Sally March and ‘A Taste of Alresford’

“A Taste of Alresford” is a book that was assembled and published by Sally March on behalf of Oxfam in 1985, by asking local people for their recipes and anecdotes about the town. It is therefore a fitting predecessor to the Alresford Memories website. It was ISBN 0 9510694 0 3, and had an introduction by John Arlott.

The book described Alresford at the time in an Editorial introduction, given below, which is unattributed, but must have come from Sally March. First Guy Stringer, Director of Oxfam at the time, gives the background ideas to the book:

Preface by Guy Stringer of Oxfam

At first sight it might seem strange that Oxfam should be involved in a cookery book but in fact one of the main aims of Oxfam – set down in our Field Director’s Handbook as guidelines for overseas staff in the choice of projects – is the productive and proper use of food.  Oxfam funds must have trained thousands of farmers in improved techniques – with the provision of water, better seeds and fertilizers and at the same time, their wives, in an understanding of nutrition, cooking and other important domestic matters.

So the book is relevant and it’s an extremely nice idea to link such a lovely place as Alresford with the hopes and aspirations of poor families in Oxfam’s world.

So I thank Sally March who has been the prime mover in bringing this profitable concept into reality, together with her two friends (Kit Weir and Betty Chapman), and coupled with the imaginative design freely given by the students from the Faculty of Art and Design, Southampton Institute of Higher Education.

Guy Stringer, CBE Director of Oxfam, 1985.

A description and history of Alresford:

Alresford is a busy, attractive small market town, standing among the chalk hills and valleys of central Hampshire. In the Saxon language Alresford means “The Ford by the Alders” hence the name of its river, the Alre, which near the Parish boundary, joins the River Itchen on its way to Winchester and Southampton. Not only does the town lie on the main road tpo Southampton from London but, a thousand years ago, Winchester was first the capital and then the second city of England, and Alresford was able to supply it with wool, meat and corn, as well as being a natural halt on the ‘Royal’ highway.

The centre of the town itself , its streets lined with early Georgian buildings, is shaped like a ‘T’, the main stem of which is Broad Street, and the top, East and West streets (the A31). Years ago Broad Street was known as North Street and, before that The Shambles; East Street was called Ram Alley and West Street, Sheepcoop Street. All these old names referred to Alresford’s famous sheep fairs and markets which were held in the town from the Middle Ages until as late as 1974. The Shambles meant the row of butchers’ stalls and slaughter houses which ran up the centre of Broad Street years ago.

The first record we have of Alresford by name dates back to 639. A few years later it was given to the Church at Winchester by Kenniwalla, King of the West Saxons, which ensured its growth for many centuries. A pleasant story tells that the town was founded by the Danes, beaten in a battle or skirmish by Saxons and converted to Christianity, settling first in Old Alresford (a few miles to the North of ‘New’ Alresford) and then, as their numbers increased, across the Ford of the Alders into the present town. The three parishes of Old and New Alresford, and their neighbour Medstead, formed the ‘liberty’ of Alresford, that is, a district enjoying freedom from tolls and taxes. The ‘grant’ of the Liberty into the ownership of the Church was confirmed by succeeding Saxon Kings and the Domesday Book (compiled between 1081 and 1086) speaks of the Bishop of Winchester as the greatest Alresford landowner.

But the main impetus to Alresford’s growth began during the reign of Richard l and came from Bishop Godfrey de Lucy, who was consecrated in 1189. He designed the huge lake or reservoir of 200 acres now known as Alresford pond) which stretched from Bishop Sutton in the East of Alresford, where he built a Great Weir or Ware as a dam. Its sluices in the south west corner are still called The Shuttles and control the flow of water out of the Pond. This then , is the Alre river, running under the Norman bridge and down the millrace to join with other streams and become the River Itchen.

Winchester at that time was the English wool Staple, that is, it was the market where wool was sorted, classified and sold. According to historians, Alresford’s so called ‘decline’ began when the Staple was moved to ‘English’ Calais some time before 1452.

Godfrey de Lucy also redesigned Alresford, giving it wide streets and an even wider market street, which greatly improved its trade in wheat and barley and other essential commodities, as well as sheep. Godfrey de Lucy even gave the town a new name, Newmarket, but the inhabitants continued to use the old name, and the new one was forgotten.

Despite the removal of the wool Staple, plague in the 15th century and many great fires, Alresford, like the Phoenix, continued to rise again from its ashes and prosper into the 17th century. The main road from London (a ‘Royal’ road ‘spacious, wide and good’ granted by Henry lll) lay through Alton and Bighton to Old Alresford, and along the Great Weir to New Alresford(1). Stagecoach travellers could stay in any of five inns, The Bell and The swan in West Street, The Sun in East Street, The George on the East side of Broad Street, and the New Inn on the corner of Broad Street and West Streets, with archways leading to the stable yard behind on both sides.  These five were the coaching inns; others served farmers and shepherds bringing stock to market, The Horse and Groom, The Globe overlooking the Pond, The Stag Inn opposite, and The Running Horse. There were public houses for the local tradesmen, The White Hart and the Carpenters Arms (later known as The Peaceful Home) in East Street and The Queen Tap at 20 West Street, known locally as The New Found Out.

At the top of Broad Street, above The Shambles, stood the Market House. Opposite it, over and next to the gate of the parish church, St John the Baptist, was The Por House, which later became a school for poor children. Near the Church porch stood a tenement, housing a priest for the fraternity of Jesus, “to the intent that he should synge within the parishe churche as well for the ayde and helpe of the curate, as also for ease of theinhabituantes there”(2).

The local landowning family was the Nortons of Old Alresford House. Colonel ‘Idle Dick’ Norton was a friend of Oliver Cromwell who often stayed at The Swan, and favoured local tradesmen and farmers. An action was fought and won by the Roundheads at Cheriton, a few miles away, and ‘Idle Dick’ brought a party of horseto the battle field when it was needed and helped defeat Lord Hopton and the Royalists. Alresford trade increased again…..

The Great Fire of 1st May 1689 destroyed the Market House, the Poor House, The New Inn, the Church and the Council House, and most private houses, shops and places of work. The damage amounted to more than £24000, a huge sum in those days. The consequence was that in a Royal Brief, William and Mary asked for help from concerned British citizens and the town was slowly rebuilt in the elegant style we admire today. In 1736 there was another smaller fire and another Royal Brief (this time from George ll). A year later, smallpox struck the town; this time disaster was avoided by isolating sufferers in the Pest House built in the Town Acre, on high ground on the outskirts of the town. Thus trade could continue safely. The Pest House was taken down in 1807 at the time of the Enclosure of the Common Fields.

The railway came to Alresford in 1865. One of the town’s main crops was, and still is, watercress which, together with milk, the railway could take daily to London. The increase in trade that the railway brought was useful, but imagine the change it brought to the people accustomed to walking or riding! Suddenly London, Southampton, Salisbury, the coast, were all within easy reach. Little in the town’s history could have had such a stunning effect.

However, the pattern of the Alresford year would have changed little during the 18th and 19th centuries – lambing and shearing, Easter and Christmas, the harvesting of the wheat and barley. The sheep fairs were held every Thursday and the Great Fairs in Autumn and Spring, the one ‘chiefly for Corn, Sheep, Cows, Calves, Bulls, Horses, Haberdashery and Pedlary wares, the other for not only these articles but cheese and bacon – bread, corn and seed barley, oats, pease and grass seeds’ (3).

The Autumn Fair was held on the Feast Day of St John (the patron church) and was also a pleasure fair. Still today (1985) the traditional fun fair sets up in Broad Street on the first Thursday after 11th October.

In 1909 the first annual show of the Alresford and District Agricultural Society was held in a field in The Dean. The Society still flourishes and the Show is the main event in the Alresford year.

In 1937 Canon A J Robertson in his ‘History of Alresford’ wrote that, with the advent of telephones and motor transport, Alresford was no longer a shopping centre. Goods could be ordered by telephone and delivered, and personal shoppers could enjoy an outing by bus or car to Winchester or Southampton, where they could combine shopping with a visit to the ‘Pictures’. Indeed motor transport became so easy and convenient and the railway, in consequence, less popular that the line through Alresford was cut in 1973, as a result of the Beeching report.

Happily for Alresford residents, the pattern of life in Britain has changed again. The hurry and scurry of life in the city, the high cost of petrol and bus fares, the comparative affluence of society since World War ll, have encouraged towns and villages to blossom once more. The old railway has become the new ‘Watercress Line’, old and interesting buildings are carefully preserved; flowers and fresh paint brighten the streets in summer.

This book [ie the book ‘A Taste of Alresford’] we hope, will give visitors to our town not only some new and unusual recipes, but also an impression of its people. The population is a changing one and includes many people who have lived and worked overseas, and many young couples who are attracted to the town by its school and shops, and by the pleasant new homes built on the south side of Alresford. With the older families they help to keep alive the heart of the town. Hard work, loving care and the slower pace of country life combine to make a charming, unspoilt Hampshire market town.


  1. In 1753 a turnpike road was constructed, the present A31, bypassing Bighton, and entering the busy town along East Street. [The ‘new’ Alresford bypass to the south of the town was opened after Sally March wrote this introduction, in 1986 – Ed]
  2. From the MS history by Robert Boyes, Master of Perin’s Grammar School in 1774, quoted in ‘History of Alresford’ by A J Robertson, and published by Laurence Oxley, in the Studio Bookshop in Broad Street.
  3. ‘Chant, Cert 52 No 23’ from ‘A History of Hampshire – Fawley Hundred within the Liberty of Alresford’.

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