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Midhurst (West Sussex, England)

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Midhurst is a small town situated in West Sussex with many historic buildings and tourist attractions well worth seeing.

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      14.12.2009 13:49
      Very helpful



      Quaint historical town in West Sussex with some nice haunts

      Midhurst in West Sussex is a town I've always loved - to such an extent that at one stage we even looked at buying property there, and viewed many a house in both Midhurst and neighbouring villages. Unfortunately, at the time Midhurst was just a little too far out travelwise from where we were working. Added to which you needed very deep pockets and enormous piles of lucre if you wished to invest in property in that part of the world...and you still do. Evidently Country Life Magazine voted Midhurst as the most desirable place to live in Southern England in 2004. I don't know if I can whole-heartedly agree with that, as there are many lovely towns and villages in West Sussex, but Midhurst is a remarkably pleasant place to while away a few hours. The town itself is very compact and easily covered on foot. One of its most famous residents HG Wells (author of "War of the Worlds"), who spent a great deal of his life in and around Midhurst summarises the town nicely when he wrote: "Midhurst has always been a happy place for me. I suppose it rained there at times, but my memories of Midhurst are in sunshine".

      You cannot write a review about Midhurst, without mentioning the Cowdray Estate and its impact on the town. The Cowdray Estate is owned and run by the Viscount Cowdray, and he and his ancestors won large tranches of land and property in and around the town of Midhurst. The intertwining of the Cowdray Estate and the town goes back many centuries and is still felt strongly today. For example, many a house in Midhurst has garish yellow painted doors or window frames, indicating that the property belongs to the Cowdray Estate. Although this was originally a political statement by the rather Liberal 2nd Viscount Cowdray, Cowdray Yellow has become an interesting and vibrant characteristic of the area. The Cowdray Estate owns many of the leading attractions in Midhurst, namely Cowdray House (also known as Cowdray Ruins), Cowdray Park (home to Benbow Pond and the Queen Elizabeth Oak - which is allegedly over 1,000 years old) and Cowdray Golf Course. Similarly, Cowdray Estate is also known for the sport of Polo and has an internationally renowned Polo club. During the summer many world class Polo matches are played on the estate and is the high point of many a social calendar, as well as being a massive source of income for the town of Midhurst. Each year, Midhurst hosts the Veuve Clicquot Gold Cup, a major Polo competition. The final is played in the lovely setting of Cowdray House and is often attended (or played at) by Prince Charles and other members of the royal family.


      Midhurst is a vibrant market town dating back to medieval times, and it has over 100 listed properties, some dating back as far as the 15th and 16th century. There are numerous restaurants and pubs in the town, as well as two international class hotels (The Spread Eagle and The Angel). You can see most of the highlights of Midhurst with a fairly short circular walk taking 35 to 40 minutes. This walk will cover Cowdray House, North Street, the Market Square and the path alongside the River Rother. You can, of course, extend your walk by another half an hour or so and cross the Cowdray Estate in order to view the Queen Elizabeth Oak and Benbow Pond (more on these later).

      Midhurst boasts over some most interesting period buildings, so it's well worth a wander around to appreciate the architecture - many a narrow lane is flanked by ancient timber framed townhouses. In the middle of the Market Square is one of the oldest buildings in Midhurst (built in 1551), the Old Market House. This building still houses the town Stocks (lasted used for six hours in 1859 by someone who forgot to pay a fine!) in an alcove under the steps outside. The building has an interesting history as not only was it once the Town Hall; it was also the original village school (and counts HG Wells as one of its former pupils). Nowadays the Old Market House is a coffee shop called the Old Town Hall Café. It has a very nice cobbled outside seating area, so it's most pleasant to sit and soak up the surrounding historical ambiance.


      Cowdray House is an extremely striking building, even though it was all but destroyed in a fire in 1793.... The ruins are now one of the major attractions of the town. The silhouette of the remains is extremely striking, especially at night, when it is often floodlight.

      Cowdray House was built in the 1520's by a prominent Catholic family named Montague. By all accounts, Cowdray House was once a magnificent Tudor mansion, and was graced by the presence of both Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth I in it's hey day. However, the Montagues gained their wealth from the Dissolution of the Monasteries, thereby upsetting many a local clergyman. According to legend, one of the priests banished from a nearby abbey that the Montagues sacked prophesied that, "By fire and water thy line shall come to an end, and it shall perish out of the land". This gave rise to the legend of the Cowdray Curse, and history does record a fair share of tragedy befalling the Montagues over the ensuing years. The Montagues were prominent Catholics, and even employed a young Guy Fawkes in their household at one stage (although this did later result in a fine and 40 weeks imprisonment in the Tower of London for the 2nd Viscount Montague after the Gunpowder Plot was discovered!).

      The terrible fire at Cowdray House in 1793 just added more weight to the legend of the Cowdray Curse and the prophecy of death to the family by fire or water. The 8th Viscount Montague had proposed marriage to the daughter of the rich banker Sir Thomas Coutts. The Viscount decided to have the house refurbished ready for his impending nuptials, and he went off on holiday to Europe whilst the works were underway. Fortunately or unfortunately, very few staff remained at Cowdray House. At midnight on 24 September 1793, some sparks from a coal basket left burning by the builders set fire to some wood shavings and rubbish left strewn about. It didn't take long for the whole room to become ablaze and spread fast. Sadly, although there were buckets and water tanks in a nearby outbuilding, no one could find either the keys or break the door down. Therefore the whole building went up in smoke, save for a couple of rooms. Many of the treasures that didn't burn were looted (including the lead from the roof!), and the charred remains of the house smouldered for a fortnight.

      It's not known whether the holidaying Viscount learned that his house had burned down, before he met his own tragic end, sadly drowning in the Rhine whilst trying to shoot the rapids very shortly after the fire. Of course, the house fire and the drowned heir just added more grist to the mill to back up the theory of the Cowdray Curse. The house never did get rebuilt and the last remaining sons of the Montague family were drowned in a boating accident in 1815.

      Nowadays, Cowdray House is a real Midhurst icon, and in 2007 parts of it were reopened to the general public. It's still a stunning looking building, and well worth a wander around - it's extremely atmospheric. The Tudor Kitchens and Tower have been restored along with some of the wine cellars. Recently, the walled garden (landscaped by Capability Brown in C19th), has been restored to its former glory as well. You can visit Cowdray House in the summer months (March to November). Other events popular at Cowdray Castle are regular re-enactments of battles from the Tudor and Civil War periods, open air plays, firework displays, of course, ghost hunting. I was lucky enough to work at an open air charity concert featuring Pink Floyd, Queen (sadly without Freddie Mercury, who had of course died a couple of years earlier in 1991) and Genesis in 1993 in the grounds of the ruins. The atmosphere was electric with some stunning fireworks and lighting.

      Further details on events taking place at Cowdray House can be found at www.cowdray.org.uk


      On the nearby Cowdray Estate, you can walk up a hill to see the ancient Queen Elizabeth Oak tree, purported to be over 1,000 years old. Queen Elizabeth I reputedly stood beneath its branches when she visited Cowdray House in 1591, hence the naming of the tree. The tree has a girth of 41 feet and has become so hollowed out over the centuries that up to fourteen people can shelter inside. The tree is fenced in to save it from over-enthusiast climbers and livestock, but you can still get close enough to appreciate its magnificence. As well as the oak tree, there are many other ancient trees in the surrounding area, the most notable being a Giant Sweet Chestnut tree with an enormous girth of 38 feet. The trees are located in a quiet valley on the Cowdray Estate, well off the tourist trail. It's best to park at Benbow Pond (on the main road between Petworth and Midhurst - the A272) and then walk half a mile or so up the hill to see the trees. The oak tree is truly massive and is surrounded by lots of other mighty specimens. There's another oak tree just a short way up the hill, which is a dead ringer for the Whomping Willow from Harry Potter!


      The shops in Midhurst aren't anything to write home about I'm afraid. There are a few nice gift shops, but that's about it. Antiques are better sourced in the nearby town of Petworth. There is a small Boots store in Midhurst and a Tesco Express, but you're more likely to find an independent (and often organic) butcher and baker on the high street.

      However, if you're after a nice pub or restaurant you'll be spoilt for choice in Midhurst. In the Market Square alone there four pubs, The Swan, The Bricklayers, The Crown and The Wheatsheaf, as well as the internationally renowned Spread Eagle Hotel.

      Moving into North Street, you have another international hotel, The Angel - which has lovely spacious gardens at the back with views across to Cowdray Ruins. Restaurant wise there is Pizza Express, Prezzo, the Purbani Tandoori and Seven Fish restaurant (housed in the same building where Loch Fyne used to be), also with outside seating with views to Cowdray Ruins.

      Just outside of the town, you have many lovely villages, most of which have excellent hostelries. Worth a mention is the Duke of Cumberland in Henley. It's very tiny but it's worth a visit for the lovely views from the pub garden, not to mention the superb food. There's a trout pond in the pub garden, so you can choose your lunch should you so wish. We only popped in for a drink a couple of years ago, but one of the trout leapt out of the pond right in front of us. Although tempting, we resisted the offer and managed to pop it back in the water!

      The Hamilton Arms in nearby Stedham, is also worth a mention; this is a rather superb Thai restaurant in a lovely country setting, and well worth a visit.

      *** NEARBY ***

      The closest place of interest to Midhurst is the small town of Petworth, home of Petworth House and Park (a delightful place to visit - the grounds are simply superb with many free-roaming deer and a stunning lake). Petworth is also a haven for antique shops, and it's a great place to spend a few hours. You could easily spend an afternoon in Petworth if you've been in Midhurst all morning.

      If horse or motor racing is more your thing, then you'll find Glorious Goodwood about 8 miles away. Goodwood is home to a world famous racecourse (set high on the South Downs) as well as vintage and modern car events (The Festival of Speed and the Revival Meeting). There is also the architecture of Goodwood House to appreciate if historical buildings are of interest. And not forgetting the nearby Weald and Downland Open Air Museum at Singleton, which houses legions of historical buildings.

      Chichester can be found within a short drive of 20 minutes and houses a famous cathedral, the Festival Theatre and Medieval Market Cross, as well as better shopping opportunities.

      However, if you want to avoid the towns and appreciate the countryside, then Midhurst is surrounded by some really pretty villages such as Graffham, Heyshott, Stedham (very nice Thai restaurant and pub), Lickfold (great pub housed in a very ancient building), Lurgashall (another good pub and a lovely village green) and Henley (not surprisingly, another super pub...).

      *** RECOMMENDATION ***

      Midhurst is a charming town, and well worth spending some time in. The buildings and architecture are simply lovely, and the town compact enough to walk around easily on foot. Your ideal day out would be to park your car in the free car park in North Street, and wander about at your leisure in the morning. A visit to the Ruins is a must, and even if you don't pay to go in, you can still appreciate the stunning vista from several angles. If the weather allows, enjoy a spot of alfresco lunch at either The Angel or Seven, and you'll have a delightful view of the Ruins from your table. After lunch, you may wish to walk off your meal, by a short walk up the hill from Benbow Pond to see the Queen Elizabeth Oak, or perhaps view a polo match (if it's the right time of year). Or you can push off and head towards the nearby town of Petworth with its legion of antique shops - not to mention the rather lovely Petworth Park and House. All in all, this is a charming corner of West Sussex in which to spend the day, and it certainly doesn't feel like it's labouring under a bad spell. I think the curse thrown down in the 16th century is likely to have expired now, I certainly hope so! Highly recommended for a nice day out.

      *** HOW TO GET THERE ***

      By Car - Midhurst can be found in the west part of West Sussex. It's approached from the north or south via the A286 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, Petworth takes 10 minutes and Haslemere (in Surrey) is about a 20 minute drive. Sadly, there is no train service, as the station at Midhurst was closed in 1955.

      Car Parking - Parking in Midhurst can be somewhat problematical. Although there is parking all along the main thoroughfare, it can be hard to find a spot, especially in when the polo season is underway in summer. However, if you head for the free car park at the bottom of North Street, you may well get lucky. The traffic through the centre of Midhurst can be non-stop at times.


      Midhurst Tourist Information Centre
      North Street
      West Sussex
      GU29 9DW

      Tel: 01730-817322

      Email: midtic@chichester.gov.uk




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