‘Proud Petworth, Poor people. High Church, Crooked steeple’
So goes the traditional rhyme about the West Sussex town of Petworth, which has become rather out of date, on a couple of counts.
Firstly, the church of St Mary’s famously crooked 180 foot wood-and-lead steeple was dismantled in 1800, and its replacement taken down in 1953, to the effect that nowadays the church has no spire at all. This means that St Mary’s cannot be described as a ‘high church’ in terms of dimension (though when it comes to denomination, the current rector does employ plenty of incense in his services).
As for ‘poor people’… well Petworth has upped its status since the ditty was coined. The average property price, according to Rightmove, is £677,148, with detached houses selling for £1.3m. To quote the Sunday Times Best Places to Live Guide, ’Nowhere does posh better than this little market town’.
The adjective ‘proud’ is, however, still applicable. Petworth does have its problems, notably relentless traffic flow through its narrow streets, but it is very clearly a thriving little town, which punches well above its population weight (last census 3,027), particularly in the cultural sphere.
Petworth was entered into the Domesday Book of 1088 as ‘Peteorde’, in the hundred of Rothersbridge, a settlement of 44 inhabitants (consisting of 24 villagers, 11 smallholders and 9 slaves). The manor was gifted to the Northumberland-based Percy family in the 12th century; in 1308 Henry Percy built a fortified lodge for hunting holidays (its deer park then, as now, covering 700 acres). This building, known as Petworth House, was almost completely rebuilt in 1572, and again – in its present Baroque style – between 1688 and 1702. Its formal gardens were replaced with a more natural-looking landscape garden by Capability Brown in 1750, under the orders of George Wyndham, the 3rd Earl of Egremont. Wyndham was a larger-than-life philanthropist who filled Petworth House with art, and children (he had 43, with nine mistresses, many of whom lived under his roof).
The village grew up in the shadow of its stately home, as a market town, and its narrow streets – all sharp right-angles and unexpected squares – retain its early medieval street plan, with original half-timbered vernacular buildings still extant, among a mishmash of styles from different periods. Among these, Petworth enjoys a plenitude of elegant Georgian piles, including Leconfield Hall (once a courthouse, now a public venue) and Newlands House (now an art gallery).
Petworth House is this year celebrating the 75th anniversary of its takeover by the National Trust: the town is long used to a daily influx of visitors, many of whom also visit its plentiful independent stores, which include a staggering 30 antique shops (that’s one for every 100 people, surely a record).
The town is also a magnet for art lovers. Petworth House contains a magnificent collection of over 300 works, amassed by the Percy, Seymour and Wyndham families, particularly George Wyndham, who was a friend of JMW Turner, a frequent visitor, given his own studio, with a magnificent view of the Downs. The walls of the many rooms on the ground floor are covered in masterpieces, by the likes of Turner, Titian, Blake, Gainsborough, Bosch, van Dyke, Reynolds and Kauffman, with a whole gallery dedicated to Roman statues. The Carved Room, what’s more, is decorated by the extraordinary wooden Baroque/Rococo carvings of Grinling Gibbons, described in the 1965 Pevsner guide as ‘lime-wood miracles’. Part of the joy of visiting the place is a stroll along the serpentine paths of Capability Brown’s landscaped gardens, with its Ionic Rotunda, and Doric Temple, particularly stunning in spring (daffs, bluebells) and autumn (those colours!) It’s also worth taking a longer walk around the Deer Park: you may well spot one, if you’re lucky.
It doesn’t stop there, for Petworth is becoming as famous for its art galleries, as its antique shops. We particularly recommend three of them. Newlands House Gallery opened in 2020, and has already exhibited shows by world-class artists such as Helmut Newton, Sean Scully, Julian Opie and Frank Auerbach. Newlands is part of a mini empire of high-quality commercial venues in Petworth, run by Khalid Al Tajir and Nicola Jones, under the umbrella ‘Petworth Places’ (hereafter we will suffix their establishments with a *).
Kevis House Gallery was opened in 2014 by Lucy Russell and Richard Hodgson, who used to run the Works on Paper Fair, and regularly exhibit work by painters, printmakers and engravers; Ottocento opened earlier this year, and is run by Max and Louise Andrews, who both used to work for Christie’s, and now deal in and exhibit fine art paintings by artists from the Old Masters to the contemporary.
Our favourite antiques haunt is the Petworth Antiques Market*, with 35 dealers represented under one roof, over 275 square metres of shop floor, a microcosm, perhaps, of the overall scene in the town, where you can find any type of item that you might be interested in collecting. Just follow your nose. We can also recommend a visit to Petworth Bookshop, in Golden Square, a real old-fashioned indie affair, and The Hungry Guest* a fab deli selling everything from artisanal bread to gigantic tins of Ortiz tuna, with a whole inner sanctum dedicated to cheese.
Eating and drinking
The E-Street Bar & Grill* is a lot posher than it sounds (it’s in the Michelin Guide), with an eclectic menu ranging from quality lamb burgers to nouvelle cuisine, and a fine wine list, served by a knowledgeable-if-serious French sommelier. Cherry’s is a deli and baker who serve quality sandwiches (the roast beef and horseradish is recommended), quiches and salads. The Angel Inn* is a 17th-century pub which has largely been converted into a mid-range restaurant: ask for the table by their ‘haunted’ inglenook fireplace, which makes the rib-eye steak with chimichurri sauce taste even better. Our favourite pub in the area is The Horse Guards Inn in Tillington, (a halfhour walk across the Deer Park), which serves Sussex keg and cask ales, that you can drink in their extensive and rather bucolic beer garden. The interior is largely given over to their highly rated restaurant.
The Angel Inn* has seven sumptuous rooms named after types of tree: we were upgraded to ‘Walnut’, with one window overlooking the High Street and the other, the garden. We liked the room so much that, despite Petworth’s many cultural attractions, it was difficult to leave. Kevis House, meanwhile, offer a three-bed Airbnb, The Petworth Penthouse, in a light-filled, double-height space, originally a Victorian photographic studio, with windows to die for, and for-sale artwork on the walls.
Unfortunately, if you are on public transport, Petworth is difficult to get to. Its train station was closed in 1955, making Pulborough, five miles away, the nearest option. Taxis should be pre-booked, or time any train journeys to coincide with the No. 1 bus, which runs regularly, if infrequently: a 15-minute journey.