Odiham Guided Walk

Wednesday 04 September 2019

Our small group was welcomed by our guide, Derek Spruce. Derek is a local historian, President of the Odiham Society, and author of the book, The Church in the Bury: A Thousand Years of All Saints, Odiham.

Historical background

We began our visit in the car park overlooking the Deer Park. The Deer Park covers about 600 acres, is ovoid in shape, and runs along the northern edge of the town of Odiham and stretches to the M3 motorway. It is where the Hampshire chalklands change to more barren northern clay and is the location of numerous springs which provided a plentiful water supply before the days of mains water. Dating from Saxon times the Deer Park was a hunting forest and an integral part of the royal manor of Odiham until the reign of James I, who sold it to the earl of Mar in 1603. The earl is said to have cut down many of the trees, part of a then general process of conversion to agriculture known as ‘disparkment’, although his decision may also have been influenced by the huge demand that arose for timber during the seventeenth century.

Odiham was the first location in Hampshire recorded in the Domesday Book and was clearly a place of some importance at the time. The status of royal manor continued until the reign of King John who granted the manor to the men of Odiham in 1204 for a fee farm rent of £50. This was, in effect, conferring the status of a borough upon Odiham, but the local men do not appear to have been enthusiastic. They allowed the fee farm rent to fall into arrears and in 1207 King John resumed ownership of the manor and Odiham reverted to an unincorporated small market town. The men of Odiham also appeared to have been reluctant to send representatives to Parliament. Although invited on occasions, Odiham has never been directly represented in Parliament.

King John was a regular visitor to Odiham in the early 1200s. It was a convenient resting place on journeys between his Windsor and Winchester strongholds and he began building a Castle (not part of the visit), which was completed in 1213. The castle was designed for comfort rather than warfare and it accommodated many distinguished guests in the years following the death of King John. It was later used as a prison and as a hunting lodge but had fallen into disrepair by the early part of the sixteenth century. It is now a ruin in the care of English Heritage.

Odiham had become a market town serving the surrounding area during the middle ages. The wide high street, backed by burgage plots on the one side that led down to the Deer Park was constructed around 1200 as the market centre of the town replacing the previous centre, known as the Bury. The open space of the Bury has, nevertheless, continued to be used for various events, such as fairs, and it is the present-day location for farmer’s markets and musical events. It is also the location for the Odiham stocks! Odiham’s role as an important local centre remained until the years following the second world war, when it began to decline. It had been by-passed by the main railway line between London and Southampton and smaller and less important locations, such as Hook, became more attractive because of their connectivity. Shops in the High Street in Odiham, which had previously provided residents with every product and service required, began to close from the late 1940s as a result of the competition provided by the rising prosperity and services offered at nearby locations.

Odiham’s population has remained relatively small, currently around 4,500, and the town’s overall appearance and layout, absence of major development, its historical interest, and the quality of many of the local properties, has resulted in it becoming an attractive place to live. As such, it has drawn in wealthy outsiders and is now relatively prosperous.

There was never any industry in the town of Odiham but there were two mills and a tannery in North Warnborough, which is just to north-west, and there has been a military presence at what is now RAF Odiham since 1926. The site, located to the south of Odiham, was initially used by the British Army and became a permanent RAF flying station in 1934. Various RAF units and aircraft have operated from the site during this time and since the early 1980s it has been home to the RAF’s Chinook Helicopter force.

Odiham’s buildings and architecture

Our party moved to the High Street to start the tour of the town at the front of the George Inn, recently controversially renamed as the Bel and Dragon at the George. Built in 1473 and originally licensed in 1540, much of the early timber-framed building remains although it was re-fronted with a brick skin in the Georgian style during the eighteenth century. Derek told us that the George played a major part in the foundation of the Royal Veterinary Society and the birth of the veterinary profession in Britain. A group of wealthy and important local gentlemen, together with local farmers, met at the George on 16th May 1783 to form the Odiham Agricultural Society. The initial aim was to encourage agriculture and industry in the town and surrounding area, and to improve farriery and animal care. This led to the establishment of a school to teach veterinary science and the concept spread to other locations across Britain.

A significant number of medieval houses have survived in Odiham and many of them have been ring dated. A particularly good example of a timber framed medieval house, complete with first-floor overhang, is located at the edge of the Bury. The oldest of Odiham’s timber-framed medieval houses is located at 111, High Street and is known as Monk’s Cottage. It dates from 1300 and, in common with the George Inn, and most of the other timber-framed houses in the town, was re-fronted with a brick skin during the eighteenth century. Bricks were in use locally from the early seventeenth century and there is evidence of brick making at nearby Dogmersfield during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Local brickworks were also known to be in operation on Odiham Common until the early 1900s.

Evidence of the early use of brick is provided by the Old Court Almshouses, which are located near an entrance to the churchyard of All Saints Parish church. They date from 1628 and consist of a brick-built single-storeyed group of dwellings, with red roof tiling, arranged on three sides of a court. The court is contained within a low brick wall with a central entrance arch. Endowed by Sir Edward More in 1623, the original eight dwellings were constructed by his executors. The Old Court Almshouses are now managed and funded by Odiham Consolidated Charities. The term Bridewell was first used to describe a prison that was located near the Church of St. Bride in London in the mid-sixteenth century. Bridewells subsequently appeared in other locations and the term later referred to a police station that contained cells to hold prisoners. The building known as the Bridewell in Odiham, one of the 240 listed buildings in the town, was built as a jail in 1742.

It continued in that role until 1847 when it became a Police Station with cells, and we had a glimpse of one of them, now in use as a kitchen. The police station closed in 1972, but the Bridewell is clearly an adaptable building. Between 1882 and 1970 one of the rooms was used as the Magistrates Court, and the Bridewell is now the Odiham Library.

In 2015 the Library became home to the Odiham embroidery. Designed by local artist, Mary Turner, with the stitching onto the background canvas undertaken by 70 volunteers using traditional techniques, the embroidery illustrates events in English history that occurred in and around Odiham from the time of Magna Carta to the present day. They include King John and the barons departing from Odiham for Runnymede, King John’s daughter, Eleanor de Montfort, with her husband, Simon de Montfort, who stayed at the Castle in 1265, the meeting that led to the founding of the veterinary profession in Britain, soldiers at the time of the English civil wars, visits by Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Elizabeth II, French prisoners held in the area during the Napoleonic war, and a chinook helicopter from RAF Odiham. The embroidery also includes local buildings, such as the Almshouses, the Pest House, and All Saints church. The work was completed in 2015.

A particularly unusual building in Odiham is the Pest House. Originally known as the Plague House, it is one of only five surviving Pest Houses, or isolation houses, which were built to house people, both local and travellers, who were suffering from infectious diseases, such as the plague and smallpox. It was built in the 1620s and restored by the Odiham Society in 1981. It is now a Heritage Centre.

Our tour ended at the grade I listed All Saints Parish church. The Domesday Book shows that Odiham was a ‘minster’, a place that housed a group of priests who ministered for churches in the local area, although none of these Saxon churches has survived. The present church, which is Grade I listed, dates from the early 13th century. Derek drew attention to the Church’s outstanding external feature: the brick tower built after 1647 to replace the earlier tower which had collapsed. The south arcade in the nave was damaged by the collapse and was also rebuilt. Other changes included the removal of the rood screen, the wall paintings, and the stained glass, following the Reformation, and the provision of an impressive pulpit in 1634 and of box pews, reflecting the importance of preaching in church services. In the late nineteenth century, there were further major changes influenced by the Oxford Movement, including the removal of the box pews and the re-introduction of stained glass. To Derek’s disgust the rendering was also stripped from the external walls in the late nineteenth century revealing the flint and rubble. Further changes have taken places more recently with the nave floor being re-laid and the Victorian pews being replaced by moveable chairs. The church is now used for a variety of functions other than church services, including those aimed at attracting a wider spectrum of the local community and increasing church income.


This was a thoroughly enjoyable visit to a fascinating and, in many ways, unusual Hampshire town.

Albert Gallon