The Shipwrights Way, Hampshire’s newest long-distance walking route, isn’t just about the glorious scenery. As Hanna Lindon discovers, it also encourages walkers to delve deeper into the area’s naval history…
It’s 1758, and Britain is pouring all its energy and resources into a seven-year-long war in the New World. Work has just begun on a super-sized ship that will spearhead the naval assault against the French and Spanish and ultimately secure Nelson’s victory at the Battle of Trafalgar.
Costing more than £63,000 (the equivalent of around £50 million today) and using 3,000 prime oaks, the HMS Victory’s construction has driven the felling of an area of mature woodland the size of 75 football pitches. Much of the timber worked by the shipwrights comes from the forests of the South East, and in particular from a former royal forest in Hampshire called Alice Holt.
Fast-forward several centuries, and this age-old connection between forest and coast has inspired the creation of a brand new long-distance path. Spanning 50 miles between Alice Holt Forest and the Historic Dockyard at Portsmouth, where the Victory is now housed, the Shipwrights Way meanders through the peaceful Hampshire countryside and up over the crest of the South Downs. It combines historical credentials with lip-smacking scenery – a mishmash of woodland and heady open spaces, dotted with sleepy southern villages.
Town and down
This route follows the line of the old coach road between London and Portsmouth, and back in Nelson’s time it had a dark reputation. Any sailor carrying his pay packet back up to the capital had to run the gauntlet of footpads and highwaymen – that’s if he could make his way through the knee-deep mud. An apocryphal story from the time tells of a rider who saw a hat in the road while riding towards London. Dismounting, he picked it up and discovered a man’s head underneath.
“I’m still mounted,” revealed the man. “My horse is down there in the mire somewhere, surviving off the hay that we were taking to market.”
Nowadays, most of the Shipwrights Way follows peaceful country lanes and surfaced bridleways with scarcely a puddle to be seen. The only real physical challenge of my day is a brief uphill slog from the village of Buriton to the borders of Queen Elizabeth Country Park – a meandering patchwork of Forestry Commission woodland that’s similar in size and significance to Alice Holt Forest. Nick Heasman of the South Downs National Park Authority (SDNPA), one of the Way’s key proponents, tells me later that the original plan was simply to link up these two forests.
“The Forestry Commission has wanted to create a walk connecting two of its sites for some time,” he explains. “Then the SDNPA got involved, forming a partnership with East Hampshire District Council, Hampshire County Council and the Forestry Commission, and we realised that we could put it in context by focusing on the movement of timber from north to south. I suggested a route that ran all the way to Portsmouth Historic Dockyard from Alice Holt – the idea was to link town and down.”
A small section of the Way at Portsmouth and a slightly larger section around Buriton remain unopened, but walkers can already tackle the full 50-mile route by following alternative footpaths. Altogether it’s a bracing four-day ramble with natural break points at Whitehill & Bordon, Petersfield and Rowlands Castle. And as the beech woods of Queen Elizabeth Country Park peter out into open downland, which basks underneath a great, blue bowl of a sky, I begin to regret not walking the whole thing.
I’m also starting to feel a tad peckish. Fortunately, the Red Lion pub at Chalton is perfectly positioned for a mid-walk lunch stop – and as country inns go, it’s a real cracker. A fire burns away merrily in the front bar and the food is scrumptious as only traditional pub food can be. What’s more, it’s been a licensed premises since the 1400s and probably would have been patronised by the carters who ferried wood between Alice Holt and Portsmouth.
To get a better idea of exactly how the wood was transported, I’d had a chat with Peter Wyles of the Royal Naval Shipwrights and Artisans Association. He explained that some of the timber would have been sawn on site, but it was far more common for whole trees to be conveyed down to the shipyards.
“They often wouldn’t have known what sizes to cut the wood to, which meant the whole trunk would have to be moved,” he’d told me. “That was done by sitting the logs on wheel axels so you were basically making a cart out of them. Some trees were even grown to shape – certain branches were constrained by means of chains and kept in an artificial position to create the brackets that joined the deck onto the side of the ship. The trade term is ‘knees’.”
Between Chalton and Finchdean, the Shipwrights Way splits. Walkers can take the heady ridge path that follows the line of the Staunton Way, while everyone else is stuck with the road. Balanced against the tantalising views offered up by the high route is the appeal of St Hubert’s – an 11th-century chapel set back from the lane that’s home to some spectacular medieval murals.
I decide to sample the highlights of both routes, doubling back from Finchdean to explore the tiny church and its 14th-century wall paintings. It’s surprising and also rather lovely that rural churches like these are still left open. As I drink in the smell of dust and reverence, I wonder whether the sailors of Nelson’s time would have stopped here to pray on their way to Portsmouth.
They certainly passed very close. According to Heasman, the oyster shells they discarded have been found scattered around Finchdean. “The sailors took them along when they left the coast and consumed them as they went,” he says. “Just like modern service station food!”
I look out for shells during those final sun-soaked kilometres between Finchdean and Rowlands Castle, but spot nothing more interesting than a few lumps of chalk. By this time I’m beginning to wonder if the route hasn’t been misnamed. After all, I’ve learned plenty about the sailors and carters who used it day-to-day but almost nothing about the shipwrights themselves. Were they really so important? It took Peter to set me right.
“The shipwrights were the bosses,” he said simply. “That was about as far as technology went in those days, and they were looked up to as real craftsmen. Nelson famously referred to his ship carpenters as ‘invaluable’.”
TIME/DISTANCE: Allow four hours for the full 19km/12-mile walk between Petersfield and Rowlands Castle train stations, with another hour for a lunch-stop at the Red Lion in Chalton (www.redlionchalton.co.uk).
MAPS: OS Explorer 133 & 120; Landranger 186 & 197.
FURTHER INFO: www.hants.gov.uk/shipwrightsway
PHOTOGRAPHY: Steve Morgan