I pedalled on into the benevolent and hospitable Hampshire countryside. Imagine “quintessential England” and you’ll see this, a land of lazy rivers, thatched cottages, and maypoles on the village green. I strapped my towel onto the bike to dry in the wind, a domestic duty given a motive twist, which gave me a satisfying feeling of self-containment, of a snail-like reliance on only me and my folding Brompton as we meandered through the Test Valley, passing pubs called the Boot Inn and roaring coupés surfing the mirages on Stockbridge High Street. I grabbed some water from a shop and sat on a bench, shaded by a tree, reading a line chiselled in stone: “Fish swim where road and river meet”.
The Test is a river dedicated to its fish (specifically, trout) and to the sport of fishing. While many ordinary people dream of one day visiting some unattainably exotic place, like Richard Branson’s Necker Island, fishermen around the world dream about the River Test. And according to the Hampshire Chronicle, ex-US president George Bush Senior and his security detail even apprehended an 8lb brown trout here in 2006. There is definitely something of the Caribbean about the River Test though, and on a hot day, it does feel like a kind of paradise.
But for all their similarities, the main thing for which the Test cannot compete with Necker (I’m making an assumption here) is warm bathing water. According to the wild swimming books, the Test, being a chalk stream, is geothermally heated and is always a rock-steady, freezing fifteen degrees Celsius, all year round. Coming from Northern England, I don’t think that’s too cold, but the fish seem to like it. Cold water holds more oxygen, which makes it not only easier for the trout to breathe, but to swim away from the anglers and their dangling hooks at an Olympic pace.
Following Rob Fryer’s directions, I arrived beside the river at Houghton, feeling pretty fresh after a three hour bike ride from the New Forest. Still, a dip in the Test is rarely a bad idea, so in I went, and best of all, it wasn’t yet ten o’clock in the morning. It was going to be one of those rare summer days, of the sort which, in our omni-seasonal globally-warmed world, can strike at any time of year. Bowling blue skies shone overhead, and the water’s chill contrasted perfectly with the continental heat. I had yet to see a cloud of any kind.
Grazing my toes on the rocky riverbed, I swam beneath a wooden footbridge, which carries a long distance path called the Monarch’s Way over the Test from west to east. I say west to east, because that is almost certainly the direction taken by the Monarch, Charles II, as he fled defeated from the Battle of Worcester in 1651. In those days there probably wasn’t a bridge, so Charles and his men would have waded across. I doubt they minded – it was a chance to wash – and anyway, the King would have loved water (he was one of Britain’s earliest yachting enthusiasts). Managing somehow to evade Oliver Cromwell’s forces, the fugitives continued south to Shoreham, where Charles met a boat called the Surprise and sailed away to exile and safety in France.
I squelched ashore and patted myself dry. It was nice to have the river all to myself, but the tranquillity wouldn’t last long. I had barely put on my shirt, when, suddenly, it was like the traffic lights had gone green, and a wave of people all rushed through; walkers, runners, cyclists, dogs leaping in the river, hogging through the water. On the bridge a man was talking to another, and at the end of every sentence he would say, “anyway” before moving straight to another topic, while the second man gazed wistfully along the path and wished he could be at the other end of it, preferably alone. I re-loaded my bike quickly and, as I retreated to the road, a clan of topless young men, one balancing a crate of lager on his shoulder, arrived to take my place. I paused briefly to congratulate myself on my impeccable timing.
Beyond Stockbridge, where desultory trout mingle with shoppers, is Chilbolton Cow Common, another riverside spot comprehensively documented by Fryer. For some reason I have long dreamed of visiting this place, a wide and grassy common where marbled brown and white dairy cows stand ankle deep in the Test, flicking at flies with their tails. The common is also popular with young children, who float on the river in dinghies, and their mothers, who supervise and sunbathe at the same time. Dropping my bike and shoes in a dewy shadow, I paddled upstream along the gravelly bottom, looking for the spot Fryer calls ‘The Deep Pool’. As the water barely reached my knees, I have to concede I didn’t find it. A barbed wire fence prevented any further progress, so I turned instead to photographing every watery feature I could find. Chilbolton is, however (due to the amount of clothing worn by its visitors) a rather awkward place to be seen taking apparently random pictures, especially when you are wearing dark glasses and have arrived alone on what is effectively a clown’s bike. So I did this for as long as I felt my welcome would permit, then as it began to get really hot I got back on my bike and headed upstream towards the village of Longparish, where I completely failed to find any of the local swimming spots mentioned in my guidebooks, or even the pub that was supposed to lead me to them. I’m not sure I was even in the right village, but as Middleton was thatched and picturesque, I didn’t mind getting lost there for a little while. Some of the houses even had miniature versions of the Test flowing through their front gardens.
After walking futilely through a field beside the river (which was fenced off) I retired to the shade of a village shelter, built in a different style but in the same spirit as one I’d sheltered under in Norfolk earlier in the year, though this time it was the sun, not the rain, I was hiding from. I plugged my phone into its backup battery and, with more time to waste, familiarised myself with the local parish council and its elderly members, whose photos were pinned beside a flyer for a local taxi firm apparently used by multi-millionaire Theo Paphitis. This seemed unlikely. And so I had reached the top of the River Test, and it was time to think about heading home to Yorkshire.
Two hours later, I was on a train leaving Andover station for London. Travelling by rail always fascinates me. I think it’s the way it can turn demographics upside down, creating alternative realities in which entire communities and their inhabitants are seemingly uprooted and transplanted all over the country. You might see a whole group of people from Yorkshire all leaving the train together in London, before gradually dispersing into different tubes and streets and boroughs, effectively a microcosm of migration. By simply watching and listening, you can vicariously experience the culture of another place without actually going there. And if that saves you from ever having to visit Stevenage or Bradford, then so much the better.
It was still incredibly warm, and there were announcements every few moments advising passengers to keep drinking water and seek help if they were feeling faint. It turned out to be one of the hottest days of the year, and I felt lucky to have been outside for most of it.
After pausing at Clapham Junction we arrived at Waterloo, and I alighted with my folding bike next to a young man who had clearly been to Glastonbury, with his upturned Wellington boots strapped to his rucksack, though muddy water no longer trickled from their innards. Wheeling and weaving the Brompton through the station concourse, I joined the mad rush of bikes, buses and cars crossing the Thames over Waterloo Bridge. Every traffic light was like the start of the Tour de France, and having just cycled alone through some of the quietest parts of Somerset, Wiltshire and Hampshire, the sudden company was a surprise. Most of the bikes were folding ones, with many Bromptons, which are clearly outselling iPhones in London. I pedalled onwards, fast, towards Covent Garden and its theatres, freefalling through the streets, passing chattering queues waiting to see The Lion King or Mamma Mia!
At King’s Cross, the usual crowd of travellers was standing beneath the Arrivals screens, bags piled around feet, eyes gazing upwards as if waiting for the Messiah to descend, and wondering which might come first, divine intervention or the “late-running” 1758 to Leeds. Others released their frustrations by driving a luggage trolley straight through a bricked wall and onto Platform 9 and ¾, the latest landmark on the Harry Potter grand tour of England. Few parts of Britain are untouched by the Potter effect, and film locations abound all over the island.
At last I made it onto my train, folded my Brompton into the luggage rack, and settled into my seat. My tour of one of England’s most tantalisingly watery regions was almost over. Nearing Doncaster, as the view from the train began to be overlaid by the shiny reflections of the carriage lights in the window, I saw my first cloud. Or perhaps not a cloud, but a thin sliver of grey like a pencil mark, a horizontal smudge, sliding in and sinking with the sun.