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