Jessica Way heads to Petworth, a picturesque market town nestled in the heart of the South Downs National Park, to discover that there’s much more to this stylish up-coming destination than the antique shops it’s renowned for.
One hour from London, this delightful historic town with its cobbled streets, hidden lanes and picturesque chocolate-box cottages, draped in wisteria, looks more like a quintessentially country-chic getaway than the stuffy old-fashioned history-buff’s treasure trove that I’d imagined it to be.
I really had no idea; I am pleasantly surprised to see a town that has not simply relied on its history and heritage (of which it has a great deal), or the many Mayfair residents, (who flock to its antiques stores to furnish out their million-pound pads), to keep afloat. Petworth has moved with the times – and you certainly don’t need to be among the super-rich to enjoy it.
You can enjoy a day here exploring the town by simply milling around, no need for your car or much in the way of forward planning (just the regular town map leaflet readily available to pick up) – and you won’t be likely to break the amount of steps record on your fitbit either. Nor will you be bored, go hungry, or feel thirsty – and this is what surprised me the most about Petworth.
There is enough by way of tea rooms, modern gastro pubs, delicatessens, fashion and art shops, dotted around the little market square for a day of culture, shopping and first-class dining experiences.
Most recently opened is the E.Street Bar & Grill, previously a fine dining restaurant under the name of The Leconfield, now a stylishly modern, air-conditioned restaurant and bar, with pretty patio perfect for alfresco dining on warmer days.
Expect quality British fare, from daily specials to classics, such as Marinated Kentish Lamb Rump and Locally Reared Sussex Beef from the grill, and amongst the starters, Crispy Squid Rings and Gressingham Duck Croquettes.
Around the corner is ‘The Hungry Guest Cheese Room‘ and if you didn’t know about it before you might first notice it on the E.Street Bar & Grill dessert menu – not just their cheese, their biscuits too – in fact there’s a lot more to ‘The Hungry Guest’ story than just cheese and biscuits…
They have a food shop, a butcher’s, and a café in town – I visited all three and felt rather envious of the locals having such fabulous fare, artisan foods, and home-made produce within such easy reach of their daily lives. I am a fan of shopping ‘local’ for my meat, veg, butcher’s and bakery goods, and here you are spoilt for choice.
I was sure to fill up my shopping bags, and savour every mouthful of the Hungry Guest Breakfast from their café (Lombard Street just off the main square, they serve food here all day) – award winning sausage, dry cured bacon, slow roasted tomatoes, Portobello mushroom, poached eggs and sourdough toast. Their coffee, although not their own brand (it was Illy, awarded the most ethical coffee company in the world), was so good that I went back to their shop (in Middle Street) to buy some of my own.
Back to the cheese – they have an exceptional collection of artisan and farmhouse, many sourced from the British Isles.
The Cheese Room is lined with classics such as Cheddar, Stilton and Roquefort as well as less familiar cheeses, such as Bleu de Termignon and Brie de Meaux.
Don’t be put off by the glass-sided walk-in doors either, you are encouraged to go in and ask questions (and taste the cheese). The doors are there to keep the humidity up and the temperature down, not the cheese-lovers out. There’s a Cheesemonger who will be there to offer you advice, and recommend accompaniments too… pickled cherries, truffle honey or fig paste anyone?
From savoury to sweet – there’s also a traditional sweet shop well-worth a visit, Coco Café and Sugar Lounge, where old-fashioned sweet jars are filled with whimsical delights – bonbons, lollies, liquorice and lots more. Coco Lola – the ice cream van is open from April -October for ice cream, sundaes, knickerbocker glorys and sodas – and it also makes a great option for lunch offering more than the name suggests, served in the charming sugar lounge, designed to feel reminiscent of the film ‘Chocolat’.
Aside from spending my time eating, I met many independent-shop owners, selling quirky gifts, art, and on-trend fashion, all within a short walk (or loop) from the central market square. Shopping here is a million-miles away from the modern commercial high streets – and this is before I’ve even mentioned the word ‘antiques’.
Petworth is internationally recognised as being a major hub for antiques, often being described as ‘The Antiques Centre of the South’. There are over 30 antique shops dotted around the town – with interior brand name, Augustus Brandt taking pole position – with both a showroom and lifestyle shop, each within easy walking distance of each other.
Augustus Brandt’s 7,500 square feet showroom is the jewel in the crown – an enticing destination store for home interiors, set within the inspirational surroundings of Newlands House, a spacious Georgian Grade II listed town house and adjacent coach house. Give yourself enough time to visit here – there’s over 17 different rooms to explore (open six days a week).
Discover a carefully curated selection of objects, bridging antique and contemporary furniture, artworks, photography and collectables from renowned designers, such as Linley and William Yeoward. There is a room dedicated to Lucan Fashion country and shooting clothing and a new room promoting celebrated Brazilian furniture designer, Casa Botelho.
There’s also an ever-expanding range of gifts and offerings, including Mungo and Maud pet accessories, Argentine home brand, La Claraz, and Italian leather store, Giobagnara.
Then there’s the lifestyle store in Market Square – selling a gorgeous range of accessories, furnishings and gifts. You will find collections from brands such as David Linley, established by the Queen’s nephew, with gifts in wood, leather, glass and silver to the colourful Santorus ranges of bold and colourful silk scarves and stationery.
It was a beautifully crafted Quaternity Chess set which caught my eye, priced £1,500 (Instruction Book Included) but not yet having mastered the 2-player game I decided I was not quite ready for the 4-player version and resisted temptation, opting instead for a candle from the famous Cire Trudon, France’s oldest candle company, priced £75.
With all this food and shopping choice, you might feel the need to walk it off, and with Petworth’s rural location, set in the heart of the South Downs National Park, you are in the right place. There’s a plethora of walking trails to choose from, rolling countryside and open park spaces surround this town.
Then there’s Petworth Park itself. Wandering through the streets you are unlikely to go far without coming across a National Trust sign for Petworth House and Gardens. One of the country’s most famous stately homes, surrounded by a vast wall, which, according to the locals, was constructed to keep the servants in rather than the vagabonds out.
Spanning 900 years of history and passing through just one family, Petworth House was built as to rival the palaces of Europe – a vast mansion set in a beautiful 283-hectare (700-acre) deer park, landscaped by ‘Capability’ Brown and immortalised in Turner’s paintings.
You can step inside this English ‘Versailles’ for £15.90 for an adult/£8.00 for a child, and while the gardens adjoining the house are included in the entry fee, you can access a larger portion of them – known as
Petworth Park – for free. Simply pass through the long tunnel and some rather grand iron gates to explore the 700-acre park at your leisure.
Where we stayed
Ryde House, on Angel Street, a newly refurbished three-bedroom Georgian villa tucked away almost secretly (by just a simple gate in the wall) from the quiet town – the shops, pubs, restaurants, butchers’, bakery, and other yet-to-be discovered attractions, just a short stroll away from our front door.
The property is grand and beautifully furnished, in fact it could nearly be mistaken for another of Augustus Brandt’s luxurious showrooms. Elegant and understated, an early 19th Century Grade II listed building – full of charm and character.
There’s a pretty walled courtyard garden to welcome you before you reach the front door. Inside the interiors are just as grand, there’s a large sitting room, a dining room, light and spacious Shaker style kitchen, three cosy bedrooms and bathroom upstairs. There is plenty of room here to entertain, and to feel completely at home amid the antique rugs, woven tapestry, cosy cushions and fireplaces.
Thought has been given to the details, with luxury touches, such as a delightful (yes you’ve guessed it Hungry Guest!) hamper of foodie treats waiting for you in the kitchen, fresh flowers in the dining room, to the selection of games, movies, books and music inviting you to start the wood burner, light the candles, and rejoice in the sitting room.
High-ceilings, grand staircase and long passageways give the property a feeling of space and elegance, while the mix of antique furniture with modern styling, neutral colours, and homely furnishings, is both relaxing and energising.
Under the same ownership as Ryde House is the wonderfully stylish Angel Inn (practically next door) with origins as old as Petworth House, and where modern luxury comes as standard; this is another great option for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
You can also stay here – there are seven beautifully designed guest rooms, medieval origins, reflected in original beams, fireplaces and quirky passageways.
For self-catering you can’t beat these luxurious properties available from amberleyhousecottages.co.uk – a leading independent holiday lettings agency based in Sussex with offices in Pulborough and Rye. The Poolhouse, true to its name offers a heated swimming pool (May-September) or for a uniquely characterful cottage, Church Cottage, nestled next to the village church offers elevated views of the surrounding South Downs countryside – it is hard to imagine a prettier spot for your break. Alternatively The Barn at Tillington provides exceptional accommodation in a perfect location to enjoy Petworth Park, just a short stroll away.
Aside from the architecture, food and luxury accommodation, Petworth is a destination of art, culture and music.
To experience the town’s full zenith of community spirit, with proud locals displaying their ‘home-grown’ talent, then the Petworth Summer Festival, (July/August) is a must. See the town come alive with classical concerts, jazz, cabaret, theatre, comedy and visual arts.
There are events all through the year, to include the pertinent Petworth Park Antiques and Fine Art Fair (mid May), Petfringe (mid April) comedy, the nearby Goodwood Revival (mid September) and Festival of Speed (early July), and later in the year the Literary Festival returns (late October-early November).
With all this just over an hour’s drive from London and only 30 minutes from the south coast, I’m surprised more people aren’t packing up their bags and heading to Petworth. Cultural treasures, locally farmed fare, stylish shops, beautiful countryside – It certainly ticked all the right boxes for me.
Places to visit
Inspired by the Baroque palaces of Europe, a stately mansion nestled housing the finest art collection in the care of the National Trust. ►nationaltrust.org.uk/petworth-house-and-park
South Downs National Park
From rolling hills to bustling market towns, the South Downs National Park’s landscapes cover 1,600km2 of breathtaking views and hidden rural gems. A rich tapestry of wildlife, tranquility and visitor attractions. ►southdowns.gov.uk
The home of polo in the South of England. Enjoy a relaxed picnic lunch lawn side watching some of polo’s highest rated players, or enjoy 18 holes on Cowdray’s revered golf course. ►cowdray.co.uk
The Goodwood Estate in the heart of West Sussex is not only home to world famous events, Festival of Speed, Goodwood Revival and the Qatar Goodwood Festival, there is also The Goodwood Hotel, Waterbeach Spa, two golf courses, and sustainable restaurant, Farmer, Butcher, Chef. Plus there are a number of driving and flying experiences for an unforgettable day out. ►goodwood.com
West Dean Gardens
Nestled at the foot of the South Downs, West Dean Gardens is one of the country’s greatest restored gardens. Visitors can explore a wide range of historic features on a gentle walk around the grounds. ►westdean.org.uk/gardens
Lead image credit: Amberley Cottages