Hampshire’s hosepipe ban sends neighbourly relations down the drain

Residents of Jane Austen’s village of Chawton fear being ‘grassed on’ by neighbours, simply for trying to revive their parched lawns

Sarah Addison, a stalwart of the Chawton Horticultural Society, uses a watering can to rehydrate the flowers outside her Hampshire home Credit: Eddie Mulholland

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a lawn - and for that matter a garden, allotment or hanging basket - must be in want of a regular watering.

None more so than the once green swards of Jane Austen’s Hampshire village home.

Here the lack of rain and persistently high temperatures have turned lawns, verges and grassland into parched stubble.

But should the good citizens of Chawton unroll their hosepipes they now face the prospect of, shall we say, being “grassed on” by their neighbours.

For, in the face of the worst dry spell since their records began 131 years ago, Southern Water has introduced a strict hosepipe ban across much of Hampshire, the first water company to do so this year.

Under its strict edict customers will no longer be able to use hose pipes to water gardens, clean cars or fill ornamental ponds and swimming pools. Cleaning boats, windows or patios using a hosepipe is also banned, with a £1,000 fine for repeat offenders.

Companies like Southern and South Eastern, which is on the cusp of also introducing hosepipe restrictions, have encouraged customers to “take appropriate action should your neighbour be ignoring, knowingly or unknowingly, restrictions in place”.

While some might think that reporting recalcitrants to the proper authorities is precisely the kind of thing Austen’s comic matriarch Mrs Bennet might do - anonymously of course - many of Chawton’s residents have urged their fellow villagers and the water companies to exercise some sense and sensibility and rely more on their powers of persuasion.

‘I would rather just have a quiet word’

Speaking in the front garden of her cottage next to the house where Austen lived from 1809 until her death in 1817 and where she wrote and published her six great novels, Sarah Addison, a stalwart of the Chawton Horticultural Society, said: “I expect there are those who will snitch on their neighbours, but I wouldn’t. I would rather just have a quiet word.

“We’re all having to rely on watering cans for our gardens and vegetable patches, which reduces the amount of water you use but obviously affects the growth. We’ll see that at our annual show, tomorrow. But the reality is we’re all going to have to adapt to climate change.”

Tony Heddon, 56, a registrar, told The Telegraph: “I really don’t think it’s helpful in a village like this, where everyone knows each other, to ask people to spy on their neighbours.”

“I would never snitch on my neighbours, though to be honest I don’t think they would breach the rules in the first place. We don’t really do that kind of thing in a village like this.

“Nobody would tell tales, even if there are certain people I suspect would use a hose illegally.”

Ms Addison's house is next to where Austen lived until her death in 1817 and where she wrote and published her six great novels Credit: Eddie Mulholland

But Clare Simper, who also lives in the village, fears that telling tales is precisely what some will be tempted to do.

“You saw it happening during Covid, with all the rules that were put in place,” she said. “I mean, I wouldn’t do it, but if I saw someone using their hose pipe when they shouldn’t I would certainly be cross.”

Mrs Simper prefers to take more practical and helpful measures than ringing the water company’s enforcement hotline and is encouraging her neighbours to help themselves to the water in her garden swimming pool when she leaves for her Spanish holiday home.

“It’s the least I can do rather than let that water evaporate and go to waste,” she said.

As she spoke Paul Morris, the semi-retired CEO of an IT firm, stared disconsolately at the parched and yellowing grass outside Austen’s now Grade I listed redbrick cottage, visited by Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, last April.

“It was only laid in the spring, after the workmen repairing its roof for her visit laid all the tiles on it, but look at it now,” he said. “The turf won’t last the summer if it doesn’t get some rain.”

The lawn has turned to parched stubble outside Jane Austen's house in Chawton, Hampshire Credit: Eddie Mulholland

Mr Morris, 65, sympathised with companies such as Southern Water, where river flows are now approximately 25 per cent lower than they should be at this time of year.

But he said more thought should have gone into long term investment in the region’s water infrastructure, such as reservoirs, and leak repairs.

“You have to have a hose pipe ban of course, because the water just isn’t there. But if there were no leaks there wouldn’t be a need for a ban,” he said.

Cricket pitches exempt from ban

One man anticipating the complaints of locals about his use of precious water is Martin Skilton, the groundsman and chairman of Chawton Cricket Club, founded in 1883.

Cricket pitches enjoy an exemption to the ban, with regular watering necessary to prevent the ground breaking up and posing the threat of dangerous bounces.

“I imagine I’m going to have to explain to people that I’m still allowed to use a hose pipe on the pitches, but I can see why they get upset when they’ve been banned from watering their gardens and lawns,” said the former surveyor.

The hosepipe ban comes in the face of the worst dry spell since Southern Water's records began 131 years ago Credit: Eddie Mulholland

As sheep nibbled the dry grass in fields near Chawton House - an Elizabethan manor where Austen’s brother Edward lived - Thalia Sanders hurried back home from her morning dog walk to water her vegetable garden.

“I know there’s no alternative to a hose pipe ban, but it’s not very helpful when at the same time we’re being encouraged to grow our own vegetables,” she said. “And it’s very irritating when the water companies have been so careless about leakages.”

Speaking from the church of St Nicholas in Chawton the Rev Carrie Walshaw said she feared what asking people to snitch might do for community relations.

“It doesn’t appeal to me at all,” she said. “It would be better to encourage people to do positive things instead, such as using bath and other domestic water for the garden. That’s what my husband and I and others here are already doing. I don’t think the idea of neighbours reporting on each other will go down at all well here.”

Dr Alison Hoyle, the director of risk and compliance at Southern Water, defended the hose pipe restrictions.

“We haven’t taken this decision lightly. We’re asking everyone in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight to do their bit by supporting these measures and only use the water that they need,” she said. “A Temporary Use Ban is a responsible and vital step to reducing the amount of water being taken from the Rivers Test and Itchen.”