stone buildings opposite St Lawrence church, where the last act of the Battle of Alton took place. Inside are oak beams and outside the smoking area has a restored 17th century well. The bar serves Bowman Swift One, Palmer’s Copper Ale and Sharp’s Doom Bar. If you fancy a drink closer to the station, the Railway Arms (26 Anstey Road; 01420 82218), is owned by local brewer Triple fff. A model of a green Southern Region-liveried steam engine hangs over the front patio, greeting drinkers who can choose from the brewery’s Alton’s Pride, Pressed Rat & Warthog and Moondance, as well as guest ales.
Alton station sits 263 feet above sea level, with the line climbing to 652 feet just outside Medstead and Four Marks, the highest operational standard gauge station in southern England. Serving two villages, it depicts a 1940s country station, matching the stock of locomotives and carriages, nearly all of which date from the post-war era of steam. This includes typical Southern Region engines such as Merchant Navy and West Country classes, utilising their size and power over the Hampshire hills.
Four Marks is home to the Triple fff Brewery, which has become one of the leading independent beer-makers in the region. It was founded in 1997 by keen home-brewer Graham Trott who picked up the coveted Champion Beer of Britain trophy in 2008 for his Alton’s Pride bitter. The success of the brewery has seen it grow, with new brewing kit that enables Graham and his team to brew 50 barrels at a time.
With the exception of Alton’s Pride, Graham’s three other regular beers – Pressed Rat & Warthog, Moondance and Stairway to Heaven -- take their names from legendary pop and rock songs of yesteryear made famous by Van Morrison, Led Zeppelin and Cream. As well as the Railway Arms, the brewery also owns the White Lion in Aldershot. Brewery trips are available for groups of 10 people or more, £12 per person. www.triplefff.com.
The rail track falls on the approach to the historic village of Ropley, the home of the line’s engine sheds as well as being famous for the yew topiary found on the platforms that dates back to the Victorian era. The Anchor (26 Anstey Road) a ten-minute walk away, serves Danish Dynamite and Triple fff’s Alton Pride.
The last stop on the line is Alresford, a small, picture postcard town lined with Georgian, colour-washed houses, shops and pubs around the delightful, tree- lined Broad Street that forms the town centre. The station hosts the main passenger facilities, including two shops, a buffet and a museum as well as the carriage storage, which is further down the line just beyond the terminus. Two good pubs are in the centre of the town and just a few minutes’ walk from the station. The Bell (12 West Street ) dates to 1552 and is a grand, turquoise building just round the corner from Broad Street. The interior is equally pleasing to the eye and the bar serves Bowman’s Swift, Sharper’s Doombar, Otter and Itchen Valley’s Belgarum.
A short walk away, turning left down Broad Street, you’ll find the Fuller’s- owned Horse & Groom (2 Broad Street), a 400 year-old wood-beamed building named initially the Horse & Jockey because most conversations by pub goers were about local horse racing. The bar serves Fuller’s London Pride, Seafarers, Veltins German Pilsener and seasonal and guest beers. Further down Broad Street you’ll find Old Alresford pond, a large, man-made body of water constructed in the 12th century to dam the Alre, the river from which the town takes its name. The riverside walk takes visitors along this river past Fulling Mill, a beautiful 13th century timber building with a thatched roof.
The Itchen Valley Brewery (Unit 4, Prospect Commercial Park, Prospect Road, New Alresford; 01962 735111; www.itchenvalley.com) achieved a kind of fame when it featured in a TV series fronted by former Granada TV boss Sir Gerry Robinson. The brewery, founded in 1997, had run into major financial problems but Sir Gerry thought it had potential and invested £150,000 in the business, run by Jane Fuller and Malcolm Gray (pictured). They have developed the bottling side of the brewery with bottle-conditioned ales, but concentrate on cask ales, including Godfather’s, Fagin’s, Hampshire Rose, Winchester Ale and Pure Gold. The brewery has a shop, mini-conferencing facilities and offers brewery tours.
The Flowerpots brewery and inn (below) at Cheriton is in a delightful rural setting, with large, rolling gardens. The brewery was founded in 2006 by Catherine Bate and David Mackie with pub owner Paul Tickner. The brewery’s regular beers are Perridge Ale, Flowerpots Bitter and Goodens Gold, backed by seasonal beers. The pub has two traditional bars, a 19th-century well and blazing log fires in winter. The simple pub grub is recommended and B&B accommodation is available. Cheriton is three miles from the Watercress Line station at Alresford and can be reached by the No 67 bus. Flower Pots Inn, Brandy Mount, Cheriton; 01962 771318; www.flowerpots.f2s.com.
Steam and ale enthusiasts mustn’t miss the Rat Ale Train (www.watercressline.co.uk/product.php/10/real-ale-train-r-a-t). It runs on selected Saturdays with a train that includes a restored bar carriage headed by a steam locomotive. Each train has beers rotating between different local brewers includings Bowmans, Itchen Valley, Ballards, Triple fff, Oakleaf, Harveys and others. For more information about the Watercress Line head to www.watercressline.co.uk