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Hampshire (county)

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(abbreviation, Hants), county, southern England, bounded on the north by West Berkshire, Wokingham, and Bracknell Forest unitary authorities, on the west by Dorset and Wiltshire, on the east by Surrey and West Sussex, and on the south by the English Channel and the Isle of Wight. The Isle of Wight is separated from the mainland by two narrow straits, the Solent and Spithead, and was part of Hampshire until 1890, when it became a separate county. Under a restructuring of local government, implemented on April 1, 1997, the cities of Southampton and Portsmouth were administratively separated from Hampshire (see Population and Administration below). However, the two cities remain part of Hampshire geographically, and for ceremonial and related purposes. Hampshire has a geographical area of 3,769 sq km (1,455 sq mi); the area administered by the county council (that is, excluding Portsmouth and Southampton unitary authorities) is 3,679 sq km (1,420 sq mi). Winchester is the county town and administrative centre of the administrative county.

An important agricultural region, Hampshire administrative county is renowned for the beauty of the New Forest, in the south-west, once a royal hunting ground and now possessing national park status. The county as a whole has important military connections. Portsmouth, on the south coast, has been Britain’s premier naval base since the Tudor age and is also a container and ferry port. Aldershot, established as a military camp in 1855, is regarded as the home of the British Army. The Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough stages an international air show every two years. The port of Southampton, built at the head of Southampton Water, on a peninsula between the mouths of the Itchen and Test rivers, has long been an important point of departure for travellers of all kinds. They have included Richard I on his 1190 crusade and the ill-fated passengers of the Titanic on its maiden voyage in 1912. Today it is a major passenger and container port.


A broad belt of chalkland known as the Hampshire Downs runs from west to east across the centre of Hampshire, up to 240 m (800 ft) high in places. In the north and south are Tertiary rock formations covered by heath and woodland. In the east, the westernmost tip of the South Downs and the Weald extend into Hampshire from West Sussex. The New Forest occupies some 376 sq km (145 sq mi) in the south-west of the county. Rolling grassy downland, gentle river valleys, and trout streams abound in Hampshire. There are some bogs and salt marshes in the south. The principal rivers are the Avon, the Hamble, the Itchen, the Meon, the Stour, and the Test. Southampton Water, an inlet of the sea, and the Solent are sheltered by the Isle of Wight, making them suitable for sailors of all kinds.

The New Forest, declared a royal hunting ground in 1079 by William I, the Conqueror, has long been a source of timber and a region of stock-raising. Oak, beech, and holly predominate, and there is a wide range of flora and fauna. Wild deer still roam, as do the New Forest ponies, which are descended from an indigenous wild breed. The Rufus Stone marks the spot where William II, nicknamed Rufus, was killed by an arrow while hunting. Although the forest is now mainly Crown land, the New Forest Commoners, descendants of those who raised cattle and ponies in Saxon times, still retain grazing rights on unenclosed areas.

Hmpshire’s sheltered situation means that it has a mild climate, with few extremes. The average rainfall is about 760 to 1,000 mm (30 to 40 in) a year.


The population of Hampshire as a whole is estimated at 1,622,000 (1996 estimate); that of the area administered by the county council is about 1,213,600. The cathedral city of Winchester (1994 estimate, 34,700) is the seat of local government. The other main towns of the administrative county are the port of Gosport (74,700) and Basingstoke, in the north. Lyndhurst, the unofficial capital of the New Forest, is the main tourist centre.

Until April 1, 1997, Hampshire was administered by a county council and 13 district councils: Basingstoke and Deane, East Hampshire, Eastleigh, Fareham, Gosport, Hart, Havant, New Forest, Portsmouth, Rushmoor, Southampton, Test Valley, and Winchester. On that date the City of Portsmouth and City of Southampton unitary authorities were created, with the same administrative areas as the two former district councils. The councils of the two unitary authorities are responsible for all local government services in their areas, including those previously provided by the county council. The exceptions are the police, fire, and rescue services, for which new joint authorities have been established. The rest of the county has retained the two-tier administrative structure of county and district councils. The administrative changes are the result of recommendations made by the Local Government Commission that was established under the Local Government Act 1992 to review the structure of local government in England. The commission originally recommended that the New Forest district, as well as Portsmouth and Southampton district, should become a unitary authority. The Secretary of State for the Department of the Environment, the government minister responsible for local government, subsequently decided, however, that New Forest would remain a district. Crown Courts sit at Winchester, Portsmouth, and Southampton.


Higher education within the geographical county focuses on the two unitary authorities, where the University of Southampton (founded in 1952) and the University of Portsmouth (Portsmouth Polytechnic until 1992) are located. Winchester College, founded in 1382 by the then Bishop of Winchester, William of Wykeham, was a model for British public schools; its pupils are known as Wykehamists. Bedales, the first British co-educational boarding school, was founded in 1893 as a boys’ school. It first admitted girls in 1898 and was at the forefront of the progressive movement in education.

Writers associated with the county include Jane Austen, who lived at Chawton; Charles Dickens, who was born in Portsmouth; Charles Kingsley, who was curate at Eversley; and Izaak Walton, who is buried in Winchester Cathedral. The naturalist Gilbert White wrote about the village of Selborne, where he lived. In 1972 Richard Adams made Watership Down famous with his book of the same name. Captain Frederick Marryat’s book, Children of the New Forest, written in the mid-19th century and set during the English Civil War, powerfully evoked this part of England for several generations of children.


Hampshire as a whole has many attractions, of which the New Forest is one of the most important. Winchester Cathedral, dating from the Norman Conquest, has the longest nave in Europe. At Portsmouth naval dockyard it is possible to visit three historic vessels: the Tudor ship Mary Rose, rescued from the seabed off Southsea in 1982; the flagship of Horatio Nelson, HMS Victory; and HMS Warrior, the strongest and fastest warship of the Victorian period. A short ferry trip away is Submarine World at Gosport, also a historic naval base. The D-Day Museum at Southsea includes the Overlord Embroidery. Patterned after the Bayeux Tapestry, it commemorates the Normandy Campaign of World War II, which was code-named Operation Overlord. Southampton Art Gallery has one of the finest collections of 20th-century British art and sculpture outside London. Other attractions include the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu (pronounced “Bewley”); Broadlands, the home of Lord Palmerston, the 19th-century statesman, and Lord Louis Mountbatten; and Stratfield Saye House, home of the Duke of Wellington. Excursions may be made on the 200-year-old Basingstoke Canal in the north of the county, and on the Mid-Hants steam railway, which is known as the Watercress line. A drive through the Meon valley embraces the loveliest of the Hampshire villages, many with half-timbered, thatched cottages. Exbury Gardens, and Sir Harold Hillier Gardens and arboretum near Romsey, both to the south-west of Southampton, are celebrated for their unique collections of plants and trees, particularly Exbury for its rhododendrons.


Agriculture, especially dairy farming and market gardening, is of importance. The ports and service industries, especially tourism, provide much employment; the main resorts are Hayling Island and Southsea. Finance and business services, public administration, and the health and education sectors are also important employers. Manufacturing accounts for only about 16 per cent of employment; engineering, and brewing and other light industries, are concentrated in and around the market towns. There is a large oil refinery at Fawley, on Southampton Water.


Some evidence of prehistoric settlement exists, including the Iron Age hill forts of Danebury and Hengistbury Head. Under Roman occupation, important towns were established at Silchester (Calleva Atrebatum), Winchester (Venta Belgarum), and Southampton (Clausentum); there are some small villa sites in the north-west of the county. Winchester was the capital of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex and remained until the 14th century of equal importance with London. In the Middle Ages Southampton was much used for the import and export of wool and wine. Monastic settlements included the 13th-century Cistercian abbeys of Beaulieu and Netley. Henry VII established the royal naval dockyard at Portsmouth in 1496. Buckler’s Hard, near Beaulieu, became famous for shipbuilding during the 18th century; it was here that ships were built for Nelson’s fleet. In World War II southern Hampshire, which had been severely bombed, was the principal assembly area for the D-Day landings of June 1944.

Source: "Hampshire (county)," Microsoft® Encarta® Encyclopedia 2000. © 1993-1999 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.

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