A visit to Horsham combines the old and the new. Arboreal and medieval, with a thriving market and a developing café culture and cultural scene, it’s an ever-evolving town. It’s surrounded by some stunning countryside and great local walks, it has good train links to London, an intriguing history, a theatre, two cinemas, a busy market, and some fantastic schools.
On the upper edges of the River Arun, the name Horsham is thought to have derived from either “horse home” (the town was known for its horse trading during the medieval period) or “Horsa’s home” (a Saxon warrior who was granted land in the area). Horsham is first mentioned in the 10th century and appears in the Domesday Book (1086), at which time it appears to have been a large village.
Home to a few notable landmarks
The Causeway is perhaps one of the most picturesque parts of the town, set slightly to the side of the town centre, lined with plane trees and a slightly higgledly piggledly jumble of 17th, 18th and early 19th century architecture (as well as the renowned Horsham Museum). It’s an elegant street with a marked sense of calm.
At the south end of the Causeway is St Mary’s church, a Norman building and the oldest building in Horsham. It was rebuilt in the 13th century and restored in 1864–65. From there, a quiet walk through the cemetery takes you down to gardens and the River Arun. It feels like the countryside and it’s hard to believe you’re just minutes from the busy town centre. As you walk from the Causeway to the Carfax do look out for the twittens and alleys. There are several, some of which lead to Denne Road and one to Piries Place from the Carfax.
The Carfax is the centre point of the town with its beautiful bandstand built in 1892 and its twice weekly market. It’s thought the name Carfax may be a Norman name derived from either “Quatre Voies” (four ways) or “Carrefour”, a place where four roads meet.
The Town Hall in the Market Square dates back to about 1648 when it was a “Market House”. It was rebuilt in 1721 and the ground floor used for a butter and poultry market whilst the upper floors were used for holding quarter sessions and assizes. It was repaired and enlarged again in 1812 by the 11th Duke of Norfolk and the open ground floor began use as a lower court room. Perhaps one of the Town Hall’s most famous entries in the history books is that in 1949 John George Haigh appeared there before the magistrates for the infamous Acid Bath Murders (although his full trial took place at Lewes). Unsurprisingly, it reportedly caused quite a stir!
From the 16th century onwards Horsham developed tanning leather and brewing industries. And in 1796, a barracks built in Horsham gave a brief boost to the population of about 1,500 men. They left in 1815 although the ammunition depot built in 1804 is remembered by Depot Road. The bubonic plague struck Horsham in 1560, 1574 and in 1608-09 and even following the Covid pandemic, it’s still hard to imagine the terror and grief this must have caused. Sadly, this was followed by an outbreak of smallpox in 1659. In 1648 Horsham was also the scene of a rising of 500 or 600 Royalists, protesting against the policies of the parliamentary county committee. The rising was quelled by parliamentary troops but at least three townsmen and one soldier were killed.
The last “pressing” of someone to death also took place in Horsham in 1735 – this was the practice of placing someone who refused to plead either “guilty” or “not guilty” at a trial under a wooden board with weights placed on top. And even in the 20th century, Horsham had its moments. Several people died in bombing raids in WWII and Horsham was also one of the last places in England where someone faced the death penalty for homosexuality. The film “Monty Python’s Life of Brian” was even banned here!
A cultural centre
No visit to Horsham is complete without a little literary culture. Most people know that English romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, married to Frankenstein novelist Mary Shelley was born at Field Place in Broadbridge Heath near Horsham and grew up here. In 1891, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story The Five Orange Pips included characters who lived in the town. Not long after, the world-renowned Christ’s Hospital School moved to just outside Horsham in 1902 and the first cinema opened in 1910. More recently, Michael Caine started his acting career in the town, Oliver Reid was often seen in local pubs and Harry Enfield was born in the town. Other celebrities you might be able to spot these days include Jim Davidson, Alvin Stardust, Alan Carr and Julie Walters.
Local walks and countryside
Horsham is surrounded by some fabulous countryside and there are lots of footpaths and walks to explore. To the east of the town, you’ll find St Leonard’s Forest (part of the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty). The forest has over 700 acres open to the public as well as lots of old legends and stories about hermits and dragons (including the haunting tale of an Indian princess). The story goes that a French hermit once lived here in the sixth century. He famously fought and killed a dragon in the forest and it is from him, St Leonard, that the forest takes its name! It’s also the start of the High Weald Landscape Trail which is a 145 km walking trail from Horsham to Rye! If you’re not too tired yet, from the forest, head to the intriguingly named Owlbeech and Leechpool Woods which are nearby.
Horsham also marks the start of the West Sussex Literary Trail. This is an 87 km walking trail to Chichester celebrating some of Sussex’s literary big guns, such as Shelley, Galsworthy, Hilaire Belloc, Bob Copper, Blake and Keats. We tried and tested the first two sections of this trail recently and you can find details here: Horsham to Barnes Green and Barnes Green to Pulborough.
Not far from Horsham you’ll also find the Downs Link and the Sussex Border Path. The Downs Link is a 59 km trail along dismantled railway lines that links the North Downs Way and the South Downs Way and Shoreham, whilst the Sussex Border Path is a 220 km walking trail from Thorney Island to Rye. For other walks in the area, you can head out to nearby and historic Knepp Castle and its estate, or try various circular routes or pub trails, such as the Christ’s Hospital circular route (with lots of points of interest along the way), the Rowhook to Rudgwick walk (with lots of pubs along the way) or the Broadbridge Heath to Warninglid (with wallabies on the way!)
Restaurants and eateries
If you have the time, grab a coffee before you start exploring. The town has lots of quirky coffee shops. It also has an increasing number of excellent restaurants that spill out onto to East Street and the Carfax. With two Turkish restaurants, a Smith and Western, Italian, French, Thai and Chinese, steak houses, Carter and Miller, there’s pretty much something for everyone and for fine dining you might want to opt for Michelin starred Tristan’s, nearby by South Lodge, Leondardslee or the Chequers at Rowhook. The market is a great place for local produce (like the local gin) and now includes a regular vegan market.
Whatever brings you to Horsham, do take some time to stroll around some of the quirkier streets and explore some of the surrounding area. It’s an intriguing and dynamic little town well worth making it a place to visit or better still, somewhere to put down roots.
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