Long before it was named one of the country’s best places to live – three times, in fact, in 2002, 2016 and 2018 - Midhurst was a royal favourite, attracting Henry VIII, Queen Elizabeth 1 as well as King Charles, the late Princess Diana and both their sons Princes William and Harry.

It might have been because it's nestled in the heart of the South Downs that was the draw, or the quaint mix of medieval, Tudor, Georgian, and Victorian buildings, but they were visiting the market town’s Cowdray Park Polo Club, which hosts the Gold Cup, one of the most prestigious events on the British social and sporting calendar.

Other royals, including Princess Beatrice, her sister Princess Eugenie and their mother, Sarah, Duchess of York are regular visitors along with Sussex-based model Jodie Kidd and actor Henry Cavill, who played Superman in the DC Extended Universe.

Hugh Bonneville, Downton Abbey’s very own Earl of Grantham, lives in the town. He hosted the King’s Coronation Concert at Windsor Castle last year and is used to rubbing shoulders with celebrities and royals alike.

But there’s much more to Midhurst than an apparent royal seal of approval. Nestled along the River Rother, 12 miles north of Chichester, and just down the road from Petworth, with its famous listed house, this little town refuses to be overshadowed by its bigger and showier neighbours.

That’s no doubt why it was named as one of the best places to live in the country by The Sunday Times twice, in 2016 and 2018, and was only just pipped to Country Life’s top spot back in 2002.

Midhurst would be Sussex’s best-kept secret if it wasn’t for its beauty, charm and stunning location. Built around a market square and boasting more than its fair share of outstanding schools, it’s slap bang in the middle of the South Downs National Park. Offering everything from gentle hikes to high-octane bike trail adventures, there’s a plethora of activities for all ages and fitness levels to enjoy in the Great Outdoors here.

Whether you’re discovering honey-scented musk orchids growing in open chalk landscape or glimpsing clouds of butterflies, there’s an abundance of wildlife in natural surroundings in this spectacular landscape, making it the ideal, as well as the best, place to live and visit, for families, couples and nature lovers.

Great British Life: Midhurst at ChristmasMidhurst at Christmas (Image: Christopher Ison)

Food and drink

With a population of just 5,000, Midhurst has more than its fair share of wonderful places to eat and drink – and many can be passed off as a history lesson. Indulge in a traditional afternoon tea at Midhurst Museum and Tea Rooms, set in a 16th hayloft, where you’ll learn more about town life in years gone by.

Dine al fresco when the sun’s shining on a wintery day in the Market Square, or choose from an international array of venues serving everything from Spanish tapas to delicious delights at the deli Comestibles. Caffe Verdi, Faustino's Wine & Tapas Bar and Garton's Coffee House all come highly recommended.

Sample local wines at Upperton Vineyards in nearby Tillington or pop by Cowdray Park where you can buy organic produce from the farm shop as well as watch Polo (and hope to catch a glimpse of a royal).

Quench your thirst with a visit to Langham, the award-winning brewery in the South Downs between Midhurst and Petworth, where you can try and buy innovative craft beers which are made using quality ingredients and a mix of traditional and contemporary skills. (langhambrewery.co.uk)

Stock up on ales, beer, cider and wine at The Crafty Pint which offers a ‘refined selection’ in store (craftypintshop.co.uk) before sampling the delights of one of the town’s many local pubs including The Bricklayers Arms, The Swan Inn, and The Wheatsheaf.

Famous Faces

Paddington star, actor Hugh Bonneville, is arguably the most famous resident of Midhurst but H G Wells, the author of The War of the Worlds and The Invisible Man, has three blue plaques to commemorate the fact that he lived here, all within a few hundred yards of each other. One is displayed near the entrance to the old Midhurst Grammar School, on North Street, where he spent time as a pupil and then as a teacher.

Kings and Queens have visited here – Queen Elizabeth 1 stayed at The Spread Eagle Hotel which dates back to 1430, while Henry VIII went to Cowdray House, one of Midhurst’s most famous landmarks and England’s most important early Tudor houses, at least three times.

Guy Fawkes was employed at the house as a footman some years later. The house was destroyed by fire in 1793 – long after Fawke’s failed gunpowder plot on the Houses of Parliament in 1605 – but the ruins still attract visitors.

Must See

Keen gardeners and nature lovers will love Woolbeding Gardens, the 20th Century National Trust horticultural haven with open pastures and stunning views over the River Rother. Discover sculptures and follies as you stroll through the rural landscape, garden rooms and formal gardens. Relax in this beautiful, quiet setting in the West Sussex countryside that makes for an enchanting afternoon out. nationaltrust.org.uk/visit/sussex/woolbeding-gardens

Great British Life: Woolbeding bridgeWoolbeding bridge (Image: Getty)

Must Do

Catch a glimpse of rare birds, including the nightjar and woodlark, over the Commons, with its unique heathland, and stroll along the three-mile Woolbeding Walk, passing a plantation of whispering poplars and taking in the River Rother, where you might see a kingfisher and dragonflies. There’s even a guided Twilight tour with an experienced country guide to point out wildlife and points of interest. At the end there’s a choice of two pubs – The Wheatsheaf or the Half Moon for a lunch or dinner washed down with a glass of something cold and refreshing. nationaltrust.org.uk/visit/sussex/woolbeding-countryside/woolbeding-countryside-river-rother-and-midhurst

Boutique Shopping

A stroll down Midhurst’s West Street, Red Lion Street, Church Hill, North Street and Knockhundred Row will reveal a wealth of incredible independent stores, shops and boutiques.

Browse the wonderfully curated bookshop Wheelers or buy a print or card from a local artist at The Midhurst Gallery.

For bespoke upholstery, made to measure curtains, blinds and homeware, head to The Upholsterer (theupholsterer.com) which has everything you could want for your home.

Stuff & Co has a host of design-led gifts, accessories, and home furnishings (stuffandco.co.uk) so it’s the perfect place to get inspiration and ideas to transform your home.

If you want to really look the part before going horse riding, or want to see where riders buy their outfits, Stockley Outdoor is the equestrian shop of choice. With a comprehensive range of carefully selected products, they provide quality at an excellent price. stockleyonline.co.uk

Great British Life: Cowdray Ruins still attract visitorsCowdray Ruins still attract visitors (Image: Alamy)

Afterwards, a visit to Cowdray Estate (cowdray.co.uk) is a must. From playing golf on a championship course to attending a clay-pigeon school, going fishing, riding, learning polo and even renting a holiday cottage to stay in, there’s plenty to do here. Choose from local produce at the Farm Shop, go for a guided walk with a local forager, experience stargazing with astronomer Dr John Mason MBE and learn to make a wreath for Christmas.

If it’s a legal matter you need help with, MacDonald Oates is a full-service law firm in Midhurst giving personalised advice to individuals, businesses and organisations. macdonaloates.co.uk