Petworth House and Town - the housekeeper's tour

PUBLISHED: 13:44 14 March 2012 | UPDATED: 21:09 20 February 2013

Alex Oxborough takes a turn around a town which has grown up around the great house and its needs

Petworth House can undoubtedly be counted among the finest of the great English country houses. Graced by the attentions of some of the great names of art and architecture, most famously the landscape painter, JMW Turner, it should undoubtedly be one the must see, several times list of every Sussex resident. But the story of Petworth House cannot be understood without the stories of its inhabitants, the majority of which were not titled, and whose portraits do not hang in its famous picture gallery.

One such inhabitant was Mrs Cownly, Housekeeper at Petworth House for 25 years until 1933. In a town which had grown up around the great house and its needs, she must have been a well-known figure. A walking map produced by Tourism South East England and SEEDA, which starts from the National Trust car park at Petworth House and winds a gentle 1.5 miles around the town, allows you to join Mrs Cownly as she runs errands, and see Petworth through her eyes.

Setting off with my companion on a windy spring day from the grandeur of Petworth House and the sweep of the Capability Brown-designed park, the jumbled streets and homely buildings of Petworths town centre are an abrupt contrast. It is easy to imagine Mrs Cownly feeling a spring in her step as she turned out of the imposing gates, though no doubt she maintained a stern faade. Petworth House records show that Mrs Cownly was an imposing figure, once reprimanding a housemaid for the boldness of drinking a cream tea in full view of the park gates.

Passing St Marys Church, originally built in the 14th Century, we turn down Lombard Street. Though the cobbled street is evocative we are already distracted from our historical expedition by one of Petworths many antique shops. Boasting what is said to be the highest concentration of antique shops outside of London, it seems every other window is stuffed with treasure. But we do not linger long, Mrs Cownly would not have approved of dawdling!

As Lombard Street open up into Market Square, the heart of Petworth and used as a marketplace since 1594, we pass the famous Austen Hardware, of which it is said locally, if they dont have it, you dont need it, then stop to admire the Austen-esque setting of Leconfield Hall. Once used as Assembly Rooms it is not hard to imagine Mr Darcys liveried coach and four waiting in the square while he danced with Lizzie Bennett inside. These days the square remains a meeting place for residents, a record four people in ten minutes stopping to pat my dog and have a chat.

Distracted by the ramshackle roofs and ancient stones of the surrounding buildings we explore a little. On Golden Square, the honey-coloured stones of Lancaster House and wavy surrounding roofs give the impression of Petworth being a living museum, untouched by modern development, an impression only tempered by the occasional satellite dish.

Following an intriguing sign for the Coco Caf & Sugar Lounge we detour down Saddlers Row. Packed on a weekday morning, it is clearly a magnet for the sweet-toothed. Customer Sally Phillips tells me Petworth is very buzzy now, but locals love to come here. I agree that is entirely understandable as I inhale the air greedily. Owner Nichole Peets was inspired to open the shop in part by the film Chocolat. She says I loved how she [Vianne Rocher, played by Juliette Binoche] could fix everyones problems with chocolate, though Im not sure I can do that, at least I can cheer people up.

With Downs views peeking from archways and signs on front gates inviting passersby to knock for local honey or second-hand books, Petworth does appear to be a cheerful place. The estate cottages on Percy Road and Evelyn Terrace, among 400 constructed for Leconfield Estate workers in the 18th Century, have been rendered charming by time, and even the disused Court House on Grove Street, where rubble covered public benches can still be seen through dusty windows, seems benign.

But near the Court House, a darker side of Petworths past can be felt in the location of the former Petworth House of Correction. Infamous throughout Sussex, from the late 18th Century the penitentiary was used to deliver short, sharp, shocks to its inmates, whose names can still be found carved into the brickwork. Governor from 1826 John Mance was proud of his brutal regime stating I now have a notorious vagrant in my custody who declared to me that he would rather go three months in Lewes than one in this House.

Whether Mrs Cownly would have suppressed a shiver while passing the House of Correction is speculation, but as we turn down Sheepdown Lane on the outskirts of the village I feel my skin tingle as the view opens up to the sublime South Downs and fancy that we are walking, not just in the footsteps of the redoubtable Mrs Cownly, but in those of Capability Brown and JMW Turner.

Crossing back into Barton Lane towards North Street, past the Catholic Church built in 1896, the height of the estate walls casts a shadow as we approach its gates once more. Here the almshouse, built in 1653 and converted in 1746 by Charles Seymour, the 6th Duke of Somerset, known to history as the Proud Duke due in part to his fondness for breakfasting in full ceremonial dress, stands a poignant reminder of the relationship between the house and town.

Mrs Cownlys errands finished, our walk is too. We return to our carriage, well, car. As we look over again to the magnificence of Petworth House I ponder the thousands of life stories that must be woven into its stones. A beautiful relic of an age passed, it remains a monument to those who lived, and those who worked, within it.

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