Overseas visitors – especially from the US or Canada where ‘ancient’ often means early 20th century – are often astonished at the tangible richness of Britain’s history.
Us? We take it for granted, never more so than when we whizz past fascinating slices of it in our cars without a sideways glance. It is – of course – because we’re surrounded by an inexhaustible supply of it.
This drive is all about savouring some of those gems, whether it’s the landscape itself or a pretty stretch of road, a fetching row of timber-framed houses or a grand cathedral.
Few areas can match the sense of times past on this route that starts in Petworth, West Sussex, settled since at least Norman times and mentioned in the 1086 Domesday Book, before meandering through the beautiful and historic South Downs.
It takes in a stately home or three, an open air museum stuffed with a collection of time-worn buildings relocated from elsewhere, before romping through England’s former capital city (fully 65 miles south of London), finally halting at a tranquil abbey which has eight centuries of history buried deep within its walls.
Even the roads in this part of Britain conjure an air of antiquity, lined variously by grand or higgledy-piggledy timber-framed or flint-faced homes, their gently curving garden walls tracing the outline of the highway.
Motorists like Petworth, even if Petworth doesn’t like motorists. This is because this pretty, bustling, upmarket town with its cosy central square and side streets lined by independent shops, antique stores, pubs and restaurants, bisects the A272, one of the finest driving roads in the area.
It’s also why – as you stroll around Golden Square or Market Square – the procession of ‘ordinary’ traffic is frequently punctuated by the noisy arrival of a ‘collector’s’ car or motorcycle at weekends; open-topped sportsters, rumbling Ducatis, burbling 50s Americana, spluttering old Austins. All good fun but a little tiring for locals, many of whom wish they had a bypass.
It’s best to park in Petworth to explore its inviting shops on foot, before ambling into the 700-acre Deer Park and Pleasure Grounds, and grand Petworth House itself. If you’re feeling energetic, download a map on the National Trust website and – as we did – get thoroughly lost. With woodland, wildlife, lakes and tranquillity, there’s nowhere better to do it.
Leaving on the fast, twisting A272 west, the Topaz Blue Vauxhall Grandland X comes into its own. The three-cylinder 1.2-litre turbo petrol engine producing 128 hp is a lot of fun and revving it becomes slightly addictive; it emits a pleasing, slightly dissonant thrum and the six-speed manual gearbox is sweet and light. Best of all – especially on this trip – the view out is aided by a large panoramic glass roof and generous glazing, through which to enjoy the ‘tree tunnels’ overhanging the road in places. And the boot of this internally spacious but compact SUV has enough luggage room for the whole family.
You quickly begin to pick out quaint old brick and flint houses at the roadside along the A272, all fitting into the landscape like pieces in one of those English countryside jigsaw puzzles. Soon, you’re whizzing past the immaculately manicured lawns of Cowdray Park Polo Club at Easebourne, with a glimpse over to romantic Cowdray Ruins, one of England’s most important early Tudor houses, visited by King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I. You can visit too, on pre-booked, guided tours.
Now trundle through the market town of Midhurst, with its mix of medieval, Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian architecture before turning left onto the A286 - another good driving road with long views, twists and turns – pushing on through Cocking Village, bordered by the South Down Hills, to discover the Weald and Downland Living Museum.
This is where old barns, grand medieval houses, school-rooms, churches and tollhouses ‘retire’ when threatened by the bulldozer. To walk the streets of this artfully arranged ‘village’ of some 50 historic buildings, each dismantled brick-by-brick before being painstakingly reconstructed, is to stroll through history itself.
Next, the A286 carries you past the flint walls of part-Jacobean West Dean House, sitting in 6,350 acres of grounds. They know all about coaxing antiques back into life at West Dean, an imposing flint-faced manor house which, in 1972, became West Dean College, specialising in the arts, crafts, music, gardening and conservation, including that of furniture, clocks and metalwork. Vintage vehicle owners fit right in. The gardens – bursting with historic, restored features – are open to the public.
Just 20 minutes along the B2141 is another historic gem; 17th century Uppark House and Garden, perched on a stunning hilltop site, with sea views, hidden servants tunnels and a heroic story of how it recovered from a devastating fire in 1989.
Take the undulating B2146 north, which showcases the hours that the Grandland’s designers must have spent on this car’s absorbent, cushy ride. It’s firm enough in the bends but soaks up lumps and bumps beautifully, no matter whether it’s just the driver on-board, or a full house plus the family hound.
Follow the road to Petersfield before rejoining the sinuous A272 – allowing more time to enjoy that peppy little 1.2-litre engine and the supportive seats of this highly practical family car – to Hinton Ampner, with its peaceful gardens boasting exquisite rows of topiary. As you munch your way through a National Trust cream tea (not overdoing it, there’s a treat in store later) it’s hard to believe that this treasure, too, was virtually destroyed by a devastating fire in 1960 before being lovingly rebuilt.
Meander through the sleepy villages of Cheriton and New Alresford before climbing back out along The Avenue through a tunnel of lime trees, then enjoying long views from the A31, which speeds you to Winchester, with its web of mysterious alleys and beautiful Itchen riverside.
Winchester’s crowning glory is its Cathedral, where you should explore ‘Kings and Scribes’, a permanent exhibition taking visitors on a fascinating journey through 1,000 years of history to a time when this handsome city was the capital of England from 827 until the eleventh century.
Your bed for the night – at the elegant, Queen Anne-style Hotel du Vin - is in the middle of it all, perfect for soaking up the historic vibe with its grand public rooms and intimate courtyard. But not before you’ve explored a culture of another kind; Winchester’s acclaimed Kyoto Kitchen which serves dazzling, immaculately-presented, brilliantly-devised dishes based on authentic Japanese cuisine. Also serving several carefully-chosen versions of sake, there’s no wonder it’s become a local favourite.
The B3420 carries you up and out of Winchester, before a quick burst back along the A272/A30 towards Stockbridge with its wide picturesque High Street housing galleries and restaurants, before you turn left to the villages of Houghton and Bossington, criss-crossing the tumbling River Test as you do so, to stately Mottisfont Abbey.
The National Trust tells how then owner Maud Russell made it a retreat for her famous artistic friends in the 1930s and today, visitors can still peruse its extensive art collection including impressive trompe l’oeil designs by Rex Whistler.
Equally as engaging are the well-worn story-boards, tracing the history of Mottisfont, dating to an Augustinian priory founded here in 1201. History-lovers will be right at home; they can read about how the Black Death struck Mottisfont, as did Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, sending Mottisfont on a path towards private ownership which - paradoxically – helped save the buildings we see today.
There’s just one drawback to all this intrigue. It attracts hordes of coaches – many crammed with overseas visitors hungry for history. They swamp this beautiful house and its equally beautiful gardens on fine days and holidays. Who can blame them.
But Mottisfont is at its tranquil best on quieter, perhaps rainier, days, when you can wander freely and - in the furthest reaches of the beautiful gardens and recesses of the grand old house – feel you have walked right back in time.
Hotel du Vin, Winchester: hotelduvin.com/locations/winchester
Kyoto Kitchen: kyotokitchen.co.uk
Tourism South East: tourismsoutheast.com