Look at a map of Southern England, and it’s hard to find a town better located than Petersfield. In an increasingly crowded corner of the country, this handsome market town, whose relatively
short-lived fortunes were built on wool and leather, sits alone in a ‘sea’ of green in the South Downs National Park, described by the author Bill Bryson as ‘some of England’s finest countryside’.
The Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty that surrounds Petersfield is known locally as ‘Little Switzerland’, or the ‘Hampshire Alps’. A stretch perhaps, but there are certainly a few first-gear gradients, and it’s possible to hand-glide and grass ski from the 900ft peak of Butser Hill, visible from almost any point in town.
The continental comparison can be stretched to the heart of town too. Despite a classic Norman church and decks of impeccable Georgian architecture, there’s something rather laid-back about people sat outside cafés around the pretty town square – especially on a summer’s day. On market days, you could even be forgiven for thinking you were actually in France. And although the square’s once gilded equestrian statue of William III is modelled on the famous bronze of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, which bestrides the Capitoline Hill, there’s no mistaking here for the chaotic Italian capital.
This is a quiet town from humble agricultural origins. Most of the original families, who in the 12th century settled the area around St Peter’s Church, owned by the Earl of Gloucester, earned a living by either weaving or tanning leather. But by the 18th century, the wool trade had declined. With the advent of the railways, the town dabbled in dairy deliveries, but never to an extent that Petersfield swapped fields for factories. The population plateaued and rose gently. Even today, that small-town integrity – knowing that nothing is about to change overnight – remains part of its charm.
In an age of bloated towns with ugly ring roads and peripheral mega-stores, Petersfield has managed to stay at a scale that’s very intimate. And yet, it’s also incredibly well-connected. The cathedral cities of Winchester and Chichester are about half an hour away, and Petersfield lies on the strategic road and rail route, or what estate agents like to refer to as the ‘A3 Corridor’, between Portsmouth (19 miles away) and London (57 miles).
All local life starts (and ends) in The Square, which held a cattle market until 1963, and today hosts a twice-weekly market, a small but well-stocked farmers’ market on the first Sunday of the month, and an occasional visiting French food market. A 360-degree spin around The Square provides a snapshot of how many town centres used to be: as well as the all-embracing church, there’s a library, post office, pub, two banks, cafés, boutiques and an art gallery. This is quintessential market-town England.
Running off The Square is Sheep Street, lined with impressive 16th and 17th-century houses, and further afield are Lavant Street, Chapel Street and Dragon Street, which are all gifted with dependable independent shops, easily reached on foot. In fact, Petersfield is renowned for its strong independent retailing scene, which includes Tara Wake Interiors, where locals can plot their dream home from its historic shop floor in Dragon Street; The Blacksmith’s Daughter, where a former horse trainer fashions creative bouquets from a shed-like florist’s shop on Bakery Lane; Vintage and Vogue, a women’s fashion store on Chapel Street, where you can snap up a bargain designer dress; and One Tree Books, one of England’s dwindling breed of independent booksellers, where you can browse the owner’s ‘top picks’ over a cappuccino in the ground-floor café on Lavant Street.
Talking of books, The Petersfield Bookshop is a large and rambling antiquarian and second-hand bookshop, defying the cannibalising shadow of Amazon. Established in 1918 by Dr Harry Roberts, an East End doctor who had helped set up an early version of the National Health Service, it’s in rude health as it approaches its centenary. As well as a wide selection of local maps and prints, the bookshop houses a collection of vintage dolls and toys, a full-sized replica of the FA Cup, (sporting the colours of Portsmouth FC, winners in 2008), and a canopied open forecourt, where books are available around the clock for just 50p in the honesty box.
All in all, it’s an intriguing sideline to musty books that rivals Petersfield Museum’s own collections of local historical photos and artefacts. The museum, which is housed in the old courthouse beyond the churchyard on St Peter’s Road, is currently ‘hibernating’ until spring. But it has received initial development funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, to convert the recently purchased Victorian police station and stables into a rare Victorian Justice Heritage Site. The space will unify the museum with the nearby Flora Twort Gallery, Bedales historic costume collection and education facilities on a single site. There’ll be room, too, for the country’s leading private archive about Edward Thomas, a local poet who forged a close friendship with the American poet Robert Frost on walks around the nearby village of Steep, before he was killed in the First World War. The ‘new’ museum complex is expected to be completed in 2021.
Both Flora Twort and Bedales School testify to the independent spirit of Petersfield. The school, based in Steep and known for its free-thinking curriculum, began collecting historic clothes in the 1940s, and used them as costumes in school plays. It donated 1,000 pieces to Petersfield Museum in 2007, including crinolines, hunting coats, underwear and debutante gowns. The oldest exhibits date back to the early 18th century and feature women’s dresses from the 1720s, as well as a man’s coat and long waistcoat, beautifully hand-embroidered in silk, from the 1770s. It offers a wonderful insight into what Jane Austen, who lived down the road in Chawton, and her social circle would have been wearing as they sought to ensnare their Mr Darcys.
The delightfully named Flora Twort – who sounds like someone out of a Roald Dahl story – was Petersfield’s very own Bohemian artist-in-residence. She once ran her own second-hand bookshop and lived in a cottage just behind the church, where she hung out with her very own Bloomsbury Set circle of artistic and literary friends, including the artist Stanley Spencer and novelist Nevil Shute. Her pictures, typically watercolours, capture the bustle and colour of Petersfield life on market days and during the traditional Taro Fair, which was held on the heath on October 6 every year, and is now marked by a funfair.
For a relatively small town, Petersfield has no shortage of food options. For healthy bites, there’s the Natural Apothecary and the Bran Tub, Annie Jones for tapas, Julie’s Tea Rooms and Fez Restaurant for a taste of Turkish cuisine, given the nod of approval by no lesser authority than the late Sunday Times restaurant critic AA Gill.
The town even has its own Michelin-starred restaurant – JSW – short for Jake Saul Watkins, its chef-patron. In a stylish, yet unadorned restaurant, Watkins creates seasonal British dishes with flair, sourcing his fish from the nearby Solent, trout from the Test River, and fruit and vegetables from Hampshire farms. Refreshingly, it may be plush, but it’s not pushy: “Your booked table is yours entirely, for either lunch or dinner,” state the house rules.
After an eight-course lunch at JSW, diners might be well-advised to take the short walk from the High Street to Petersfield Heath on the south east side of town. The open space comprises 95 acres of heathland around a boating lake, and is home to 21 Bronze Age barrows (or burial mounds), which together provide the site with Scheduled Ancient Monument status.
It’s not far over the South Downs to the sandy beach at West Wittering, but locals can also take a dip at the town’s 54-year-old open-air heated swimming pool, which is open from April to September, and at weekends during colder months.
For more serious exertion just four miles south of Petersfield is Queen Elizabeth Country Park, which incorporates Butser Hill and has a wide variety of scenery, from chalk hills to pine forest. The 21-mile Hangers Way footpath – named after the steep-sided hanging woods that define the local landscape – runs from the park through Petersfield and on to Alton. Jane Austen and her family would have been very familiar with the latter leg of
Nick Wyke reveals why Petersfield, the small capital of the Hampshire Alps, punches above its weight