Ramblings 4. An interesting approach to history is to look at travel journals from the past. This has been my favourite area of research for a few years, as they allow us to appreciate the past through eyewitness accounts. There is no better way to get a flavour of life in times gone by than to read a few old journals.
Midhurst (West Sussex) was seldom mentioned, with ‘tourists’ tending to focus on the cities. Both Daniel Defoe and William Cobbett mentioned Midhurst, but only in the context of Cowdray Park, rather than the town itself. We have to look to the early 20th Century before a boom in journals about country rambles led to a few mentions of Midhurst.
Opinions of Midhurst varied between those who found little of interest, and others who fell in love with the place. Clare Jerrold, writing in 1923, described Midhurst simply as “a quiet, old-world place with timber houses and a Grammar School.” Frederick Gaspard Braband, in his 1922 “Rambles in Sussex”, had more to say:
The place may be described rather as an over-grown village than a town, and has mostly narrow streets, the one exception being the main thoroughfare running north, which is broad and pleasant, but contains no features of real interest. The most picturesque part of the little town is the small square where the church stands.
Perhaps the most enthusiastic visitor was Edward Verrall Lucas, writing in 1904. He started a journey around Sussex at Midhurst, and considered his very first location to be the highlight of his trip, “for no other spot has so much to offer”. Perhaps the main difference for visitors a hundred years ago was how quiet the town was, before the advent of traffic jams! This was Lucas’s impression of the town:
Midhurst being on no great high road is nearly always quiet. Nothing ever hurries there. The people live their own lives, passing along their few narrow streets and the one broad one, under the projecting eaves of timbered houses, unreckoning of London and the world. Sussex has no more contented town.
But scratch the surface of that quiet town and a rambler from a century ago could find something unusual. Here is Lucas’s parting comment about Midhurst: “Twenty years ago, I remember, an old house opposite the church was rumoured to harbour a pig-faced lady.” It seems that idle gossip is far from being just a modern habit!
The article above was first printed in Envoy, the magazine of Midhurst Parish Church. I am an occasional contributor to Envoy and I am including a selection of my previous articles on this blog to allow them to reach more readers who might be interested in the topics.