Petworth House and Town: The Housekeeper’s Tour

Following in the footsteps of the legendary Mrs Cownly Housekeeper at Petworth House, Alex Oxborough explores Petworth’s past and present.

Petworth House can be counted among finest of the great English country houses. Graced by some of the great names of art and architecture, most famously the landscape painter, JMW Turner, it is a ‘must see’. The story of Petworth House can only be truly understood through the stories of its inhabitants, most of whom were not titled, and whose portraits do not hang in its famous picture gallery.

One was Mrs Cownly, Housekeeper at Petworth House for 25 years until 1933. In a town which grew around the great house and its needs, she must have been a well-known and respected figure. A walking map from ruralways.org.uk, which starts from the National Trust car park at Petworth House and winds a gentle 1.5 miles around the town, allows you to join her as she runs errands, and to see Petworth through her eyes.

Setting off on a windy spring day from the grandeur of Petworth House and the sweep of the ‘Capability’ Brown-designed park, the jumbled streets and more modest buildings of Petworth’s town centre are an abrupt contrast. It is easy to imagine Mrs Cownly feeling a spring in her step as she turned out of the imposing gates, though no doubt she maintained a stern façade. Petworth House records show that Mrs Cownly was an imposing figure, once reprimanding a housemaid for boldy eating a cream tea in full view of the park gates in the town’s tea shop.

Passing St Mary’s Church, dating back to the 14th Century, we turn down Lombard Street. Though the cobbled street is evocative we are already distracted from our historical expedition by one of Petworth’s many antique shops. The town boasts the highest concentration of them outside of London and it seems every other window is stuffed with treasure. But we do not linger long, Mrs Cownly would not have approved of dawdling!

Lombard Street opens up into Market Square, the heart of Petworth and the site of the Petworth Fair since at least 1189, we pass the famous Austen Hardware, of which it is said locally, “if they don’t have it, you don’t need it”, then stop to admire the Austen-esque setting of Leconfield Hall. Once used as assembly rooms it is not hard to imagine Mr Darcy’s liveried coach and four waiting in the square while he danced with Lizzie Bennett inside. These days the square remains a meeting place for residents, a record four people in ten minutes stopping to pat my dog and have a chat.

Distracted by the ramshackle roofs and ancient stones of the surrounding buildings we explore a little. On Golden Square, the honey coloured Lancaster House and haphazard tiles of the cottages give the impression of Petworth as being a living museum, untouched by modern development, an impression only tempered by the occasional satellite dish, or fashionable boutique.

Following an intriguing sign for the Coco Café & Sugar Lounge we detour down Saddler’s Row. Packed on a weekday morning, it is clearly a magnet for the sweet-toothed. Customer Sally Phillips tells me “Petworth is very buzzy now, but locals love to come here”. I agree that is entirely understandable as I inhale the air greedily. Owner Nichole Peets was inspired to open the shop in part by the film Chocolat. She says “I loved how she [Vianne Rocher, played by Juliette Binoche] could fix everyone’s problems with chocolate, though I’m not sure I can do that, at least I can cheer people up”.

With Downs views peeking from archways and signs on front gates inviting passersby to knock for local honey or second hand books, Petworth is a cheerful place. The estate cottages on Percy Road and Evelyn Terrace, among 400 constructed for Leconfield Estate workers in the 18th Century, have been rendered charming by time, and even the disused Court House on Grove Street, where rubble-covered public benches can still be seen through dusty windows, seems benign.

But near the Court House is a darker side of the town’s past- the former Petworth House of Correction. Infamous throughout Sussex, from the late 18th Centuary the penitentiary was used to deliver “short, sharp, shocks” to its inmates, whose names can still be found carved into the brickwork. Governor from 1826 John Mance was proud of his brutal regime stating “I now have a notorious vagrant in my custody who declared to me… that he would rather go three months in Lewes than one in this House”.

Whether Mrs Cownly would have suppressed a shiver while passing the House of Correction is speculation, but as we turn down Sheepdown Lane on the outskirts of the town I feel my skin tingle as the view opens up to the sublime South Downs and fancy that we are walking, not just in the footsteps of the redoubtable Mrs Cownly, but in those of ‘Capability’ Brown and JMW Turner.

Crossing back into Barton Lane towards North Street, past the Catholic Church built in 1896, the estate walls casts a shadow as we approach its gates once more. Here the Somerset Almshouse, built in 1653 and converted in 1746 by Charles Seymour, the 6th Duke of Somerset, known to history as the “Proud Duke” due in part to his fondness for breakfasting in full ceremonial dress, stands a poignant reminder of the relationship between the house and town.

Mrs Cownly’s errands finished, our walk is too. We return to our carriage, well, car. As we look over again at the magnificence of Petworth House I ponder the thousands of life stories that must be woven into its fabric. A beautiful relic of an age passed, it remains a monument to those who lived, and those who worked, within it.

Previously published in Sussex Life March issue: http://sussex.greatbritishlife.co.uk/article/petworth-house-and-town-39644/

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