The clear chalk streams have attracted people to this area for many centuries. There is evidence of Neolithic (stone age), bronze age and iron age occupation on numerous sites in the area particularly on the downs to the north of Old Alresford. There is also evidence of a Roman or Romano-British site on Fobdown near Alresford not far from the River Alre. (see sidebar) There is another to the south-east of the town in Bramdean.
By the early 5th century the Roman Legions had left Britain and there is then a gap of some 200 years. Following the baptism of the Saxon King Cynegils in 635 and the re-establishment of the Christian faith in Wessex, the King may have granted an area of land, in the Alresford area, to the Church at Winchester. There is evidence that a grant was in existence some two hundred years later and this became known as
The Liberty of Alresford lasted until 1850 when each settlement became an independent parish with its own incumbent.
Novum Forum - The New Market
Henri de Blois, brother of King Stephen and Bishop of Winchester, is credited with the idea of building the Great Weir or dam and designing the T-shaped town of Novum Forum, soon to become New Alresford. He died before the completion of the project and Godfrey de Lucy, his successor as Bishop(1189 - 1204) finished Alresford's T-shaped town centre, as we see it today, still based upon the original burghage plots laid out by the developers. Another legacy of these early days is the medieval stone bridge still in place crossing the outflow from the pond and leading on to the dam and connecting with the old road from Winchester to Farnham through Medstead and Bighton.Robert Boyes, master of Perins Grammar School wrote a manuscript in the 1770s in which he suggested that de Lucy's idea in building the Weir and creating Old Alresford Pond was to provide a head of water to assist navigation of the river between Alresford and Northam. Modem thought, however, inclines to the view that its purpose was that of a fishpond.
Many who could afford it, provided themselves and their household with a pond in order to vary the monotonous diet of the period and to satisfy religious requirements regarding food consumption.
The construction of The Weir did provide access to the main Winchester to London road which at that time ran to the north of the river through Old Alresford. The construction of the weir also dried up the marshy flood plain to the west and made it possible to cross the Itchen at Sewers bridge, Ladycroft just to the west of the modern town. This gave a direct access to Southampton over Twyford Down bypassing Winchester. This may have helped establish New Alresford as a prosperous market town.
Alresford had to send two members to parliament in the 13th and 14th century but following the decline in the town's prosperity following the Black Death (1348-9) the town requested and was granted a release from this obligation.
Fires have been a part of life in Alresford over the centuries, some disastrous and others less so. The first serious fire was in 1440 but there were a number in the 17th century the most destructive being in 1689 which destroyed 117 houses in the town as well as the Church and Market House. Most of the town was rebuilt by the end of the century. Alresford had another bad fire in 1736 which started in a brewery on the north side of West Street. None of the fires changed the street pattern of the town because a lot of the houses have cellars dating back to Norman times. When the town was rebuilt using brick and clay peg tiles or slate for roofing in the eighteenth century this saw an end to the serious fires and left Alresford much as you see it today - a Georgian town.
The Civil War touched Alresford briefly in the spring of 1644 when two royalist armies under Hopton tried to prevent the parliamentary army under Sir William Waller controlling access to Winchester and the region to the south and west of London. Early skirmishes took place around Bramdean Common and Cheriton Wood but the main conflict known as the Battle of Cheriton, took place in the valley between Tichborne Down, to the North, and Hinton Ampner, to the South. There is a commemorative plaque on the lane from Cheriton to Bishop's Sutton which overlooks the valley where the battle took place. The defeated Royalist Army made their retreat through Alresford in the evening of 29 March. Known as the Alresford fight the beaten Royalists retreated through the town setting fire to houses as they went. The battle was reputed to be the fourth largest, but more significantly it proved to be a turning point, of the war. Waller went on to take Winchester although the castle held out for some time leaving the city to be ransacked.
Trade and Commerce
The building of the town was completed in the early 1200s and it immediately became a prosperous centre of trade. Wool and leather and the associated products from sheep and cattle were at first the most important items. Alresford was closely linked with Winchester in the grand staple or 'settled' market. But this did not last. In the following century Edward III removed the staple to Calais and Melcombe Regis, and Winchester and Alresford suffered accordingly. From then on Alresford had periods of prosperity and gloom. Although it was not affected much by the Black Death, the town did suffer greatly from the plague of 1479.
During the reign of Henry VIII, clothiers, dyers and tanners were recorded as living here and fulling and corn mills operating. Under Cromwell's patronage, a prosperous trade with the Cotswolds ensued, with wool being exchanged for cheese, bacon and staples from there. Locally the businesses of wool, tanning, sewing and food prospered.
Watercress growing became industrialised in the 1860s following the undercutting of cereal crops by imports of cheap maize by both sides seeking funds for the American Civil War and the simultaneous arrival of the railway to carry the perishable cress to distant destinations
The Influence of Geography
Alresford is situated on the ancient invasion route from the Channel to London, as well as being positioned directly between the two capital cities of Winchester and London. This ensured good communications, which helped with trade and provided local wealth. Pilgrims on foot to and from Canterbury, found it convenient to use the route, although by-passing the town for safety reasons.
With the improvement in road surfaces, the turnpike built in 1753 (and now the A31) enabled services of coaches and freight wagons to run regularly between London and the Channel ports increasing the number and turnover of the inns in Alresford enormously.
The railway was next, carrying many people, thousands of troops, much livestock and the products of the town's light and watercress industries for over a century. Sheep previously driven down the drove roads to and from the Sheep Fair could now be carried swiftly and more cheaply.
The town played host to the 47th Infantry Regiment, US Army from 1943 until D-Day 1944 who were headquartered in Broad Street. In September 1943 a disaster was narrowly averted when a Flying Fortress, with a full bomb load, was steered away from the town and crashed to the east of Old Alresford Pond.
The above is based on an article by John Adams, Alresford Historical & Literary Society, which was originally published in the first edition of the Chamber of Commerce Diary in 1993, with contributions from Garry Allam of Bighton.