Standing at the corner of Sheep Lane and Church Hill in the town of Midhurst, we are looking right into the heart of an old English market town. Sheep are no longer driven from their pastures down Sheep Lane, nor domesticated wildfowl herded along nearby Duck Lane to the Midhurst market square. But the street names remain, reminders of a more agrarian time and a clue to the original character of this setting and the town as a whole.
Midhurst Market - An eclectic mix of architecture
For more than 900 years, farmers and merchants brought their livestock and produce here to Midhurst market in order to sell them to local businesses and towns-folk. The livestock were held in pens where we now see parked cars. Over time the regular livestock market dwindled and ended. But it's not just livestock that have disappeared from this place.
Despite the impression of permanence that the eclectic mix of aging buildings gives Midhurst market, the location has gone through many changes over the centuries. More recently (relatively speaking) the war memorial (in the center behind the blue car) was built after houses in the middle of the square were demolished. Those houses split the market into two lanes, Church Hill in front of us and Red Lion Street which runs down the right side of our view, behind the parked cars. Red Lion Street no longer houses the pub it was once named after which closed in the early 1900's. The building is now divided up between several small business including Comestibles a cafe/delicatessen.
Early Midhurst Market
Several buildings around and adjacent to the market area remain in place from the very earliest incarnations of the town. On the left side of the road is the parish church of St. Mary Magdalene, built-in the 13th century and the oldest standing building in Midhurst. In the distant center of our view is the timber-framed 'Old Market House'. Built sometime after land was set aside for it in 1552, it was intended to help cement the market as the local center of commerce.
But the evidence is that the market is much older than even these buildings. A historic character assessment published by the Sussex Extensive Urban Survey and Chichester County Council suggests that the market place most likely existed within the original town defences during the 1100's when the adjacent castle on St. Anne's Hill was still occupied.
Midhurst Market Today
Although the days of housing livestock are all but gone (except for the occasional cultural event) Midhurst market place is still surrounded by thriving business. Many of these are small family concerns, as they have been throughout the history of the town. Our two favourites are Wheeler's bookshop and Comestibles.
Wheeler's is situated in the old Red Lion Pub building. It's one of those wonderful old style used book stores set in a suitably aged timber-framed building, with rows and rows of bookshelves to explore. Just up the road, Comestibles is a local cafe/delicatessen
that sells any number of local delicacies from 'large goey chocolate cake to hot fruit chutney'. A great place to get a coffee or meal.
So as you take in this view of Midhurst market, a constantly evolving tapestry of historic architecture and store fronts - old and new, keep in mind that over hundreds of years, the one constant of the market is that it gives locals and visitors a place to meet, to replenish and to conduct business. A center of a community and the heart of this ancient town.