Midhurst - leading the way to the Big Society

‘IT’S a town punching above its weight’ – that was how Queen of Shops, Mary Portas described it when it launched its own ‘Midhurst pound’ scheme.

But Midhurst is punching above its weight in many ways, from education to 
sport and leisure, as well as state-of-the-art facilities all over the town.

G13226H8_Wsg_Midhurst  Phot Malcolm 290308''Cowdray Ruins.G13226H8.

G13226H8_Wsg_Midhurst Phot Malcolm 290308''Cowdray Ruins.G13226H8.

It’s a far cry from the gloomy headlines bemoaning flagging economic fortunes, the empty shops and the fear the town would end up with nothing but estate agents and charity shops.

Today the Midhurst Town Team, and a town-centre manager, have turned it round with virtually every shop filled and a recent ‘secret shopping’ survey saying it was one of the country’s ‘friendliest and most hospitable’ towns. To cap it all, upmarket supermarket Waitrose is looking to open up.

Town Team chairman John Quilter said: “A number of factors are coming together. There is the investment by outside developers as well as the South Downs National Park Authority becoming increasingly involved with the community and its economy, including its very positive support for the setting-up of a tourist information centre.”

Seven years ago Midhurst Grammar School was in special measures. Today the Midhurst Rother College, which took over, is climbing to dizzy heights in its brand-new £31m building and celebrating an ‘outstanding’ Ofsted accolade.

The Grange Centre where manager Mike Boyce and his team provide everything from short mat bowls to bridge and writing clubs, has a special place in people’s hearts. But there is no denying it is past its sell-by date and within the next six months a brand-new £8m sports and leisure centre will open.

Dozens of groups, including the Midhurst Society, U3A, the Women’s Institute, Rotary Club, Lions and the Midhurst Players continue to flourish.

Rugby, cricket and stoolball attract large numbers of sports enthusiasts at the Midhrust Sports Association ground and the Midhurst and Easebourne football club has thriving teams from youngsters to adults.

The town even has its very own ten-day annual festival in the shape of MADhurst.

Young people have their own brand-new purpose-built centre.

The ancient Market Square has long been a focus for tourists and it has recently had a £400,000 facelift.

In many ways Midhurst has led the way into the Big Society, with volunteers taking responsibility for their own community.

When West Sussex County Council axed its day centre, volunteers launched their own services, Rother Valley Together, with manager Petra Lynn.

Volunteers opened the town’s museum and South Pond is being restored to its former glory by another group of volunteers.

Historic Capron House will become the South Downs National Park authority’s new headquarters and the southern half has been taken back by the Cowdray Estate for community events and is also home to eight town businesses. Midhurst owes much of its recent achievements to Colin Hughes – the ‘Mr Midhurst’ who has been behind many major projects.

He was one of the key players behind the £4m project, working with Lord Cowdray to renovate and open Cowdray Ruins to the public. It was he who negotiated with the Monument Trust for £200,000 towards the Market Square renovations. He also persuaded the trust to donate £500,000 for community facilities at the new Grange Centre.

He was behind plans for the new youth centre and he leads Rother Valley Together. He campaigned for siting of the new academy in Midhurst and served on the committee fighting for the inclusion of Midhurst in the national park.

He said: “Nothing is possible without a vision, a great team and a supportive family. I have been very lucky in having all three. Highlights for me were the Millennium celebrations at the Cowdray Ruins and the Elizabethan procession in 1991. My greatest talent was in finding the team who were capable of achieving the objective.”