We recently stopped at Alton in Hampshire for another visit. This town is 40 miles south-west of the city of London and close to the village of Chawton, where Jane Austen spent her final years (she also used to visit Alton frequently). We had planned to spend an hour or so here, but stayed much longer, because it felt open for business and welcoming.
Decline of communities
Alton is a thriving market town, which is a rarity, because although politicians bailed out banks with taxpayers’ money, they then allowed them to close down a staggering number of branches, thousands of them, leaving some places without a single branch. This has had devastating consequences and forces people to travel much further from their local communities for basic services – which is not great for the environment.
The closure of local newspapers has also led to a failure of accountability, so that local councils have, with near impunity, raised car parking charges and closed down amenities such as public libraries, buses, youth clubs and toilets, exacerbating the spiral of decline.
By contrast, Alton felt vibrant. It was market day, there was glorious sunshine, and we were looking for a few places associated with Jane Austen and her family, in particular her two naval brothers, Frank and Charles. We also made our way to the Curtis Museum at the northern end of the main shopping street, almost opposite the building that was once the bank in which Henry Austen (Jane’s brother) was a partner.
Curtis Museum at Alton
It is a delightful museum, and we loved the many different displays relating to Alton and surrounding villages that are of equal interest to those from further afield. There is also a local studies area. The museum is free of charge, though visitors are welcome to make purchases in their well-stocked shop and perhaps put some cash into the donations box. In fact, it was here that we heard the rallying cry of ‘Don’t let banks cause cheques and cash to disappear’. The website is here.
A sign of a civilised place must surely be a bookshop, and even better a secondhand bookshop. Alton has both, and Holybourne Rare Books is not far from the museum, at 7 Market Street. Amongst its collections are many books relating to Jane Austen.
Holybourne Rare Books at Alton
We happened to be in Alton only one day after the two-week ‘Big Dig’ had started in the lovely public gardens, a community archaeology event in which it was hoped to locate evidence for previous activity. It was overseen by Liss Archaeology, and you can see more here.
We have previously featured a story called ‘Sweet F.A.’, about the murder of Fanny Adams in Alton, which you can read here.