It’s a miserable December morning, damp and misty. A cobweb drapes across the wing-mirror of the Subaru, heavy with water droplets. My neighbour leaves the village shop with his Sunday paper and a bag of flour; perhaps I should follow his example, stay home and occupy myself with the cosy pursuits of reading and baking. But we’re both in need of exercise, so the husband and I are going to explore part of the Meon Valley Trail. We drive out of the village and the fog thickens; trees loom suddenly in the gloom and a hawk glides out of nowhere across our path. I shiver, although the thermometer tells me it’s far from cold; I’m not in much of a mood for a walk.
The Meon Valley Trail runs for ten miles from West Meon to Wickham, and we’re starting near Meonstoke. It’s an out-and-back route, linear rather than circular, as the trail follows the old Meon Valley Railway. You can start at either end and walk as far as you fancy, or be contrary like us, and start in the middle. From 1903-1955 the MVR carried passengers twenty-two miles from Alton to Fareham, but with the growing popularity of the car, and the inability of the line to be financially viable, the service was scrapped. The track was lifted in 1974/75 and it was possible to walk to the line if you didn’t mind plentiful mud. Last year’s improvements have made the path more user-friendly for walkers and cyclists, but based on today’s experience, I’d still recommend sturdy footwear.
The trees are bare, their trunks wrapped in ivy, and the path is covered in squashed leaves. The trail is flat, mainly straight, with only the gentlest of curves, so there’s no mistaking the fact that this was once a railway line. Steep banks rise on either side, and a number of red-brick bridges span the path: try speaking while passing beneath one of these, and hear your voice echo back to you from the chilly walls. In one respect, walking here in winter is better than in summer; the lack of leaves on the trees opens up the view, lessening the feeling of burrowing down a tunnel of green. A field rolls up to the grey horizon, revealing the fuzzy image of three horses in the mist.
The path widens and we enter old Droxford station. The abandoned platforms are overgrown with weeds and ivy, the concrete cracked and crumbling. The station house is fenced off, converted to a private residence, but an old box van, still wearing its smart green paint, is visible over the fence. We reach a signpost: West Meon 5 miles in one direction, Wickham 5 miles in the other, and Droxford Village down a narrow track. Another sign reveals the political significance of this stretch of railway. On 2 June 1944, in a siding just outside Droxford, Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, and his war cabinet met with Allied leaders ahead of the D-Day Landings, their train camouflaged by the dense Hampshire woodland.
Half a dozen cows gaze at us from a wooded field-edge, hoof-deep in golden leaves. One rests her chin on the back of another. Suddenly a glittering stream is below us, the River Meon, making gentle progress through the wood until it reaches water-meadows of tussocky grass. We veer off the path, down steps to the river’s edge where it flows gin-clear and less than a foot deep.
This amazing clarity is due to the filtering effect of the chalk. 80% of the world’s chalk streams are in England, with the Meon and the Test being prime examples. Water voles have been reintroduced here, and I make a note to come back another day, at an earlier, quieter time, to try and spot one. We meander with the river, until a flash of white on the water-meadow catches my eye. It’s an egret stretching its wings by the stream. Beyond, a field stretches like green corduroy until it reaches the dark hedge and the grey sky. It’s time to turn round. We’ve only walked three miles, but we must walk another three back to the car. Retracing our steps, we enjoy the novelty of such a flat trail, walking as briskly as we can without breaking into a jog. The egret has flown, and the mist shows little sign of burning off, but the chalk stream is still bubbling and our spirits have risen enormously.