The trek starts at Arlesford Station on the preserved heritage railway known as ‘The Watercress Line’. The Mid Hants railway started in 1865 and was intended to link Alton with the main route from London to Southampton, the line was in full service for 108 years, playing an important role in both wars before it was closed in 1973. It has since been restored and is now a successful visitor attraction.
Leave the station and head to Broad Street in the centre of this beautiful Georgian town, that for many years was a prosperous wool town and is now the UK’s capital for watercress. Look out for the tiny old fire station that was built in 1882 to originally house a horse drawn fire engine.
Take the Wayfarers Way trail to the tranquil River Arle, with it’s crystal clear waters and gently wavering riverbed plants that can have you memorised for ages. A short walk along the river is ‘Fulling Mill’, dating from the 13th century it was built to make the fulling of cloth easier, for many centuries the hammering of the fulling stocks would have been heard as they tightened and shrunk cloth into a closely woven product. This mill was disused in the early 19th century when larger mills took over this process.
Cross the river and head towards Old Arlesford passing the first watercress beds of the trek, some empty and presumably resting whilst others are a sea of vibrant green as the watercress is coming into full bloom.
Just on the outskirts of Old Arlesford head east on quite a defined bridlepath through the bright yellow fields of rape and continue to Abbotstone, the site of an old medieval village. The distinct ridges in the ground indicate where the village once stood and the few trees standing eerily amongst the mounds could probably tell a story or two.
Wander through this tiny hamlet with its many river tributaries and head up to ‘Itchen Stoke Down’. A great place to stop for a break and to take in the varied wildlife such as the yellow tipped butterfly, cowslip growing in the path edges and kites hovering above, looking for their next meal. There are also some great view across the Hampshire countryside to the edges of Winchester where the white domes of the science museum can be picked out too. Look for the raised mounds of the tumuli in the surrounding fields that are known as Itchen Stoke Down Barrows.
Continuing on the Wayfarers Way the trek heads back down towards Arlesford passing further watercress beds before reaching the River Arle again, where wildfowl such as ducks, little egrets and swans can all be seen here. Stroll along the banks back towards the town, passing the ‘Eel House’ that straddles the river. Built in the 1820’s its purpose was on dark moonless nights between August and November to trap mature eels at the start of their amazing migratory journey to the sargasso sea. For more than 160 years the river keepers would catch the eels in nets and sell them live to merchants from billingsgate market. A short walk back through the town and past the church to the station completes this trek.