AMID the many recent development plans for Basingstoke is one that affects many acres of land to the west of the town, with an area extending up to Kingsclere Road to the north, Roman Road to the east, across to Wootton St Lawrence and Oakley to the west, and Battledown to the south.

The last name sums up what could happen if the plans go ahead – a battle to save the downs. And the name of the area which has been recently in the news – is Manydown estate. Two miles in length and one mile in width, the land was singled out by the Basingstoke coouncil’s planning and transportation committee in January 2000.

This huge amount of countryside, with its woodland, hedgerow and agricultural land, could see the construction of up to 3,000 dwellings, as laid down in the Local Plan Review, but there is a great deal of opposition to the scheme, which could take many years to come to fruition.

Manydown is a name which many people may not have heard of until the establishment of its tennis club, which, with its two indoor courts and four outdoor courts, has become a popular Mecca for tennis-lovers. Professional coaches are available to teach anyone of any age in the sport.

Situated at Upper Farm, Wootton St Lawrence, the club was seen on television just prior to this year’s Wimbledon Championships. But Manydown is a name that goes back to the 14th century.

At the time of the Domesday Survey in 1086, the land was known as Wootton Manor, and was “held by the prior and convent of St Swithin”. It remained in their possession until the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1539).

In 1338, it is recorded that at Manydown estate (renamed from Wootton Manor) the workers, such as ploughmen and shepherds, received four shillings (now 20 pence) per year. Other documents relate that the dean and chapter of Winchester sold the manor to William Wither, whose family had been farming the land since the early 15th century. But then, in 1660, the dean and chapter decided to reclaim their rights to the land, and the Wither family received no compensation.

It took two centuries and the Rev Lovelace Bigg- Wither to get it back. Ten years later, in 1873, the Rev Bigg-Wither sold it to Sir Edward Bates, whose family kept it until just after the Second World War.

It was then taken over by Col J Oliver-Bellasis, whose family established the Manydown Company Ltd in 1960. This business has expanded over the years and includes a farm shop at Scrapps Hill at Worting.

In 1996 the freehold of the estate, involving some 2,000 acres, was jointly sold to Basingstoke council and Hampshire County Council.

Most private estates have manor houses and, until 37 years ago, Manydown was able to boast of one that dated back to the 14th century.

Although certain parts of the house were altered in later years, with a new frontage built in 1790, the cellars, courtyard and other sections of the building remained the same. The house had a well 190 feet deep which was open on the first floor, at the rear of the building. It was here that the winding gear for the well was fitted, to allow the water to be carried up to the floors above without climbing too many stairs.

It was at Manydown House where Jane Austen, the novelist, received her only marriage proposal in November 1802. The son of Mr Bigg-Wither, owner of the house, took a great liking to Jane when she visited the residence with her sister Cassandra and brother James. Although she had intended to stay for several days, upon this proposal she immediately asked to return home to Steventon, then sent a message declining the proposal. She remained a spinster for the rest of her life.

By 1964, Manydown House had become empty and for two years it remained derelict. Although the house was registered as being of special architectural and historical interest, the authorities decided to allow it to be demolished amid protests to the county council by many people.

In April 1966, workmen moved into the house to begin dismantling its fittings. After they went home on May 3, sparks from a nearby bonfire, left by some workmen, set light to the house and the fire consumed most of the building. As the firemen arrived, staff were busy evacuating cattle from nearby sheds in case the flames reached that far. The fire burned all night and by the morning the house was gutted.

The name of Manydown is derived from Many Downs or Manor Down, as it is close to the rolling uplands of southern England. If the proposed housing development does go ahead, those hills will disappear under a sea of roofs.

Back in the 1950s, the Basingstoke Development Scheme sent out a message “Come to the Hampshire countryside”. But now it is a cry of “Where is the countryside”? Over the years many people have enjoyed walking up the lane by Worting Church to wander across the Worting Wood Farm fields and into the wood itself, to emerge on the other side into more fields. On walking back is a vista of Basingstoke in the distance. This is pure countryside, with its wildlife all around. Let us hope that it stays that way.