I should imagine that few visitors to the Wheatsheaf Inn today – which is now a Chef and Brewer Pub and part of a modern Premier Inn- imagine that it played a very important part in Jane Austen’s early life, and that it had spectacular royal connections.
The Wheatsheaf Inn was and is set on what was, in Jane Austen’s life time, the busy London to Winchester and Poole road, on the route which went via Basingstoke. The road is now the very busy A30, and is not far from the equally busy M3 motorway. Here is an extract from my copy of Cary’s Itinerary for 1802 which shows that the Inn was positioned 5 miles 6 furlongs form Basingstoke on the junction of Popham Lane and the road from London to Winchester:
Here, below, is an annotated section from my copy of Cary’s map of Hampshire for 1797 showing the relative positions of the Wheatsheaf (No.2), clearly marked on the map, and Steventon (No.1)You can see the church at Steventon, and the old Rectory was on land just to the left of the junction with the lane leading to the church and the road that led to Waltham.
The reason this inn would have been familiar to Jane Austen was that she often visited it, not to partake of the ales there (Goodness, no!) but to collect the family’s post. In addition to being an important posting inn, where travellers could hire horses and carriages to take them on their journeys, the inn was also a postal receiving house, where post was received from the mail coaches and then kept until it could be could be collected.
The walk from Stevetnon to the Inn is quite an interesting one. It takes you from the low-lying territory of the site of the old Steventon Rectory to the inn, through the village of Waltham (now North Waltham) and then on to quite high ground toward the site of the inn. I’ve not walked it, but have driven along the route many times. Google Maps tell me that it involves a distance of approximately 2.7 miles and it estimates the journey would take 56 minutes on foot, one way. It would have taken Jane Austen, therefore over 2 hours to collect her family’s post from the inn and return home. It is entirely fortunate then that she considered herself ( together with her friend, Martha Lloyd) a desperate walker. I wonder if this walk provided her with valuable ‘thinking” time, away from the hurly-burly of life at the Stevetnon rectory, filled with family and Mr Austen’s boarders?
Next, the Wheatsheaf’s royal connections….