We’re used to seeing them grace the red carpets, taking centre stage at any A-list bash you care to name, but lookout next time you pop into the village butcher’s for your barbecue staples or browse the latest bestsellers in the bookshop – a handful of celebrities could be standing right next to you.
Either choosing to call it home, or visiting relatives who have done just that, the celebs are ahead of the curve, it seems, in being seen in picturesque Wadhurst. The pretty market town in East Sussex has just won the South East regional award in the annual Sunday Times Best Places to Live survey. But before even a judge set foot in the quaint High Street, armed with a clipboard and pen, two household names had already laid down roots in its leafy lanes and a third can trace his family history back at least two generations as celebrated locals.
Grammy-winning guitarist Jeff Beck, once of the Yardbirds, lives in a sprawling country estate called ‘Riverhall’ on the outskirts of the town. Lookout for him in the local butcher, W.J. Crouch – seven years ago he famously sliced off one of his fingers while chopping carrots for a stew. After medics managed to save and sew back the tip of his left index finger, the legendary rock star subsequently insured each of his fingers for £700,000. No doubt his chopping days are over and W.J. Crouch’s are the only hands going near anything he puts in his stew pot.
Another famous face sure to turn heads when she’s out and about in the High Street is TV presenter Davina McCall, who moved into her eight-bedroom former nunnery home, set in 37 acres, in 2009. The millionaire presenter, herself a former convent girl, snapped up the secluded Grade II listed mansion for a knockdown £3.2 million as the credit crunch bit and moved in with her husband, Matthew Robertson and their three children, Holly, Tilly and Chester.
Their home boasts two swimming pools, tennis court, paddock and path to the railway station. Last year, Davina reportedly put up a sign asking commuters to stop using stairs leading to the station as a toilet after repeated incidents of people relieving themselves on her land. The sign for would-be squatters read: ‘Members of the public who feel it is acceptable to use the top of these stairs and surrounding area to defecate and urinate, could you stop! We have CCTV footage of everyone which has been passed on to the transport police.’
The star of fitness DVDs and diet cookbooks must find it hard to resist the temptations offered by local café Jempson’s, with its homemade cakes and preserves. Maybe Wealden Wholefoods Co-operative with its cosy café and pretty rear garden might be more of a draw for the healthy eating TV star, or the fish van that arrives twice-a-week with the fresh catch direct from Eastbourne or Hastings.
So who is the third high-profile name on our celebrity watchlist of Wadhurst (population just under 5,000)? As one to shun the limelight and enjoy a reputation as a man of mystery, it might take some supersleuth detective work to identify him. A visit to the 13th century parish church of St Peter and St Paul will reveal the first clue for any budding Sherlock Homes. A pair of candlesticks given in memory of a World War Two submarine commander are the only visible evidence of our occasional guest’s identity.
The renowned local navy man was one Henry Carlton Cumberbatch, grandfather of none other than Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch. Henry Carlton, and his father before him, lived in the £2.5m family home in the town, Buckhurst Manor. Benedict, 40, was named one of the ‘Most Influential People in the World’ by Time Magazine in its annual Time 100 in 2014 and the following year was made a CBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List for his services to the performing arts and to charity. Educated as a boarder at Brambletye School, East Grinstead, perhaps the star of movies such as The Hobbit and The Imitation Game, keeps half an eye out for news from Wadhurst’s Drama Society or Wadhurst Culture which promotes professional arts and touring theatre.
While not in the modern-day celebrity ‘hall of fame’, another Wadhurst well-known name is billionaire businessman Sir Hans Rausing, heir of the Tetra Pak company, who is a frequent donor to local charities.
All our celebs doubtless have times when they want to shun the limelight and grab a few quiet moments alone.And what better place to choose than Barnett’s Bookshop – a traditional, independent bookstore in the heart of the town. It’s one of only a handful of remaining independent bookseller’s in the county, and features a Children’s Corner, developed with a £2,000 donation from internationally-acclaimed novelist, James Patterson. The US thriller author, who has topped the New York Times bestseller list a record number of times with his Alex Cross thrillers, said bookshops play an essential role in society and child development and their struggle to survive in the face of cut price online booksellers needs to be highlighted. ‘You need to read a lot to begin to understand the world,’ he said, ‘and, if young people don’t read, we are going to have a world of knuckleheads.’
He donated £250,000 to independent bookshops across the UK and Ireland and Barnett’s was a beneficiary, opting to create a fun cosy children’s reading corner featuring toys and chalk boards alongside an extensive range of contemporary and classical children’s books for all ages.Its Literary Lounge, regular events hosted by local authors promoting their work, is a popular attraction town.
In its write-up of Wadhurst, which was granted its royal charter in 1253 and lies in the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty between Battle and Royal Tunbridge Wells, the Sunday Times afforded it the following accolade: ‘Wadhurst has long been a favoured destination for those fleeing London’s stratospheric house prices, but in the past few years, this small market town… has really upped its game. On the High Street, the rather tired haberdashery shop has been transformed into the smart Wing Art Gallery, which showcases local and national artists and holds regular exhibitions. Where once there was a kebab and pizza joint, there’s now Simply Indian, a rather good curry house that’s more stuffed than a paneer paratha on a Saturday night.’
When asked about its attraction as a place to live, Richard Hardy Smith and Beth Martin from Barnett’s said: ‘Most of the shops are owner-managed/independent which contributes to a strong customer-focused ethos. There is also a fully comprehensive range of shops – from our unique independent bookshop to barbers, beauticians, delicatessens, cafés, optician, post office, clothes boutique, wholefood shops, ironmonger, banks, greengrocer, gift shops, art shop, art gallery, off-licences, florist, butcher, three pubs and a local family run supermarket… Parking is free and available even on the High Street. Wadhurst is also rich in local societies – from a flourishing community choir to History Society, U3A, Drama Society, Wadhurst Culture and even a brass band and ukulele band… We have three excellent local schools and two old people’s homes.
‘There are also regular trains to London and to top it all we are in the heart of an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty with wonderful walks on our doorstep. All of this combines to make a great integrated community and a wonderful place to live.’ ■
Boasting celebrity residents, an independent butcher that caters for rock stars and a book store helped by acclaimed author James Patterson, it’s no wonder Wadhurst has been officially declared wonderful. By Sarah Gibbons