Somewhere in the East of our beautiful county lies a small town which has become more famous for what it is NOT rather than the tranquil place it really is. Unlike its near namesake, Alton is NOT home to roller coasters and rides and thrillseekers have been known to be left disappointed when they reach the market town that’s steeped in history and favoured more by those on a literary pilgrimage than a quest for high octane entertainment. Indeed, a sign has been erected at the station in OUR Alton advising visitors that Alton Towers is actually four hours 46 minutes away by train.
Fed-up locals had enough of misguided tourists asking for directions to the famous theme park, so resident Steve West had a sign made directing them to the attraction -a full 180 miles away in North Staffordshire Opening with the words ‘Directions to Alton Towers from this station’, the poster reads: ‘Take the first available South West Trains service to Waterloo, take the underground Northern Line to Euston Mainline Station. Catch the next train to Stoke-on-Trent. From outside Stoke-on-Trent railway station join the number 14 or 15 bus.
‘Alton Towers is then but a short hour-and-ten-minute bus ride. Approximate journey time… four hours and 46 minutes’ Steve said: ‘There is not a Saturday or Bank Holiday that goes by without someone turning up on the train wanting Alton Towers.” The air might well turn blue when visitors realise their mistake – but the origins of one infamous expression lie firmly in Alton. In 1867, the town was rocked by the brutal murder of eight-year-old Fanny Adams who was killed and had her body dismembered by solicitor’s cleric, Frederick Baker.
Shortly afterwards, new tins of mutton were introduced for British sailors. Unimpressed by their meal, the seamen compared the rations to the butchered remains of the schoolgirl. And so it was that the expression ‘Fanny Adams’ became associated with anything worthless, moving onto ‘sweet Fanny Adams’ or simply ‘sweet FA’ meaning ‘nothing at all’. But despite the lingering association with such a horrific, barbaric event in its history, Alton is often described as Hampshire’s friendliest market town – ‘a welcoming place and the ideal base for exploring’, according to Hampshire tourism officials.
And in recent months, add to that list of positive adjectives ‘kind, generous, thoughtful and resourceful’ as locals have pulled together to support those affected by two of the most horrific news items to grace our TV screens. Those suffering in the Syrian conflict and, closer to home, those who lost loved ones, homes and possessions in the Grenfell Tower inferno have been helped by local Alton residents. Alton pub landlady Susannah Stredder, from The George, set up Alton Aid to assist people caught up in disasters. Touched by the plight of people caught in the conflict in Aleppo, she started accepting donations from regulars in her pub before joining forces with other aid groups around Hampshire to send five containers of essential aid items to Syria, including baby clothes and medical items. Susannah added: ‘When the Glenfell Tower disaster happened, everyone wanted to help. As the heartbreaking news unravelled into a total nightmare, the generosity and kindness people have shown towards those who have been left with nothing, has been remarkable. ‘Alton Aid was inundated with donations, and within 12 hours we had a van full to take to a contact up in London.’ This was some of the first assistance the blaze victims received after losing everything in the inferno.
History lovers are in for a treat in Alton as it is also home to the Curtis Museum where the town’s history is chronicled and includes locally made flint tools from the Bronze and Iron Age, shields swords and the impressive Alton Buckle excavated from an Early Anglo-Saxon cemetery. Its Gallery of Childhood is packed with toys going bade to the 18th Century and includes a fully furnished dolls house and jigsaws, all displayed in miniature cases at eye level for children. One display which changes regularly is Collectors’ Corner. Local collectors of almost anything are able to apply to lend their collection to the museum fora short display.
The Allen Gallery is home to the world famous Tichborne spoons and nearby Selborne is the family home of the Rev Gilbert White (1720-1793), author of the internationally acclaimed ‘Natural History of Selborne and considered England’s first ecologist. St. Lawrence Church has been a centre for worship since 1070. The Church is a Grade 1 listed building and it is known for the range of its award-winning architecture reflecting the history of the building and of the town. The church was the site of the Battle of Alton during the English Civil War between the Roundheads and Cavaliers in 1643. Bullets and other relics are preserved in the doors and walls.
A further strong connection to history’ is Alton’s market traditions. Home to traditional country’ markets for more than 1,000 years, it is the most valuable market recorded in the Doomsday Boolcand today hosts a regular weekly market, every Tuesday in the High Street, the Alton Friday market for home-made produce, a frequent local antique, vintage and craft fair plus a range of farmers markets and speciality events throughout the town. For those who prefer their food cooked for them, there is no shortage of places to eat, from high end fine dining to traditional pub grub.
The Anchor Inn boasts that its bar stocks great local ales and wines and that their menu always features seasonal produce. You can also stay at the Anchor which has beautiful bedrooms furnished with antique furniture. All named after literary greats of the past the bedrooms also feture bookshelves stacked with books. The George has recently won best pub of the year in East Hants awarded by CAMRA in 2016. The Yew Tree in nearby Lower Wield has earnt plaundits on Tripadvisor which advises visitors to Alton that is it well worth seeking out.
The River Kwai Thai restaurant and a healthy mix of chain Italian, Indian and Chinese eateries offer diners a wide variety’ of food to cater for all tastebuds. Bottega dei sapori, accurately describes itself as ‘a little corner of Italy’. The cafe in the heart of Alton offers so much more than panettone and ciabatta – for example they have a really impressive range of Italian produce and gifts on sale.
Staying on the food theme, at the heart of Alton lies its connection to the Watercress Line, a steam railway linking it to Alresford, 10 miles away. Originally it was used to ferry locally grown watercress from Alton to Alresford and the onto London where it was sold in markets such as Covent Garden, The Georgian towns became the centre of the nation’s watercress industry in 1865 when the Mid-Hampshire rail line opened to Alresford.
The aquatic plant, with its distinctive peppery taste, grows along stream banks and the pure spring water from the county’s chalk downs provide ideal growing conditions. In the 1800’s watercress sandwiches were a staple food item for the working classes in Hampshire, partly because it could be picked free from the banks of rivers and streams. It enjoyed a reputation as a product that could cure everything from lethargy to baldness, scurvy and freckles, making it much sought after. The 16 mile stretch of railway which had fallen into disuse was reopened by volunteers and each May, the area celebrates Watercress Week with a free festival.
The Watercress Line is now a leading Hampshire tourist attraction, which each year attracts thousands of visitors and offers novelty events such as the famous RAT – Real Ale Train – which serves beer from two local breweries in a restored bar carriage pulled by a steam locomotive. And for younger enthusiasts, there’s always a Day Out With Thomas – running from 5th to 13th of August. Meet The Fat Controller and Thomas plus his friends before taking a ride on a real steam train.
Then later in the year; brace yourselves for Halloween fun on the line riding the Wizard Express Train and making a witch’s broomstick. Pub landlady Susannah Streddeer said: ‘Having lived in Alton for nine years, I’ve seen the town flourish into a musical, creative family friendly place to not only live but also to visit. We have an array of different events that happen throughout the year including Jane Austen Regency week; classic car shows, formers’ markets, Party in the Park to name just a few!”’ According to Susannah anyone who makes the mistake of arriving in Alton instead of Alton Towers will be “lucky” saying: “As long as they keep coming we’ll keep welcoming them. They’ll have more fun here than at Alton Towers.”