South Hamp­shire’s ar­chi­tec­tural gems are hid­den in quite un­ex­pected places

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - COVER STORY -

The re­vi­sions of the Pevs­ner Build­ings of Eng­land se­ries, be­gun by Pen­guin 67 years ago and car­ried on by Yale Univer­sity Press, are so com­pre­hen­sive that some coun­ties no longer fit in a sin­gle vol­ume. Hamp­shire now oc­cu­pies three: Isle of Wight; Hamp­shire: Winch­ester and the North; and, the most re­cent, Hamp­shire: South. It is not a county I know well, and what I do know tends to be in the north. Yet a few hours spent brows­ing Hamp­shire: South re­veal it to be brim­ming with ar­chi­tec­tural de­lights, and not all in the most ob­vi­ous places.

At Breamore, near the Wilt­shire bor­der, there is a stun­ning Saxon church. De­spite be­ing more than a thou­sand years old, its chan­cel arch speaks to us di­rectly. En­graved on it is the mes­sage: “here the Covenant is ex­plained to thee”. Wall paint­ings at Corhamp­ton, from the 12th cen­tury, and at Idsworth, from 200 years later, telling sto­ries from the Bi­ble, re­mind us how few of our me­dieval an­ces­tors could read.

One of the great­est churches here is Rom­sey Abbey, founded a cen­tury and a half be­fore the Nor­man Con­quest. The build­ing we see dates from about 1120, a cru­ci­form mas­ter­piece in the Nor­man and then in the Early English styles, and is a much-ex­panded ver­sion of a Saxon church. All over Eng­land, the Nor­mans were de­ter­mined to erad­i­cate the cul­ture of the con­quered peo­ple, and sub­merged their churches un­der Nor­man ad­di­tions. Iron­i­cally, some of that work on Rom­sey is now vis­i­ble only to the trained eye: a few great arches have been blocked up by later gen­er­a­tions, and the ex­te­rior is dom­i­nated by 15th-cen­tury ar­chi­tec­ture of the per­pen­dic­u­lar pe­riod. In­side, how­ever, the great rounded arches in the nave are un­mis­tak­ably Nor­man.

South Hamp­shire also has its great houses. There is Broad­lands – home at dif­fer­ent times to Vis­count Palmer­ston and Earl Mount­bat­ten – given its present ap­pear­ance largely by Henry Hol­land in the 1780s and 1790s; and Beaulieu, bet­ter known for its mo­tor mu­seum. Beaulieu was orig­i­nally a Cis­ter­cian abbey, founded in 1204 by King John when that un­for­tu­nate monarch was still try­ing to prove he was a good Catholic. What we mainly see now is a Vic­to­rian con­fec­tion, by Blom­field, from the 1860s, built upon the gate­house of the for­mer abbey, al­though the orig­i­nal vault­ing is still vis­i­ble within.

There are grand Tu­dor houses at Nursling and Breamore, and a tow­er­ing gate­house from the same pe­riod at Titch­field. Yet for me the great­est glo­ries of south Hamp­shire are to be found along its shores, relics of a time when the south coast was the first line of defence against an in­vader from Spain or France. Take Portch­ester Cas­tle, which sur­vives in what the re­vised vol­ume cor­rectly terms a “mer­it­less ur­ban land­scape”, or Portsmouth and Gosport, both sig­nif­i­cant cen­tres of Ge­or­gian ar­chi­tec­ture.

The for­mer has its great dock­yard, with such no­table build­ings as the Royal Naval Academy from 1729-33 – the finest ex­am­ple of the Ge­or­gian style in the city, which re­gret­tably fell into dis­use 11 years ago – and the nearby Ad­mi­ralty House, built half a cen­tury later. An­other ex­ten­sive, but less im­pres­sive, Ge­or­gian build­ing is on the Haslar penin­sula at Gosport, the for­mer Naval Hospi­tal, which was bat­tered con­sid­er­ably in the 20th cen­tury. Now its ex­cres­cences are be­ing de­mol­ished and the orig­i­nal build­ing con­verted into hous­ing – a good way of pre­serv­ing our her­itage.

Also at Gosport, in the sub­urb of Alver­stoke, is a fine Ge­or­gian cres­cent wor­thy of Bath or Lon­don. It is a very late ex­am­ple, built by Thomas El­lis Owen in 1828-30. Alver­stoke is lit­tered with other fine Re­gency houses, a re­minder of the af­flu­ence that was at­tracted to our dock­yards when we were a great naval power, in the years af­ter Trafal­gar. As al­ways, ar­chi­tec­ture is in­dis­sol­u­ble from his­tory.

The Build­ings of Eng­land – Hamp­shire: South is pub­lished by Yale Univer­sity Press at £35

A view of Portch­ester Cas­tle in 1720 by James Peake

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