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Sign posts on the Test Way, England.Courtesy of Quintessential England.

In the early months of 2021, as COVID-19 restrictions were tightened and the Canadian government narrowed the goalposts for international travel, I sat down in my adopted home of British Columbia and compiled a list of the things I missed most about my native England: country lanes, overgrown hedgerows, thatched cottages, clotted cream, pub signs, stinging nettles and gin-clear chalk rivers winding lazily through water meadows. As soon as the borders reopened, I resolved, I was going to go back and reconnect with them in one all-encompassing hike.

Six months later, true to my word, I stood on a blustery hill on the border of Hampshire and Berkshire primed for a lengthy day trek through the heart of quintessential England. It had taken four separate COVID-19 tests and a nine-hour flight in a face mask from Vancouver to get there, but as I gazed nostalgically over the fields and lanes of rural Hampshire where I had once cycled nonchalantly as a teenager, I couldn’t help thinking it was worth it.

The path I was following is called the Test Way, a 70-kilometre-long waymarked route that runs from Combe Gibbet an erstwhile execution site atop a lofty chalk ridge, to Southampton on the south coast. Linking the bygone symbols of an England buried in time, including water mills, churches and inns, the footpath bisects Hampshire’s Test Valley, paralleling one of the world’s finest chalk streams for more than half its course.

Courtesy of Quintessential England.

Top: The River Test. Bottom: Stockbridge High Street.Courtesy of Quintessential England.

As my phone bleeped 8 a.m., I bade adieu to the chalky hills and, alternating fast walking with light jogging, progressed steadily through sloping fields demarcated by tangled hedgerows. A steady stream of startled partridges bolted out in front of me.

After a year spent socially isolating in the Canadian backcountry, my pack seemed light and half-empty, bereft of bear spray, water-purification tablets and hefty hiking gear. It was a refreshing feeling. Passing through soporific villages every few kilometres, the fiercest wild animal I saw was a timid deer hiding in a beech wood. Compared with Canada, England’s charms are gentler and more historic. Every village is home to an ancient church, a winding lane lined with handsome cottages, and a cozy looking pub called the George and Dragon, or the Cricketers Inn.

At my first stop in Hurstbourne Tarrant, a red phone box had been turned into a book exchange and a thatcher was re-roofing a timber-beamed cottage with tightly packed straw. I paused briefly to explore the parish church, a diminutive building I had cycled past numerous times in my youth but had never realized was 800 years old. The dark interior smelled of candles and old carpets. Inspired by its layered history, I made a point of stopping at every church along the route, admiring a haunting assortment of arched naves and muted graveyards.

Courtesy of Quintessential England.

Top: Jam and cream scones. Bottom: Village of Wherwell.Courtesy of Quintessential England.

At the 26-kilometre mark, the Test Way route begins to parallel the River Test in the elongated village of Longparish. To me, this was familiar territory. I grew up close to the majestic Test. Shallow but crystal clear, its waters are frequented by swans, dragonflies and otters, and its banks are lined with weeping willows and aromatic stinging nettles that make your legs itch. Flyfishers revere the river for its brown trout; environmentalists herald it for its rich but delicate ecosystem.

In my callow youth, I assumed all rivers looked like this. But as I grew older and started to travel, I began to realize they are surprisingly scarce. In fact, chalk rivers are so rare, there are barely 200 of them worldwide, the vast majority in southern and eastern England. Their pastoral landscapes are as distinctly English as pork pies or bangers and mash.

After 45 kilometres of stop-start running, I reached the affluent town of Stockbridge with a ravenous appetite. Afternoon tea – the trademark British repast that I hadn’t enjoyed properly since 2019 – seemed to be in order. Siting in a tea room in Stockbridge’s upmarket high street, I heaped clotted cream and raspberry jam onto a round, flaky scone and was transported briefly to heaven.

Courtesy of Quintessential England.

Top: Longparish Church. Bottom: Fields of Hampshire with horses grazing.Courtesy of Quintessential England.

From Stockbridge, the Test Way continues alongside the river, following the course of a disused railway line to the Mottisfont Estate, a stately home built over a medieval Augustinian priory that’s famous for its elegant rose garden. From there, with my energy flagging, I vaulted weed-choked stiles and stumbled across tussock-filled cow pastures to arrive tired but contented in the market town of Romsey.

While the Test Way proper ends 14.5 kilometres to the south, riverside Romsey is a more attractive termination point. With its 18th-century water mill and oversized Norman abbey, the town is the epitome of understated Middle England.

As the shadows lengthened, I staggered through Romsey’s streets to the welcome sight of an Anglo-Indian curry house serving my favourite dish, chicken tikka masala, before retiring for the night to a 15th-century coaching inn called the White Horse. After enjoying a cup of tea while channel-surfing through sitcoms, bizarre quiz shows and a blast-from-the-past snippet of British soap opera Coronation Street, I lay back on the bed and happily contemplated my long overdue release from COVID-19 confinement. It was good to be “home.”

Hurstbourne Tarrant Church.Courtesy of Quintessential England.

If You Go

Full details of the Test Way, including a downloadable brochure can be found at visit-hampshire.co.uk. Southwest trains link London Waterloo with Southampton and Romsey multiple times a day; southwesternrailway.com. For more on the White Horse Hotel in Romsey, visit whitehorsehotelromsey.co.uk.

Gin-clear waters of the River Trent.Courtesy of Quintessential England.

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