What it's like to live in Petworth
PUBLISHED: 13:48 21 December 2017 | UPDATED: 13:48 21 December 2017
It may be packed with antique shops and dominated by the stately home, but Petworth is more than a tourist stop as Duncan Hall discovers
Petworth is at the junction of the A272 and the A283, making it very accessible from all directions, but also meaning that the single lane roads in the town centre are frequently choked with traffic, especially around the Market Square. As long ago as 1965 writer Ian Nairn in The Buildings of England: Sussex declared Petworth “must have a bypass before the weight of traffic forces demolitions and widenings”.
The town is still waiting — and may continue to do so as a new road would have to go through Petworth Park or Shimmings Valley. At least heavy traffic has been diverted away from the town. The railway line between Midhurst and Petworth was closed in 1955 to passengers and in 1966 to freight. The nearest railway station is Pulborough, which is five and a half miles to the east. There are regular services from there to London Victoria and Bognor Regis.
Stagecoach’s number one service runs daily between Worthing and Midhurst, taking in Petworth along the way. Compass Travel also runs a bus service from Monday to Saturday between Petworth and Chichester although pre-booking seats may be required.
Petworth is mentioned in the Domesday Book and has been settled since at least Norman times. The town itself developed from 1541 around the central market square. And much of the original period housing remains, including some cobbled passageways closed to traffic. The town is known for its confusing road layout. In his 1972 Companion Into Sussex Norman Wymer relates an old saying that a heavily laden timber wagon got caught in the streets and still hasn’t got out — and that during World War II tanks and army vehicles were purposely sent through Petworth to test their drivers.
Today Petworth is also known for its antique shops in the same way Hay-on-Wye is for its book retailers. Petworth Antiques and Decorative Arts boasts of having 37 members and lists 26 shops and galleries in the town on its website.
With its beautiful facade and long garden walls dominating the town’s scenery Petworth House dates back 900 years. The estate was a royal gift from the widow of King Henry I to her brother Jocelin de Louvain who married into the Percy family. The family used the original medieval building only occasionally, being based in the north. It became their permanent home in the Elizabethan period because of their allegiance to pretender Mary, Queen of Scots. The current mansion was built in the 17th century by Charles Seymour, the 6th Duke of Somerset. Charles Wyndham, nephew to the 7th Duke, commissioned Capability Brown to landscape the beautiful parkland. It became known as a house of art through the 3rd Earl of Egremont, who not only collected old masters, but supported contemporary artists including Turner and Constable. The house now has one of the best private art collections in the country, some of which was painted specifically for the house in the case of the Carved Room, designed by Grinling Gibbons. The house was given to the National Trust by the 3rd Lord Leconfield in 1947 following a big death duties bill, with his nephew John Wynham, the 1st Lord Egremont, gifting part of the art collection to the trust. Petworth is still home to the current Lord and Lady Egremont.
Annual festivals and events
Petworth Fair has been held on St Edmund’s Day, 20 November, for centuries. The market square is closed to traffic and becomes home to a funfair run by the Petworth Society. The newly renamed Petworth Festival Literary Week was expanded from its original weekend to run from Tuesday 31 October to Sunday 5 November 2017. Its growing fame attracts visitors from across the country. Among the big name speakers paying a visit for 2017 are DJ and journalist Jeremy Vine, former politician Ann Widdecombe, Communard-turned-priest the Rev Richard Coles, historian Kate Williams, Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable, founder of Private Eye and The Oldie Richard Ingrams, mountaineer Chris Bonington, botanist and broadcaster James Wong and the QI elves with John Lloyd. Events are at Leconfield Hall, St Marys Church and the United Reform Church, with tickets from £10/£5 for individual talks.
The summer Petworth Festival dates back to 1979 when it was launched by composer Robert Walker with the support of Lord Egremont and a determined committee of art-lovers. It began as a September weekend of English music in St Mary’s Church, but has now grown to three weeks of events including classical, jazz and world music, visual arts, theatre and comedy. Festival friends and supporters can get priority booking information and discounts.
It may be small, but Petworth’s winding streets are home to everything one would expect from a country market town, without the large supermarkets which have sprung up elsewhere. Unique to Petworth are the many, many antique shops, The Petworth Bookshop which offers an eclectic range of new books and DVDs and Troels Bendix’s The Hungry Guest, which is rapidly taking over the town. It launched its first café in Lombard Street in 2011, which was followed by an award-winning delicatessen in Middle Street, a frozen food shop in Saddlers Row and a further café in West Mailing, Kent. The Leconfield Hall in Market Square provides a venue for coffee mornings, pilates classes, concerts and a monthly film club. There is also a farmers’ market once a month, several churches, including St Mary’s in the shadow of Petworth House, a public library, youth club and lunch club for the elderly, tennis, bowling and cricket clubs, a post office and primary school. In terms of outdoor space there is public access to Petworth Park, as landscaped by Capability Brown.
Meet the neghbours
According to The Telegraph both Dame Maggie Smith and Joan Plowright call nearby Lurgashall home.
Petworth has its own town council, with committees looking at traffic and planning, finance and general purposes and open spaces. It comes under Chichester District Council and West Sussex County Council. Petworth is represented in Parliament by Conservative Nick Herbert who has been MP for the Arundel and South Downs constituency since 2005. He received 62.4 per cent of the vote in the 2017 general election.
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