In terms of Sussex history, Haywards Heath in West Sussex is a relatively new town. It sprung up following the arrival of the London & Brighton Railway in 1841. Prior to that, the main settlements were Cuckfield and Lindfield and the story I was always told was that as they couldn’t agree on who was to get the railway, it went on the heath in the middle. That’s not to say that Haywards Heath is a town without history and interesting architecture. Notable buildings include what was once the Sussex County Lunatic Asylum (later St Francis Hospital) built in 1859 (on the site of the current Princess Royal Hospital) and the Priory, built in 1886 and Grade II listed. And let’s not forget the pub that was The Sergison Arms, later known as The Dolphin, and now the Miller and Carter Steakhouse parts of which date from the late 16th century and is the oldest building in town.
More importantly, Haywards Heath is set centrally in Sussex (it used to be in East Sussex but is now in West Sussex ) and has good transport links to London, Brighton, and Gatwick, making it a great base from which to explore Sussex. But before you head further afield, here are some things to do in Haywards Heath and the surrounding area.
Things to do in Haywards Heath
In the town itself, there is a large park (Victoria Park) with a children’s playground and outdoor water play area (open from early May until the second Saturday in September) and a skate park, tennis courts, football pitches, and outdoor gym. The town also has a leisure centre but perhaps is becoming best known for The Broadway and the many places to eat and drink there that spill out onto the pavements. The town also now has its own rather funky tap room.
Just on the edge of Haywards Heath is Beech Hurst Gardens, a local heritage park. It has a miniature railway open every Saturday afternoon until 23rd September (2-5 pm). It also has a playground, bowling club and Petanque area.
Things to do near Haywards Heath
Once replete and ready, head out of town for the following things to do near Haywards Heath.
Just on the outskirts of the town, Borde Hill is a nationally important English country garden set around an Elizabethan mansion with over 383 acres of Grade II* heritage-listed parkland. They have a year-round programme of events which include food fairs, plant fairs, and art exhibitions. There are 13 outdoor ‘Garden rooms’, woodland walks and a zip-wire. Dogs are welcome on a lead and there are even water bowls in reception.
The other side of Haywards Heath is Sheffield Park, a National Trust property with acres of Grade I listed landscaped gardens and lakes, surrounded by historic parkland and woodland. With influences of ‘Capability’ Brown and Humphry Repton, perhaps the grounds are most famous for their autumn colours. They do operate a booking system in the autumn because it is so popular but they are dog-friendly.
The Bluebell Railway
Just up the road from Sheffield Park is the Bluebell Railway, a heritage line running a collection of vintage steam locomotives and carriages. You step back in time as soon as you arrive at the ticket office and see the vintage luggage stacked on the platform. There are four stations along the line set in different periods of history including Victorian, 1930s and 1950s. In addition to the train rides, they have exhibitions and lots of information and hold all sorts of special events including Santa Specials, Afternoon Tea and Silver Service dining, Supper Specials and Rail Ale evenings.
The Wings Museum
Tucked away in the lanes near Balcombe and Staplefield is the Wings Museum which provides a fascinating insight into life during World War II. Housed in a large “hangar” they display original memorabilia including items relating to the Home Front, RAF Fighter Command, The Blitz, Battle of Britain, Bomb Disposal, Home Guard, Air raid shelters, Aircraft Turrets, and much more.
North of Haywards Heath you’ll find both the village of Ardingly and Wakehurst, part of Kew’s Royal Botanic Gardens and home to the Millenium Seed Bank. Set around a Grade I listed Elizabethan Mansion, there are 500 acres of diverse landscapes and plants from across the globe and lots of hidden sculptures. They also hold a year-round programme of events including their famous Christmas Glow Wild Illuminations. Dogs are now welcome in the grounds on a short lead and kept to the designated dog-friendly route.
The Ouse Valley Viaduct and the reservoir
While you’re in Ardingly, head down the reservoir for gentle water sports, or a walk to the Ouse Valley Viaduct. Built between 1839 and 1841 and described as “probably the most elegant viaduct in Britain.”, it’s definitely one of the most photographed spots in Sussex. The viaduct is 96 feet (29 m) high with 37 semi-circular arches, each of 30 feet (9.1 m), and a total length of 1,480 feet (450 m). It is a Grade II* listed structure.
In Handcross, the charismatic ruins of the house at Nymans make a compelling backdrop to these stunning gardens. The gardens are Grade II* listed with rare and unusual plant collections and views across the Sussex Weald and there is also extensive woodland to explore. It’s a National Trust property and although dogs are not allowed in the garden in the summer, they are allowed back from Monday 30 October 2023 until 11 February 2024 (on leads and on the main paths in the woods during bird nesting season: 1st March – 31st Aug).
Bolney Wine Estate
Sussex is now almost synonymous with sparking wine, and luckily, not far from Haywards Heath, you’ll find Bolney Wine Estate. As you might expect they host a variety of different vineyard tours and tasting experiences, including a Sussex cheese and wine experience.
High Weald Dairy
Talking of cheese, if you head out to the High Weald Dairy near Horsted Keynes, they run cheese tasting and dairy tours, all their many Sussex cheeses of course!
The pretty village of Cuckfield is also home to a small but absolutely packed local museum. Cuckfield has an intriguing backstory and you can find lots of information in the museum. For example, there were a number of significant dinosaur discoveries in the area such as the Iguanodon (the first dinosaur known to science) found in 1821 at Whiteman’s Green. And did you know that in 1966, the Independent State of Cuckfield was born “in response to the annexation of the land used for the annual Donkey Grand National at Whiteman’s Green” (which had been used to raise funds for the local community) and it’s still going strong?
While you’re in Cuckfield, pop into the stunning spa at Ockenden Manor or partake of afternoon tea on their lawns. Then why not hire one of their electric bikes and make your way to their sister hotel, Bailiffscourt, down on the coast?
If you’ve enjoyed this post about things to do in Haywards Heath, you may also like: