In the Test Valley, Andover is a town that grew up around the woollen industry and became an important stop on the coaching road between London and Salisbury in the 18th century.
To the west lies the chalk plateau of the Salisbury plain, which is the largest military training area in the UK, encompassing 150 square miles.
So it’s no mystery why Andover’s largest employer today is the Ministry of Defence (MOD). You can investigate some of this heritage at the Museum of Army Flying.
Almost all of the surrounding chalk hills in the North Hampshire Downs were home to settlements in the Bronze and Iron Age.
One, Danebury was excavated in the 20th century, yielding a haul of artefacts for Andover’s excellent Museum of the Iron Age.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Andover:
1. Museum of the Iron Age
Danebury hillfort (founded 550 BC) to the southwest of Andover is one of the most excavated and researched Iron Age sites in the UK. Many of the artefacts recovered from digs between 1969 and 1988 have ended up at this Georgian townhouse.
The fort has evidence of craft and industry on a surprising scale, and the museum has an impressive display of weaving and leatherworking tools – and human remains.
There’s also a faithful reconstruction of a roundhouse dwelling where pieces of pottery from the hillfort are shown in display cases, while you can see how bread was made at the site and find out about the mysterious role of druids in Iron Age life.
Also in the museum is an exceptional Romano-British mosaic discovered in the village of Fullerton.
2. Hawk Conservancy Trust
This wildly popular bird of prey park is run by a conservation charity, which also manages the National Bird of Prey Hospital on the site.
There are a few different ways to experience this attraction.
The most affordable is to come to tour the park’s aviaries and take in a busy timetable of flight demonstrations.
You’ll take a seat on the grandstand to watch vultures, eagles, woodland owls, secretary birds, herons and sea eagles and more in flight, while the keeper shares interesting details about each bird.
You could also book a special one-on-one or small group experience.
The range is too long to list here but includes whole days, a variety of species, handling sessions tailored for children and bird photography workshops.
3. Museum of Army Flying
This museum at the Army Air Corps Airfield in Middle Wallop is all about army aviation, beginning with the 18th and 19th-century balloon sections for the Royal Engineers.
The two capacious hangars are filled to the ceiling with almost 40 rotary and fixed-wing aircraft.
One of the stars of the show is the Westland Lynx that set two world helicopter speed records in 1972, while something rarely seen in the UK is the ZSU-23-4 Soviet anti-aircraft system captured during the First Gulf War.
There are simulators, interactive displays and masses of artefacts to examine, like photographs, medals, bombs, missiles and uniforms.
This is all complemented by firsthand accounts from personnel, like a captain who served in the Royal Flying Corps in the First World War.
Do stop by the Apache Café, not least because you can watch the airfield’s comings and goings from the window.
4. North Wessex Downs
Andover borders an Area of Outstanding Beauty spanning four English counties and encompassing part of the North Hampshire Downs.
The undulating chalk hills of the North Wessex Downs belong to the Southern England Chalk Formation, and like Danebury many of the highest hilltops were hillforts in the Bronze and Iron Age.
To see the downs on foot you could head east to the village of Longparish, which is on the Test Way, a 49-mile north to south trail beginning on Walbury Hill in the downs and ending near the Test Estuary in Eling.
In the downs, the trail takes in Combe Gibbet, in a prominent position on Gallows Hill.
From 1676 people were executed at this highly visible spot as a public deterrent.
Andover is a comfortable drive from Watership Down, the setting for Richard Adams’ novel about rabbits which became an animated film.
5. Andover Heritage Trail
If you log onto the Test Valley Council website you can download a leaflet for a walk around the town centre, guiding you to some riveting sights you might not have noticed.
Andover’s High Street is flanked by lots of handsome Georgian properties, and among them are many former coaching inns, like the Globe, which has had the same name since 1742. The Neoclassical Andover Guildhall on the High Street dates to 1825, while the Angel Inn at the top of this thoroughfare is one of Hampshire’s most important timber-framed buildings, built in 1425. There are more 15th-century houses on Chantry Street and Medieval Street, while the circular Norman archway to the Garden of Remembrance is all that survives of the Andover Church, from the 12th century.
6. Rooksbury Mill
Off the A303 to the south of the town centre is a nature reserve around a 17th-century water mill.
Rooksbury Mill was built on the main channel of the River Anton, which flows into a pair of lakes created after the Second World War by gravel extraction.
Although the current building is from the 1600s, there was mostly likely a mill at this place at the time of the Domesday Book in 1086. The setting is very picturesque for its streams, woodland, lakes and views of the mill across the water.
It’s a sight that wouldn’t look out of place in John Constable painting, and for the last decade the Rooksbury Mill nature reserve has been awarded the Green Flag for its level of maintenance.
Mill Lake has large numbers of pike perch, roach, carp and tench, and fishing is permitted in the Mill Lake on a day-ticket basis.
7. Finkley Down Farm Park
With all sorts of farm animals and activities, this rural attraction has almost everything a child could want from day out.
On hand are pedal go-karts, a gigantic indoor play barn, trampolines, a sandpit and tractor rides.
There’s also a crazy golf course, habitats for goats, meerkats, donkeys, chickens and more, plus a whole timetable of animal activities.
Kids can handle rabbits, groom ponies, watch sheep races and get up close to harmless snakes and other reptiles.
Finkley Down Farm Park organises exciting seasonal events at Halloween, Christmas and Easter, while another local company K&H Falconry offers birds of prey encounters here on weekends and during the school holidays.
8. Anton Lakes Local Nature Reserve
In walking distance of Andover’s town centre is another calming natural site, this time at the source of the River Anton.
The river rises from springs before coursing through historic watercress beds and entering a string of lakes that are flooded gravel quarries.
The lakes are an oasis for birdlife, such as the great-crested grebe, which has stunning brown, orange and white plumage in summer.
Butterfly species like marbled white float over the reserve’s chalk grasslands in summer, while the flooded fen meadow has a magnificent colony of southern marsh orchids, blooming in midsummer.
9. Danebury Iron Age Hillfort
The famous hillfort is just east of the Army Air Corps Airfield.
Danebury was occupied from around 600BC to 100AD and one of the best examples of its kind in the country.
At around 100BC it appears to have suffered a catastrophic attack, and some 100 bodies were found in pits with injuries inflicted by swords and spears.
Danebury is open to the public as a nature reserve, with a story trail explaining some of the dangers faced by its inhabitants more than 2,000 years ago.
It’s not hard to make out the earthwork ramparts defending the hill, or the main gateway, which was brought to light by excavations.
And when you reach the plateau at the crest of the hill (143m) you’ll be standing at a place where meetings and religious gatherings occurred in the Iron Age.
Shrines were uncovered at this spot during excavations, proof that Danebury was used by the social elite in this period.
10. The Lights Theatre
A creative hub for the Test Valley, the Lights Theatre is the place to go for a bit of live culture in the evening.
Touring theatre productions, musicals, dance companies, stand-up comedians and music acts take the stage at the 250-seater auditorium, and there’s something going on most nights of the week.
The Lights Theatre also serves the Andover area with education and training programmes, community theatre performances, gigs by local musicians and exhibitions.
In the school holidays you can bring little ones to interactive storytelling, workshops and child-oriented plays.
11. Ludgershall Castle
The small town of Ludgershall seven miles from Andover was quite a powerful settlement in Medieval times, and even had two Members of Parliament up to 1832. The castle is an English Heritage Site and would have been built by the Sherriff of Wiltshire on what is most likely the site of a much older Iron Age hillfort.
The stone walls were added by King John and both he and his son Henry III used the castle as a hunting lodge in the first decades of the 13th century.
The castle has been abandoned for more than 600 years, but you can peruse the site’s walls, earthworks and the ghostly remnants of the tower.
In the town’s main street is the shaft of a 14th-century market cross, sculpted with scenes from the Passion.
12. Thruxton Motorsport Centre
The track just west of Andover is often described as the “fastest circuit in the UK” for its ring-like layout, almost no tight turns and just a single chicane.
During Formula One testing in 1993, Damon Hill drove his Williams car around the track at an average speed of 147mph.
Several national championships have dates at Thruxton in the summer season, like British Formula 3, the British Superbike Championship and the TOCA British Touring Car Championship.
But for the most part Thruxton is given over to Driving Experiences.
You can take a single-seater race car, or muscular sports cars like the McLaren 570S, Ferrari 458 Spider, Audi R8 or Aston Martin Vantage for a spin on this super-fast track.
The choice of experiences is huge, and juniors can even get behind the wheel, in a safe environment of course.
Thruxton also has three karting circuits, and offers “Arrive and Drive” sessions starting at £20.
13. Longstock Park Water Gardens
On the Leckford Estate (owned by the English retailer, John Lewis/Waitrose), these spellbinding water gardens open to the public on Sundays in the summer.
The gardens have a tapestry of ponds and canals, fringed by specimen trees and informal flowerbeds and borders.
It was all plotted in the early 1900s but John Spedan Lewis, founder of the John Lewis group, spent his later life here and helped nurture them.
There are plants from all ends of the Earth, and the ponds alone contain 40 different species of water lily.
After a magical hour or two in the garden you can stroll through the Longstock Park’s arboretum to browse the farm shop and cafe, as well as the nursery, which grows the national collection of buddleia and clematis.
14. Cholderton Charlie’s Farm
Registered with the Rare Breed Survival Trust (RBST), Cholderton Charlie’s Farm raises rare domestic breeds, many of which can be fed, petted and cuddled by children.
The farm has rabbits, ducks, geese, sheep, pigs, donkeys, ponies, goats, chickens and a fluffy Highland cow called Agnes.
On rainy days kids can scramble and slide through the three-storey Play Barn, while outside is a 150-metre-long tree-top trail, up to ten metres off the ground, as well as a nest-swing, treehouse and a zip-line.
The Ewe Tree Café & Bar makes healthy meals and indulgent treats, while for a spot of relaxation the farm has water gardens and woodland walks.
15. Cottonworth Vineyard
The rolling downs, chalky soils and mild weather conditions in Hampshire aren’t so different from France’s champagne region! Vines were cultivated here by the Romans, and there’s now a prospering sparkling wine industry.
The Cottonworth Vineyard produces wines like its Classic Cuvée and Rosé Sparkling from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, either made from a blend with Pinot Meunier grapes (as in the case of the cuvée), or using the two individual varieties.
From the start of June to the end of October you can visit on Fridays and Saturdays to learn the intricacies of sparkling wine production, including the magic of secondary fermentation, which gives the wines their fizz.
The tour ends with a “Winemakers’ Lunch”, composed of baguettes, charcuterie, salad, cheeses and fruit.