Horsham gaol, one of the earliest purpose-built prisons in the country, went up in 1775, joining a variety of other more makeshift houses of remand scattered around the centre of town. The courts moved to Lewes in 1830, however, and the last public execution here, of the murderer of Brighton’s first chief of police, took place in 1844. The gaol was pulled down the following year. Fortunately for the modern town, Horsham wasn’t wealthy enough for major redevelopment in the 19th century. The railway to Brighton missed it out and only in the 1960s did things begin to look up again. Sun Alliance Insurance located their HQ here, apparently on the recommendation of one Denis Thatcher. And last year, in a sure sign of Horsham’s growing prosperity, a brand new John Lewis at Home and Waitrose opened in the middle of town near the bus station. The centre of Horsham is called Carfax, a distinction it shares with Oxford. Opinions differ as to the origin of the name, some favouring a derivation from the French ‘carrefour’ or crossroads, others suggesting it comes from the Anglo-Saxon meaning ‘public open space’. Either way, there is no doubt that it was well established shortly after the Norman Conquest and the market square, as in Chichester, is conveniently orientated with radiating North, South, East and West Streets. Middle Street was formerly known as Butcher’s Row. Pedestrianised today, Carfax is distinguished by a fine Victorian bandstand, still frequently in use, and the castellated old Town Hall.
This was originally built by the Duke of Norfolk in the 18th century, renovated a century later, and is now the quite spectacular home of a Bill’s Restaurant. West Street is Horsham’s main shopping street, where several independents survive amid the usual chain stores, while in East Street there’s a wide variety of cafés, bars and restaurants.
Behind the old Town Hall, in what would otherwise be a continuation of South Street, can be found the architectural pride of Horsham, the picturesque street that has long been known as The Causeway. This wide stone-flagged boulevard leads down to the parish church, lined with venerable old London plane trees and houses dating largely from the 15th and 16th centuries. At the top end, at no.9, the thriving Horsham Museum and Art Gallery occupies the gabled 16th century Causeway House. Something of a Tardis, this rambling old building suits its purpose very well, with a maze of small rooms given over to different aspects of Horsham’s past as well as a couple of larger temporary exhibition spaces at the front and a charming old courtyard garden in the middle. The permanent displays include: the gruesome story of Horsham’s gaols, featuring the infamous treadmill and a peek through a cell door at the notorious post-war Acid Bath Murderer; the Garman gallery of cooking and gardening; a surprisingly extensive ethnographic collection; and also a display on the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley who spent his childhood at Field Place just outside the town.
Back on The Causeway, no. 15 was the home until 2007 of Squadron Leader Neville Duke, one of the RAF’s ace Spitfire pilots and in 1953 the test pilot who set a new air speed record flying a Hawker Hunter. In similarly dashing vein from bygone days, no. 19 was childhood home of the thriller writer Hammond Innes. At the foot of The Causeway stands the parish church of St Mary the Virgin, with its characteristic Sussex shingle spire, and several notable monuments inside, including a couple of interesting brasses (by which we mean plaques, m’lud, rather than ladies of the night).Beyond the church, through an area called Normandy, a pleasant walk heads directly into the countryside along footpaths. Footbridges lead over the infant river Arun and the railway into Denne Park, with its long avenue of lime trees, and also the water meadows and fields of the 90-acre, council-run Chesworth Farm, marketed as Horsham’s Secret Paradise.
In fact Horsham’s environs are a wonder themselves. To the east lies St Leonard’s Forest, with many miles of free-range woodland and various superb fishing lakes. Sometimes described (perhaps with just a smidgeon of hyperbole) as the Lake District of southern England, the Sussex Weald around the town is characterized by the hammer ponds of the medieval iron industry.
As Jeremy Knight, curator of the Horsham Museum, points out: “This is not really a market town any more. It’s a booming area. Every morning the trains to London are packed!” It is true: queues form for specific train doors on the platform.
Horsham, he thinks, has forgotten its history. “Instead of celebrating a donkey cart [referring to a sculpture commissioned for the Piries shopping centre], they should be remembering that Catherine Howard, Henry VIII’s wife, lived here.’’ Like her cousin Anne Boleyn, Catherine was also lost her head to love.
Perhaps that’s the kind of thing that might appeal to the award-winning computer gaming company Creative Assembly, creators of the hack-and-slash Total War series, based here since 1987 and yet another fillip for the town. Horsham, though, is now very safe and secure for young families and also particularly well placed for business, enjoying super easy access to both London and Gatwick.
Just don’t mention Crawley. The horror currently touted in the town is Crawsham, or the eventual conjunction of the two towns along the A264. Well then, let’s just hope that good old Horsham doesn’t become too awesome for its own good.
Occupation: Insurance (formerly prison guard)
Distinguishing features: large watery flanks
Age: 800 years
Marital status: single (wife lost her head)
Criminal convictions: too many to list
Don’t say: “On a fine day you can see Crawley”
Do say: “Hey dude, fancy a game of Total War?”