The Wonders Of West Sussex

Posted on: 22 July 2009 by Gareth Hargreaves

Enjoy a staycation in Britain and enjoy views which rival the French Alps according to Jeremy Gates.

Taking care to dodge the cyclists, I moved to the edge of the rutted chalk footpath to take in the view from Britain's next National Park - and saw a panorama to compare with the Alps.

To the north, beyond the plain of the Weald, was the ridge my National Trust notes identified as the Hog's Back. "Blunt bow-headed, whale-backed downs" is how Rudyard Kipling described a similar scene.

Below me, the village of South Harting was nestled around its medieval church spire, the fields occasionally patterned by sunlight bursting between clouds.

Gloomsters agonise about the fate of the South Downs when it becomes Britain's 15th National Park in 2010. But in the sleepy rural lanes of West Sussex southwards from Crawley through the Arun Valley to the coast, only a vivid imagination would worry about this special place getting too crowded.

The town of Arundel, for example, is such a historic gem that you would expect it to be swamped already.

In fact, it remains a living embodiment of Prince Charles's argument: that English towns of the 1950s could have flourished for generations, if only they had avoided architects (and, possibly, traffic wardens too).

The ancient streets of Arundel have survived largely intact: there are teashops, antique dealers galore, 16th-century pubs, elegant Georgian townhouses sitting like bookends to a terrace of shop fronts, and splendid Kim's Bookshop at the bottom of the hill, with scarcely a volume out of place over four floors.

Is the castle worth it for visitors paying £15 per head? Probably, because you get so many bangs for your bucks: walled gardens, augmented by the spectacular Earl Collector's Garden opened last summer; the Keep and its ancient battlements, voiceovers re-enacting the agonies of a Civil War siege; and then the great house itself, largely rebuilt in the late 19th century and family home for centuries of the Howards, one of the great Catholic families of England.

Among the works by artists Van Dyck and Canaletto, you can see the gold and enamel rosary beads that Mary Queen of Scots carried to her execution and the death warrant for the fourth duke, executed at 34, which Good Queen Bess could not bring herself to sign for nearly a year.

The splendid gothic Dining Room and the intimate Fitzalan Chapel, originally built by Henry II, both starred in the recent film The Young Victoria, starring Emily Blunt and Rupert Friend.

Spare some time, too, for the gift shop on the way out - one of the best I have found at any attraction in England, with ladies's nighties selling like hot cakes and superb children's clothes.

Beyond the castle are the sort of attractions which would enable a family to holiday happily around Arundel this summer for most of the week.

At Swanborough Lake, where families go boating beneath cliffs covered in trees and bushes, the setting is so perfect that Sir Winston Churchill tried to paint it when he stayed at the castle.

Nearby, the 65-acre Wildfowl and Wetlands Centre, part of the famous charity based at Slimbridge, offers challenges galore with an 'eco' theme: sunrise safaris; evening bat walks; silent, electric boat rides; summer pond dipping and bug hunting; collections of rare species of wildfowls; and play areas with two giant new bird feeders which enable children to climb in.

Two other attractions are worth a visit.

The Weald and Downland Open Air Museum began as a refuge for old buildings which would otherwise have been burned down in the redevelopment of Crawley, and collects unwanted historic buildings from all over the country.

West Dean Gardens, its fertile soils watered by the River Lavant and just around the corner from Glorious Goodwood racecourse, was inspired by the philanthropist Edward James. It offers adult education courses and has a glorious feeling of serenity, a bit like a Valhalla on earth for civilised readers of The Guardian.

Only in West Sussex, however, might you stumble on a seaside resort like Littlehampton, identified some years back by glossy magazines as the next Whitstable, or possibly even Padstow.

For the moment, visitors can rest assured they are in at chapter one of any possible recovery story.

'Padstein' this ain't just yet, but nothing can detract from the quirky appeal of East Beach Cafe, a new entry to the 2009 Good Food Guide under the direction of Sophie Murray.

"Come early in the evening," they said, "to catch the best light." Low-tide Littlehampton at sunset is quite a stunner, and from my table, I shared the glorious view with squadrons of seagulls, two dogs who sometimes chased them away, and the occasional passing jogger.

The food is simple and superlative, the service excellent, and all the generations looked equally comfortable with each other next day when we sampled Sophie's other venture - a fish and chip bar on West Beach, across the other side of the Arun estuary.

Washing down battered squid rings (£4.50) and scraps on top (free) with a bottle of Chalky's Bite, I realised Littlehampton on sunny Sundays welcomes many more speedboats and pleasure craft than Padstow.

A couple of miles away was our base to explore this delightful corner of West Sussex: the remarkable Bailiffscourt Hotel, one of few country-house hotels with the sea at the bottom of the garden - the English Channel on the shingle of Climping Beach.

With mellow stone walls beneath massive thatched roof, Bailiffscourt looks like a centuries-old Cotswold house. In fact, this splendid architectural fake was created by the Guinness family in the 1930s, and has become the sort of place where couples go for a quiet, luxurious celebration to remember for the rest of their lives.

Forget all that waffle about wi-fi - our room had a huge four-poster bed, an open fire place, already laid with paper and kindling, and a basket of logs to be tossed on the flames whenever we felt a tad chilly.

Next morning, before breakfast, the ultimate luxury: a choice between a visit to the health club with both indoor or outdoor pools, or an easy stroll down to the beach to share the rising dawn with the wave-skimming seagulls.

By Jeremy Gates

Key Facts

  • Best For: Walks on the South Downs, country pubs, antique shops and history.
  • Time To Go: Spring/early summer to make the most of some many fine gardens.
  • Don't Miss: Arundel, an elegant English town with so much to see and do.
  • Need To Know: Check out a superb range of accommodation, from camping to country house hotels.
  • Don't Forget: Guidebook and National Trust Yearbook and walking maps.

Travel Facts

Jeremy Gates was a guest of Bailiffscourt Hotel & Spa, Climping, West Sussex, with double rooms (B&B) from £210 per night. Reservations: 01903 723 511 and

East Beach Cafe (01903 731 903 and and West Beach Cafe (01903 718 153); Arundel Castle (01903 882 173 and; Arundel Wild Wildfowl & Wetlands Centre (01903 883 355 and

West Sussex Places To Visit 2009, published by West Sussex County Council, available on 01243 642 119.

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