Sussex by the Sea
‘Good old Sussex by the Sea’ as the words of the 1907 song go, is located on the English south coast, with Kent, Surrey and Hampshire as its neighbours. Sussex itself ceased to exist in 1974 and is now divided into the two counties of East and West Sussex.
The word ‘Sussex’ dates back to the Saxon period but it was settled long before then by nomadic hunters from Europe when Britain was still connected to the continent. Running through it from east to west is the Weald now all that remains of a vast forest, and the South Downs.
Its coastal plain has been heavily developed but head inland and you soon come across peaceful small villages, historic market towns, rolling countryside, wooded chalk ridges and the beautiful South Downs National Park – Britain’s latest National Park.
With 1092 hours of sunshine recorded every year over a 29 year period, the Met Office in 2011 officially declared W Sussex the sunniest county in Britain. The administrative centre of West Sussex is the charming market town of Chichester with its 16th market cross and 12th century cathedral. Its graceful spire is said to be the only English cathedral spire visible from the sea. Inside its ancient walls is a modern stained glass window by Marc Chagall along with works by Graham Sutherland. Pallant House, home to a stunning collection of modern, chiefly British art, is located in the city’s elegant Georgian quarter. On the northern edge of the town is the Festival Theatre built in 1962. The four main streets, North, South, East and West were laid out by the Romans and close by at Fishbourne the foundations and mosaics of one of their enormous palaces can be viewed.
Not far away on Chichester Harbour is Bosham with its tiny church of the Holy Trinity. It is believed that one of the tombs in the church contains the remains of a daughter of King Canute – the king who demonstrated the limits of his powers to his courtiers by failing to stop the incoming tide.
To the north of Chichester perched high on the Downs with views on a clear day over to the Isle of Wight lies Goodwood House dating back to the 18th century, and the gloriously located Goodwood racecourse, considered by many people to be the most beautifully sited racecourse in England.
Head further east from Chichester to the small town of Arundel dominated by a massive grey castle, the seat of the Dukes of Norfolk. Whilst the keep dates back to Norman times most of what we see today dates from the 19th century. Contained in its walls are superb paintings and furniture and personal possessions of Mary, Queen of Scots. The Catholic Fitzalan Chapel in the castle grounds is divided by a glass screen from the Anglican parish church of St Nicholas. A mile or so from the castle is the popular Wildfowl and Wetlands Centre.
Amongst the market towns of West Sussex is Petworth. Apart from being lured by a number of antique shops visitors also make for Petworth House, now a National Trust property. The artist J M W Turner stayed at the house and a number of his paintings are on display. Not many miles away are the delightful Elizabethan mansion of Parham House, and the Weald and Downland Open air Museum with its collection of reconstructed old buildings.
Steyning is another attractive small town in the shelter of the Downs, many of its buildings dating from the days of theTudors. In Saxon times, before the River Adur silted up, it was an important port and ship building centre and in the 18th century a major coaching stop.
Lewes is the administrative centre for East Sussex. It is a charming, historic town set on a chalky ridge above the River Ouse, its castle nearly 1000 years old. Once a thriving port it is now famous for its Bonfire Night (5 November) celebrations commemorating not only the Gunpowder Plot but also the memory of the 17 Protestant martyrs burnt at the stake in the 16th century, as well as the highly regarded beer produced by Harvey’s Brewery. One of the town’s most noted residents was Thomas Paine, author of The Rights of Man and The Age of Reason.
Just four miles away is the home of Glyndebourne Opera set in glorious surroundings; its productions draw international artists. Close by at Charleston the group of artists, writers and intellectuals known as the Bloomsbury Group established their country meeting place.
Brighton is arguably the country’s most popular seaside resort and has been since the 1780s when the young Prince Regent visited the fishing village of Brighthelmstone. He fell in love with Maria Fitzherbert and decided to build a property there. What started out as a classical villa soon evolved into the fabulously ornate and completely over-the-top Royal Pavilion – Indian influenced design externally and Oriental internally. The city has a good museum/art gallery. The one remaining pier, the Palace Pier offers a number of rides and attractions.
Other seaside resorts include Hastings with its atmospheric old quarter , fishermen’s beach and East and West Hill Cliff Railways and Victorian Eastbourne, a good base from which to visit the dramatic white cliffs of Beachy Head and Seven Sisters.
Rye Mermaid Street
The ancient town of Rye overlooking Romney Marsh boasts cobbled streets and buildings dating from medieval times. Once a coastal town, the sea has now retreated two miles, Rye was named as one of the Cinque Ports in the 13th century. The town and its colourful history have inspired many writers including Joseph Conrad, H G Wells and G K Chesterton. American writer Henry James lived in Lamb House which subsequently became the home of author E F Benson of Mapp and Lucia fame. His fictional town of Tilling is based on Rye. Lamb House is now owned by the National Trust and is open to the public.
The Ashdown Forest, at the heart of the High Weald, was used in Norman times for deer hunting but today is used for more gentle pursuits such as hiking. It is a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty under protection for its wildlife. The children’s author AA Milne used the forest as the ‘home’ of one of the most loved animal characters in literature – Winnie the Pooh.
Close by Hartfield is the famous Poohstick Bridge where Pooh and his colleagues played with fir cones and sticks dropped over the side of the bridge. The bridge and game is as popular today with visitors as it was with Pooh and friends.