History tour of Petersfield

Looking across The Square, the former Corn Exchange is in the far corner

Looking across The Square, the former Corn Exchange is in the far corner - Credit: Archant

Many of Petersfield’s historic landmarks have remarkable stories to tell

The Market Square circa 1900. Photo: Petersfield Museum

The Market Square circa 1900. Photo: Petersfield Museum - Credit: Archant

What's in a name?

Although Bronze Age fragments have been unearthed within the barrows of what's now called Petersfield Heath, fast forward to the 11th century. It was then that farm workers from nearby Buriton laid down their tools, to pray at a remote chapel called St Peter in the Fields. Within 100 years, the Earl of Gloucester who owned the treeless land surrounding the chapel granted a charter for a market to be started-up. Before long, the Earl spotted another business opportunity by offering merchants building plots on St Peter's feld or Petersfield, as it became known.

The ancient chapel - today a Grade I listed building on The Square's south side - has undergone several major facelifts. Yet it endures as a backdrop to local community life, overlooking as it does the weekly markets that continue to set-up stall.

All square

The statue of William III in The Square

The statue of William III in The Square - Credit: Archant

Still a focal point on market days, The Square with several principal streets radiating from it is a throwback to the Petersfield's medieval roots. Sadly notable buildings including the 19th century town hall and Castle House, once one of The Square's most prominent properties, are long gone. On The Square's east side however, remnants of the former Corn Exchange built in 1866, are still in evidence. Trading took place within its then open hall once a fortnight. When not resounding to the cries of buyers and sellers, there were concerts, plays and even circuses, to entertain the crowds.

The equestrian statue in the centre of The Square was originally erected in the courtyard of the now demolished Petersfield House, which was formerly the country seat of local MP Sir William Jolliffe.

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Flocking into town

Although referred to in earlier times as Ship Street, Petersfield's medieval prominence as a wool town is reflected in what's now known as Sheep Street. Running from the west side of The Square, today it still boasts many of those buildings built between the 16th and 18th centuries. Names such as Carding House confirm the processing the fleeces underwent, before being woven into Hampshire Kersey, a hardwearing cloth used for jackets and outer garments. By the 1700s, Petersfield's prosperity relied on the associated leather and tanning industries, resulting in several glove shops opening in the High Street, one of the town's new commercial hotspots.

Physic Garden in Petersfield

Physic Garden in Petersfield - Credit: Archant

A blue plaque, erected outside numbers 22 to 24 Sheep Street, is a reminder that buildings on this side of the road along with 33 other properties around Petersfield, were bought by the Joliffe family in 1732 to gain parliamentary votes. Before long The Case of the Borough of Petersfield became the talk of the land and signalled a turning point in British democracy.

A touch of the Med

At the far end of Sheep Street, The Spain - still notable today for its large, elegant houses sitting around a small green - reputedly got its name from the Spanish merchants who once came to Petersfield to trade. Although, an alternative theory is that it's a corruption of the word 'spayne' meaning 'tile' which, almost certainly, would have been used to roof the houses - as opposed to the more lowly thatch - belonging to high-standing former occupants.

A leaf out of history

With esteemed 17th century botanist, and former local resident, John Goodyer the inspiration behind its creation, Petersfield Physic Garden is an oasis of tranquillity. It's found just off the High Street within the town's last remaining medieval burgage plot - owned at one time by influential townsfolk - the land was donated to Hampshire Garden Trust by Major John Bowen in 1988. Since then, the Friends of the Physic Garden have used its stone walls to enclosed four magical 'rooms': the knot garden based, in part, on the Bowen family crest; a manicured topiary walk; an orchard bursting with heritage varieties of medlars, damsons, apples and quince; and, finally, the medicinal and culinary herb garden.

Taking to the highway

Ahead of the advent of the railways, Petersfield made a name for itself in the late 1600s as an important stagecoach stop for the hundreds of travellers and weary horses en route between London and Portsmouth. Offering no less than nine coaching inns back in the day, some of the famous guests who reputedly passed through their doors included King Charles II and diarist Samuel Pepys. One of those inns still welcoming visitors, and reputedly the oldest, is The Old Drum in Chapel Street; also a cyclists' pit stop during the 1920s; and a writer's retreat for HG Wells, whose mother worked at nearby Uppark.

East of India

Today, Churcher's College is one of the country's top co-educational independent day schools with more than 1,000 pupils across sites in Petersfield and nearby Liphook. Originally, a school stood in College Lane after wealthy businessman and philanthropist Richard Churcher left money in his will for boys to be taught navigation skills, in readiness for employment with the East India Company. Having become an 'ordinary' school in 1744, just over 100 years later Churcher's moved to its current location on Ramshill, which continues to house the senior school.

Festival fever

Even the Taro Centre, the town's 20th century leisure complex, can claim an historic link. It gets its name from 'tarw' the Welsh shout for bull (pronounced as 'taro'), coming from cattle drovers at the two-day Taro Fair on Petersfield Heath, which started in 1820. Livestock trading ceased by the 1950s, but with seasonal fairs and festivals firmly part of town tradition, there's never long to wait until the next crowd pleaser.

Diary date: Petersfield Musical Festival 13-21 March 2020.