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Petworth (West Sussex)

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      25.05.2010 10:35
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      A market town in West Sussex well worth a visit

      Petworth is a small market town in West Sussex which can trace its origins all the way back to the Domesday Book and earlier. It's best known as being the home of Petworth House, a large stately home, and the surrounding stunning grounds known as Petworth Park. However, if stately homes and gardens aren't really your thing, then Petworth town itself has one or two other delights up its sleeves. The town is a veritable haven for antique hunters with at least 30+ different art and antique shops scattered within easy walking distance of each other. The architecture throughout the town is well worth appreciating (many properties tend to be tile hung in the traditional Sussex way), with the Georgian nestling alongside the Elizabethan.

      However, I'd say that most visitors to Petworth are either there to look for antiques or to visit Petworth House and its grounds.


      *** PETWORTH HOUSE ***

      Petworth House is a vast 17th-century mansion set within beautiful 700-acre grounds known as Petworth Park. Although there has been a Petworth House on the same site since the 12th century, most of the house that can be viewed nowadays was built in the 1690's by the 6th Duke of Somerset (also known as the "proud Duke"). Petworth House and Park were given to the National Trust in 1947, but part of the House still remains the home of Lord and Lady Egremont.

      The House contains a very fine collection of art, with many classic works from Turner, Reynolds, Holbein, Gainsborough, Rembrandt and Van Dyck. Turner spent quite a lot of time working at Petworth and painted many different vistas of the House and Park. There is also a large collection of sculpture and fine furnishings as well as carvings by the world renowned Grinling Gibbons. I have toured the house a couple of times, and the paintings are indeed stunning, particularly those hung in the Carved Room, where the intricate wall mounted wooden carvings make an unusual yet stunning backdrop for the fine art on display. The main staircase is surrounded by huge wall mounted painted backdrops of lords, ladies, cherubs and clouds emblazoned with gold leaf set between huge white painted columns. The ceiling frescos are just as stunning, though you do get rather a crick in your neck whilst gawping at them.

      Call me a heathen, but personally I go into cultural melt-down if confronted by too much art, carvings or frescos. Culturally, I tend to prefer something a little more "low-brow" and down-to-earth. If Old Masters and woodwork aren't really your thing, then Petworth House also offers a fascinating the "below-stairs" experience where you can tour the old servants' quarters and the kitchens. This sort of tour is of more interest to me, as it brings to life the sort of conditions both my grandparents worked in (both my grandmother and grandfather went into service at a young age (my Granny was 14) between the Wars in the 1920's - not at Petworth House, but in other parts of Sussex). Occasionally, the National Trust conduct tours of the tunnels that run under Petworth House. The tunnels run all the way under part of the house, and were used both by the servants, and more interestingly to house war time evacuees. Outside, in the grounds of Petworth House, you can also view the old ice-house (once the largest domestic ice house in Britain), and imagine how hard it must have been to keep things from spoiling - not to mention hygienic - in the days before refrigeration (and electricity) were discovered.

      Further details on visiting Petworth House can be found at http://nationaltrust.org.uk/main/w-petworthhouse. Visitors can tour the House and the surrounding Pleasure Grounds (a 30-acre woodland garden adjoining the house) from March through to November. The cost of adult entry is £10.90 each (half price for children). Entry to the remainder of the 700-acre Petworth Park is free of charge though.


      *** PETWORTH PARK ***

      The House is awesome, but my absolute favourite part of the whole Petworth Estate is Petworth Park itself - it's truly stunning. The grounds were landscaped by Lancelot "Capability" Brown in the 1750's and are thought by many to be his most famous work. The Park is home to the largest and oldest herd of fallow deer in England. The Park also houses the most superb of serpentine lakes, with a delightful stone built boathouse half way round. Capability Brown created the lake by damming a series of small ponds. The view over this lake inspired some of the Turner landscapes which are on display in the house. From the house you have a stunning, uninterrupted view of undulating green lawns all the way to the lake. To the sides of the lake are small hillocks and woodland clumps carefully planted with sycamore, oak, lime, beech, and horse-chestnut trees.

      Locals have long talked about underground tunnels running all the way from Petworth House, under the lake, and to the far end of the Park. As youths my friends and I spent many an afternoon trying to find an entry point to these so-called tunnels. Although we came across some mysterious padlocked doors in the ground in a quiet part of the Park, we were never able to gain entry. I would imagine that if such tunnels did exist, time and damp from the lake would make them dangerous or carved in by now, but it was a fun search at the time. Not so fun was the outbuilding at the very far end of the Park where we once came across a dead sheep in a very advanced stage of decomposition (the dog sniffed it out). Why it hadn't been spotted and removed is anyone's guess :o(

      My favourite part of the Park is the Ionic Rotunda - a folly built in the style of a Greek Ionic Temple. It marks the highest point of the Estate and is a favoured picnic point. Climbing up the hill with a heavy hamper of sandwiches and cakes is well worth it as you are more than rewarded by the stunning views across Petworth House, its Pleasure Gardens and the lake in Petworth Park. You may even spot a few fallow deer if you look carefully.

      Petworth Park also plays host to a number of open air summer concerts and I've been lucky enough to attend two of them by winning a competition in my local newspaper (two years running!). Sipping a glass of champagne and nibbling on a smoked salmon canapé whilst listening to Petworth at the Proms by the side of the lake was a magical evening, rounded off with a lovely fireworks display. The second year was a bit cooler in temperature and the concert not so good (Steve Harley - ex-Cockney Rebel), but the setting remained just as stunning.


      *** PETWORTH TOWN ***

      Petworth is a typical Sussex market town. It's remarkably well-preserved and quaint looking, especially when one considers the amount of traffic that rumbles directly through the town centre all year round. Many of the ancient houses face directly onto the main thoroughfare, and the traffic is always heavy and loud. Due to continual onslaught of fumes and dirt some of the houses now look slightly rickety in appearance and could do with a bit of face-lift and/or clean. The town could really do with a bypass...but any traffic would have to be redirected across Petworth Park, something that The National Trust wishes to prevent. Rumour has it that The National Trust has continually lobbied to prevent any changes to the nightmare traffic scenario through the town, as any bypass would impinge on the grounds of Petworth Park.

      Despite the continual barrage from the traffic, Petworth remains rather charming architecturally and for that it is well worth spending a couple of hours wandering around in. Many buildings remain largely unchanged since the 16th and 17th centuries.

      There is a free car park on offer near The Market Square, so that's the best place to dump your car and then walk around the town. Petworth is very easily covered on foot. The Market Square is the focal point of the town and is believed to have been a market place since the 13th century. The square is charming, with some lovely looking buildings - one of which is covered in an ancient and impressive looking wisteria bush. Every year in November, Petworth holds a street fair in the Market Square, a lovely tradition which they can trace back all the way to 1189 (when Petworth was an important cloth weaving centre). From the Market Square there are several cobbled streets, which used to full of shops, and have now either been converted into a residential dwelling or an antique shop.


      *** ANTIQUES, MUSEUMS AND OTHER BITS AND BOBS ***

      Petworth is well renowned for its antique shops; in fact, there are between 30 to 40 antique dealers based there - quite out of proportion for such a small town! Petworth has a very good reputation in the antiques world with many exquisite (and expensive) pieces on offer. However, more affordable bits and bobs can be purchased there too - try the Petworth Antique Centre at the top of the town (opposite the church). It contains lots of individual stalls and is nice to browse in. Some of the "posher" antique shops will look down on you if you enter their hallowed environment without a set of plus fours and monocle, but Petworth Antique Centre is much more browser-friendly.

      There are a couple of more museums which you can visit in Petworth if you've not gained your cultural fill at the House or the Park. First up we have Petworth Cottage Museum (which is also known as Mrs Cummings' Cottage). The inhabitant was a Mrs. Cummings, a long since deceased seamstress who worked at Petworth House. The cottage is a recreation of the way she lived in 1910 and contains all the associated belongings of the time. Further details can be seen at http://www.petworthcottagemuseum.co.uk. Secondly, there is the Petworth Dolls House Museum, which houses a collection of over 100 dolls houses and other miniature buildings.

      One lovely sight you often see over Petworth is a hot air balloon. Sightings are usually early in the morning or towards dusk on a summer evening. I love to spot these graceful and colourful balloons floating over the landscape, but have yet to take a flight in one. There is, however, a Balloon School situated five miles out of Petworth and further details can be found at http://www.hotair.co.uk/petworth


      *** WHAT ELSE IS THERE TO DO? ***

      Antiques aside, the shops in Petworth are rather sparse, and not at all inspiring. There is a butcher, a baker, a Somerfields supermarket and a couple of banks...but that's about it. There are a better range of shops in nearby Midhurst or Pulborough, but if you're after high street names, you'll need to head to Chichester.

      Accommodation is limited solely to the bed and breakfast variety in Petworth - there are no hotels in the town. The nearest hotels would be the The Angel or The Spread Eagle in Midhurst or The Chequers Hotel in Pulborough. However, if you don't mind bed and breakfast accommodation, there are some nice choices in or around Petworth. The Old Railway Station just outside Petworth (the rail links to Petworth ceased in 1966) has been converted into a nice B & B (http://www.old-station.co.uk) or try The Angel Inn in Petworth itself.

      Eating out - you're limited to some not particularly nice looking pubs, a couple of tearooms and the odd lone Indian restaurant in Petworth itself - none of which I can particularly recommend as being any good. You'd do better to head out of the town to one of the villages nearby. I can recommend The White Hart at Stopham, Badgers at Coultershaw Bridge, and in particular, The Horseguards Inn at Tillington, which is superb.


      *** NEARBY POINTS OF INTEREST ***

      The closest place of interest to Petworth is the larger market town of Midhurst, known for hosting international polo matches on the Cowdray Estate. Cowdray Ruins (partially destroyed by fire in the 18th century) are also worth a visit. You could easily spend an afternoon in Midhurst if you've been in Petworth all morning or vice versa.

      If you prefer more leisurely pursuits, the nearby Goodwood Estate offers horse-racing at its racecourse (set high on the South Downs), a motor circuit, an airstrip as well as the ubiquitous stately home (Goodwood House). There are also a raft of historical buildings to be seen nearby at the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum in Singleton.
      Chichester can be found within a short drive of 12 miles or so and is home to a famous cathedral, theatre and Medieval Market Cross, as well as better shopping opportunities.

      Further afield there are other sites to enjoy such as Nelson's 'Victory' in Portsmouth, Arundel Castle and Parham House.

      However, if you want to explore the nearby countryside, then Petworth is surrounded by some really pretty villages such as Stopham (with a nice pub called The White Hart situated at the end of a disused bridge), Lickfold (great pub housed in a very ancient building) Duncton and River.


      *** RECOMMENDATION ***

      Traffic problem aside, Petworth is a nice little town, and if you like antiquing, well worth spending some time in. The town is compact enough to walk around easily on foot. It must be said that if you're not a lover of stately homes, architecture or antiques then the town does not offer much else in the way of leisure pursuits. The shops are pretty sparse, and the in-town food and drink outlets rather lacking.

      However, if you're in Petworth you're more than likely to be planning a visit to Petworth House or Park and they are both well worth viewing. Petworth Park is totally free to enter (and dogs are welcome provided they're on a lead......so they don't chase the deer) and is incredibly lovely. An amble round the lake is highly recommended. If you fancy a bit of culture, you can visit Petworth House and its surrounding Pleasure Grounds, or do as I do and just chill out in the Park and enjoy the lovely surroundings (and maybe a picnic lunch if the weather is kind).

      Highly recommended for a very pleasant interlude.


      *** HOW TO GET THERE ***

      Petworth can be found in the west part of West Sussex. It's approached from the north or south via the A285 or A283 or from the west or east via the A272. To get your bearings, bear in mind that Chichester is about a 20 minute drive away, Midhurst takes 10 minutes and Haslemere (in Surrey) is about a 20 minute drive. There is no train service to Petworth (the nearest stations are in either Haslemere or Pulborough). Petworth has a large car park right in the middle of town which is free to use and has no time limit on how long you stay. Traffic through Petworth is endless and very, very busy.


      *** FURTHER INFORMATION ***

      Petworth Tourist Information Centre
      Petworth Area Office
      The Old Bakery
      Golden Square
      Petworth
      GU28 0AF

      Tel: (01798) 343523
      Email: info@visitchichester.org


      *** WEBSITES OF INTEREST ***

      http://www.westsussex.info/petworth.shtml
      http://www.petworthpages.co.uk/page.php?2
      http://www.petworthfestival.org.uk/
      http://www.visitpetworth.com/

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