East Sussex

I've spent a a lot of of time in East Sussex and that's where I'm living now. So, there's plenty to say....

East Sussex - Facts and Factoids

  • East Sussex is the second county, on the south east coast, after Kent.
  • Most of the large towns in East Sussex developed as holiday resorts, as the sea here is in a direct line, south from London. Here we need to sing, the rousing 'Sussex by the Sea' an unofficial county anthem, written in 1907 by William Ward-Higgs. It has been adopted by Brighton and Hove Albion.
  • The largest settlement in East Sussex is the city of Brighton and Hove, but the county town is, much smaller, Lewes.
  • The south-west of the county is part of the South Downs, a rolling chalk escarpment which stretches west into West Sussex and Hampshire. Ditchling Beacon (at 248 metres, a Marilyn) is the highest point. Where the Downs reach the sea, they form huge cliffs, such as the famous scenic Seven Sisters. They end at Beachy Head, (162 metres above sea level). This the country's newest national park. a great area for walking. The most notable path, of course, the South Downs Way, starts on the edge of Eastbourne and ends at Winchester. (My legs ached for days after I did all 100 miles in one week.)
  • There are many famous landmarks on the Downs, including Ditchling Beacon, the Chattri Memorial (for Indian soldiers who died after hospitalisation at Brighton, during the First World War) and the Jack and Jill Windmills at Clayton.
  • Another well known spot, on the Downs, is Devils Dyke. This is a picturesque, 100 metre deep V shaped valley, geologists say is formed by water run off from the Downs. The alternative, local explanation is that the devil, was annoyed that the people of Sussex had finally embraced Christianity. so, he decided to drown them by digging a trench to the sea. However, the hermit Cuthman of Steyning (later saint) devised a cunning plan, to stop him. He agreed that if the Devil could complete the channel in one night he could have Cuthman's soul, but if he failed then he would abandon his project. The Devil began work, with his digging reating the nearby hills of Chanctonbury Ring, Cissbury Ring, Mount Caburn and Firle Beacon, not to mention, the Isle of Wight. He was doing well, but just after midnight he lit a candle, and tricked a cock into crowing, at the same time. The Devil thought that dawn was breaking, and ran away.
  • To the east of Beachy Head, lie the marshlands of the Pevensey Levels, formerly flooded by the sea, but now protected by a deposited beach.
  • The Weald is the name for the undulating clay and greensand (with some chalk) that occupies the space between the North and South Downs. It was once heavily wooded and part of it is still known as the Ashdown Forest.

Brighton - Happy and Hippy

Brighton is the epitome of the English seaside resort. This place is exactly what comes to mind when you think stereotypical trip to the sea. I live, apparently, in the happiest and hippest place in the UK. It's officially the city of Brighton and Hove. There's a common belief that the residents of arguably more up market Hove reply, 'Hove actually', when asked if they live in Brighton. So Hove is known locally, as 'Hove Actually'. Hove, to the west of Brighton has a deceptively wide promenade, lines of rainbow coloured beach huts, green lawns, the county cricket ground and a genteel air.

Brighton 's rise to prominence wasn't entirely typical, for a seaside resort. It followed the usual path of developing from a fishing village, in this case, the ancient settlement of 'Brighthelmstone' (mentioned in the Domesday Book). Brighton first began to attract more visitors as the road and transport to London improved. Sea bathing was promoted as a cure for illness (novelist William Makepeace Thackeray referred to 'Doctor Brighton'), and a boat service to France was established.

Then, the Prince Regent (later King George IV) began to visit and had the astonishing Royal Pavilion built (he converted an existing farmhouse). Thanks to his patronage, Brighton developed as a highly fashionable seaside resort. The Victorian era brought the railways and day trippers. Large hotels and two piers followed (one is now just a wreck) and Brighton became 'London by the Sea'.

In 1997, Brighton and Hove became a self-administered unitary authority; it was granted city status in 2000, whilst remaining part of the ceremonial county of East Sussex.

Easy transport links still bring throngs to Brighton. The beaches and streets are heaving at weekends and through most of the summer. It has featured in numerous films and TV series, from Quadrophenia, to Brighton Rock, to Oh What a Lovely War and Grace. It's renowned for its diverse communities (11% of the adult population identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual), shopping and eating areas (the old fishing village, known as The Lanes, and the more recently developed North Laine area are atmospheric), parks, museums and the large and vibrant cultural, music and arts scene (there's always something happening and Brighton hosts the largest annual arts festival in England.)

The stand out attraction is the Royal Pavilion, with its Indian Mogul style domed exterior, and the surprising Chinoiserie of the interior. The old stables are a very fancy concert hall, opposite the long established Theatre Royal. If it's a clear day try riding the Brighton i360 tower. It replaced a Ferris wheel on the beach, which, in my opinion, was much nicer to look at. You might just get a view of the shadowy coast of France, on the horizon. It's not the most exciting panorama I've ever seen, but the views up the coast, almost to the Seven Sisters, are nice.

I feel as if I'm writing the official Visit Brighton guide here. It's a great city. but it also does have a depressing side - poverty, homelessness, beggars and too many down market shops of the Kiss Me Quick variety, for my liking. It's debateable if they add to the ambiance.

When you've had enough of the city, head along the coast, or up onto the Downs. There's the race course, made famous by Graham Greene.

Rottingdean - Quaintly Charming

Rottingdean is a charmingly picturesque village, by the sea, on the east edge of Brighton. Unusually, this coastal hamlet developed from a farming village, rather than a fishing one. Though it did have strong smuggling connections. There's a pretty pond, surrounded by one of the several churches, illustrious houses and cottages. One of the shortest streets is quaintly known as Whipping Post Lane. Rudyard Kipling lived in one house, the Grange, (which does good outdoor teas in the summer). There's a 'pig face' stone on the wall and you are supposed to place a finger on the nose and twirl around three times, making a wish. On the other side of the gardens here (now named after Kipling), were cottages that housed his uncle, the painter Edward Burne-Jones. There's some of his stained glass in the flint walled St Margaret's Church. Though the doors are usually locked.

There's an attractive beach, where the High Street (pubs, cafes and independent shops) meets the sea, at a gap in the cliffs. You can walk to Brighton on the Undercliff, below the rising chalk, past endless rockpools (good for winkles when I was a child) or take the more demanding path over the undulations up top. On the hill above, in The Beacon Nature Reserve, another pleasing vista - the black, wooden Beacon Windmill, which dates back to 1802.

Falmer

Falmer, on the north edge of the South Downs, is mainly known for its two university campuses. The University of Sussex has some interesting 'modernistic' mid twentieth century buildings, designed by Basil Spence. It was the first of the so called plate glass universities. A few houses and a pub are marooned close by. Nestled just south of the main A27 road which now divides Falmer, is the main part of the small pretty village, with its duck pond and old church (St Laurence). Just to the west is the mini Wembley stadium - the Amex, which is home to Brighton and Hove Albion. They're known as The Seagulls, but you'll see plenty of those in the city, (guard your chips).

Stanmer Park

Stanmer Park is a large public park Immediately to the west of the University of Sussex, on the north side of the A27 is Stanmer Park. This eighteenth century park was the estate of the Grade I listed Stanmer House and Stanmer Village, with its 25 Grade II listed buildings. A mistress of King George IV lived in the house for a while. It's now a restaurant and there are a café and tea rooms, in the village. Just outside the church is a Donkey Wheel.

There's plenty else to see in the park. long walks, on the downland ridges and round the Nature Reserve. Allotments and all manner of projects artistic and otherwise, in the plots behind the village. And, a fairly recent collaboration with Plumpton College has brough another restaurant/café and One Garden Brighton, a new walled educational public garden.

Historic Hangleton

Hangleton is on the northern reaches of Hove, another historic village. Its parish church dates back to the eleventh century (with twelfth-century fabric and the medieval manor house (now a pub) is Hove's oldest secular building. At one point in the early twentieth century the population dwindled to 100. But then Hove expanded and the village is now surrounded by modern development. For a short while they ran a tourist railway, from just north of here, up the Downs, to Devils Dyke. half a mile, to the east, as the crow flies, is West Blatchington Smock Mill (1820s). It has been restored and is open to the public.

A History of East Sussex

  • For most of its history Sussex (East and West) has been just one area - a kingdom and then a county.
  • Settlement here dates back to the Stone Age. There are plentiful excavated sites and several Iron Age forts, on the Downs.
  • The Romans conquered the area and incorporated it into a Roman province. The Romans used the Weald for iron production, on an industrial scale.
  • Then, the Saxons came, in 477, giving the area its name, as they established the Kingdom of Sussex (South Saxons). In. 827, the kingdom was annexed by Wessex and became a county.
  • The area's position on the coast has also meant that there other invaders, followed, including, most famously. the Normans, who defeated the English army, at the Battle of Hastings, in 1066.
  • Later, the county of Sussex was divided into six units known as rapes. For administrative purposes, the three western rapes were grouped together informally, in the sixteenth century. They were governed by a separate county council from 1888, but it was not until 1974 that East Sussex officially became a single ceremonial county. At the same time, a large part of the eastern rape of Lewes (the Mid Sussex district which includes the towns of Haywards Heath, Burgess Hill and East Grinstead) was transferred into West Sussex.

Newhaven - for France

East of Brighton is the port of Newhaven. The town developed during the Middle Ages, when the River Ouse silted up and changed course, so that it emerged at Newhaven, instead of Seaford. (Before that the village here was called Meeching). Then came the railway and cross channel ferries to Dieppe. They're still running. This is where I made my first trip abroad. Perhaps the most famous employee on the ferries was Ho Chi Minh, (later leader of Vietnam) who worked there as a pastry chef, in the years following the First World War. There's a monument to him in the town and they're bust designing another one.

Above, the harbour, on Castle Hill, there's a Palmerston Fort, constructed in the nineteenth century, to defend the growing harbour. It was the largest defence work ever built in Sussex. Today, it is a war museum, telling the story of life in the fort, and the two World Wars.

Seaford and the Seven Sisters

Still further east, the once upon a time port of Seaford, which had been a Cinque Port limb for Hastings. But the river silted up and changed course and the town was raided too often by French pirates. Between 1350 and 1550, the French burned down the town several times. Perhaps the inhabitants deserved retribution. I've read that the people of Seaford were known as "cormorants" or "shags" because of their passion for looting ships, wrecked in the bay. Local legend has it that Seaford residents would evn encourage a wreck, by placing fake harbour lights on the cliffs.

The arrival of the railway connecting the town to Lewes and London turned Seaford into a small seaside resort town, It's still worth a wander. There are intriguing shops, a couple of nice pubs and easy parking along the promenade. Walk east from here, and up onto the cliffs, for some of the best views in the country. First, the baby chalk stack sitting below Seaford Head and then, the best spot to see the fabled Seven Sisters Cliffs, across the mouth of the River Cuckmere.

Eastbourne - Somewhere More Beachy

Just beyond the Seven Sisters is Beachy Head, the highest chalk cliff in England, where the South Downs meet the sea. It's a dramatic scene, and an iconic visitor location and numerous films and TV programmes have been shot here: Quadrophenia, Brighton Rock, an episode of The Grand Tour (commemorating 50 years of the E Type Jaguar). It's also the third favourite suicide location in the country.

Next, seen best from Beachy Head, is another resort town, Eastbourne. Now we are 19 miles east of Brighton. And, unlike Beachy Head, there are accessible beaches, albeit mainly shingle. This is a relatively recent town, developed for Victorian tourists, by the Duke of Devonshire. Famous people who holidayed here include Lewis Carroll, who came 19 times. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (perhaps oddly) also often stayed in the area. Engels' ashes were scattered in the sea off Beachy Head, at his request.

This is a typical seaside resort, more peaceful than Brighton, with a pier, shopping mall, manicured lawns, conference centres and large hotels. Unsurprisingly, there's a lot of Victorian architecture. There were originally eight Martello Towers here, (of the 74 built to defend Kent and Sussex) but just two remain. One is disused and the other has been restored, and is known as The Wish Tower. And you can get an exceptionally good tea at the Grand Hotel, on the seafront (at a price). This is where Debussy finished composing La Mer. He said that it was 'a charming peaceful spot: the sea unfurls itself with an utterly British correctness'.

Heavenly Hastings

Another five miles east, the road brings us to Hastings. This historic town was one of the original Cinque Ports, but it has never really had a harbour. Attempts to build one have ended in catastrophe - usually in the form of storms. Today, Hastings is still a fishing port with the UK's largest beach-based fishing fleet. The town went into decline,, as a result of continuous French raiding. Then it became a haven for smugglers, who carved caves out of the soft cliffs.

Then it entered a renaissance, as a fashionable seaside resort. After, some time, in the twentieth century the tourist trade declined but today, visitors are returning, lured by the charm of the Old Town and the refurbishment of the sea front promenade. This continues for some miles, showcasing a wide sweep of shingle and sand beach and the pier, bypassing the newer town with its oddly turreted shops and on through neighbouring St Leonards on Sea.

However, Hastings has to be best known for the battle of 1066, against the Norman invaders. That took place on Senlac Hill, eight miles to the north west. Harold's army actually landed at Pevensey, to the east, though they probably camped near Hastings. The tourist agencies have taken advantage of this, designating the whole local area, right through to Rye, as 1066 Country. One of William's first acts was to build a castle at Hastings and when the county of Sussex was subdivided into rapes, one of the rapes was named after the town.

Storms over the ages have put paid to most of the castle, as the sandstone cliffs collapsed, into the sea, but you can still visit the remains, if you take an extremely steep path or ride the West Hill Lift. It sprawls on a lump of cliff, with the ruins of the attached church, St Mary's. In the late Georgian era, the Earl of Chichester, who owned the land above and below, had anew chapel constructed and surrounded with an imposing neoclassical crescent. It was named Pelham, after him (his surname.) The chapel has recently been commissioned as an arts centre, school and music venue. There's an East Hill Lift too, at the back of the Fishermen's Quarter. That one takes you to the top of the cliffs and a view right across the Old Town.

But my favourite pastimes here are wandering round the veritable village of fisherman's huts.(Much more authentic than Whitstable and most of them with fresh fish counters - anyone for jellied eels?) Walking along the promenade (there's a very fresh breeze and more fish and chip shops than you can shake a stick at) and browsing the traditional style shops tucked into the delightful mixed architecture of the Old Town. Then, stopping for some refreshment there, in one of the many quaint taverns.

Bygone Battle

A few miles inland from Hastings is Battle Abbey, built on the site of the original 1066 battle. The Pope ordered William to do penance for killing so many people, when he conquered the country, so he commissioned a monastery to be built on the site of the battle, with its altar on the spot where Harold was slain. He died before it was completed and today most of it is ruined. But English Heritage have dressed it up nicely, with impressive stone entrances and walls and all singing and all dancing exhibits telling the story of the battle.

It's all set within a very pretty village. Strange to think of the battle carnage and the tranquillity of this place juxtaposed.

Rye, the Jewel of East Sussex

Rye is a jewel of a town. It's beyond picturesque, with its quaint houses and cobbled streets. It stands, above the sea, at the point where the sandstone high land of the Weald reaches the coast. In medieval times, its large bay, provided perfect port conditions. Rye was one of the most important additions to the original Cinque Ports. Longshore drift, facilitated by storms, brought the course of the River Rother from New Romney to Rye. But it has been a constant battle to keep the river and harbour from silting up. Farmers reclaiming land have done so at the expense of the sea farers. Once, surrounded by the sea, Rye is now some three miles inland, but it still has a port with fair sized wharves. The walls were built after a too successful French raid.

Rye was a trifle schizophrenic, in that it provided ships for the crown, for many years. But later, it was a notorious smuggling centre, the base for the fearsome Hawkhurst Gang, who used its ancient inns, The Mermaid and The Olde Bell. They are said to be connected to each other by a secret passageway. The smuggling of wool (with Romney Marshes close by) was known as owling.

It's a wonderful place to explore with picture perfect lanes, (pubs, tea shops and restaurants). The Citadel, on the highest part, holds the key historic buildings, including St Mary's parish church, the Ypres Tower (part of the Town Wall), Lamb House (a Georgian house, today belonging to the National Trust, home to several notables including Henry James, and E. F. Benson).

Camber Sands

Just outside Rye, and on the border with Kent, is Camber Sands. It should be called clamber. It's hard work toiling over the rolling dunes. But there is a giant stretch of golden beach. There is sand in East Sussex, after all. There's also a huge car park, with a café by the entrance. It hit the headlines last year, when the council imposed a flat rate parking fee of £30. The car park's now being revamped (I'm hoping that means I don't have to pay) and the café has gone bust.

East Sussex Inland

The interior of the county is mostly rural.

Lewes, The County Town

Lewes is the county town of East Sussex, set strategically on a narrow gap in the Downs, carved by on the River Ouse. William Morris wrote:

'You can see Lewes lying like a box of toys under a great amphitheatre of chalk hills … on the whole it is set down better than any town I have seen in England'.

It's well worth a visit, for its many historic buildings and its good shopping, most notably along Cliffe High Street (Cliffe was once a separate village). The town's main landmarks are Lewes Castle, Lewes Priory and its park, Bull House (the former home of Thomas Paine), Southover Grange and public gardens, and a sixteenth-century timber-framed Wealden hall house known as Anne of Cleves House (it belonged to her, but she never lived there).

The castle was built by William de Warenne, who had been made Earl of Surrey and awarded the rape of Lewes, by William the Conqueror. It was constructed on top of Alfred the Great's original fortifications, intended to repel the Danish invasions. (Lewes goes back some way, probably to the sixth century AD.))

Lewes is known for the Battle of Lewes, in 1264, when Simon de Montfort ambushed King Henry III. De Montfort and the barons won and the defeat is seen as an important milestone in establishing democracy. It ensured that the king took heed of the barons advice, instead of ignoring Magna Carta, as signed by his father, King John. But Lewes is perhaps more famous for its annual Guy Fawkes celebrations, when the various Bonfire Societies in the town, roll barrels of fiery pitch down the High Street, carry flaming crosses commemorating the memory of the seventeen Protestant martyrs burnt at the stake for their faith, during the reign of Bloody Mary) and hoist effigies of whichever politicians are in the firing line that year.

Glynde, the Home of Opera

Two miles away from Lewes is Glynde village a sprinkling of houses of various architectural styles, an unusual Palladian church built of flint and an Elizabethan Manor (much expanded and remodelled), Glynde Place.

Two miles north of Glynde, is Glyndebourne. Here. there's another Tudor manor house and, attached to that, the famous Opera House, which has been hosting up market opera (champagne, hamper picnics), since 1934. A brand new theatre was opened in 1994. The house is owned by the Christie family - according to Wikipedia their wealth has not been satisfactorily explained.

Amazing Alfriston

Alfriston is another Sussex gem, a historic village four miles up the River Cuckmere, from Seaford. The best place to admire the buildings is is Market Square with its fifteenth-century market cross. From here, you can look out on pubs, tea rooms and old fashioned apothecary style sweet shops and groceries. The village four pubs are all close by. The Star Inn was originally a religious hostel (built in 1345), used to accommodate monks and pilgrims travelling from Battle Abbey to the shrine of St Richard, patron saint of Sussex, at Chichester Cathedral. It became an inn in the sixteenth century. The carved red lion on its fascia signifies its smuggling connections. More recently, it's become famous again, as Hotel Inspector Alex Polizzi bought it. I can only assume it's an ongoing project. The service and food definitely needed more work, when we visited.

There's also, the Smugglers' Inn (the name is a bit of a giveaway, but also evidence of neolithic habitation in the grounds), the George Inn and the Six Bells. Not to mention the seventeenth century Deans Place Hotel, a little further down the High Street.

Take one of the narrow streets on the east side of the village, towards the River Cuckmere to find the village green, known as The Tye. In the centre of the Tye is St. Andrew's Church. Because of is size and unusual structure - it is built in the shape of a cross with equal length sides, it's referred to as the Cathedral of the South Downs. Labour politician Denis Healey is buried in the beflowered graveyard. He owned a local farm. The fourteenth-century thatched Alfriston Clergy House, close by, was the very first property bought by the National Trust, in 1896.

Long Man of Wilmington

Follow a downland path over the river and east, out of Alfriston to see the figure carved in the chalk on Windover Hill - he's known as The Long Man of Wilmington and is 72 metres tall. Sadly he's not as old as people once thought. Maybe four or five hundred years. Take a detour through the cornfields, to Lullington Church (of the Good Shepherd). It's claimed to be the smallest in the country, but that's a slight cheat, as its actually built from the chancel of the original twelfth century church. There's also the Litlington carved chalk horse, lower down the Cuckmere Valley.

Herstmonceux Castle

Herstmonceux Castle was the home of the Royal Observatory, Greenwich. It is now home to a Canadian University study centre. You can admire the castle and moat from a distance, wander the formal gardens and visit the Observatory Science Centre in the grounds. It has three green domes, still houses the old telescopes and there are are various machines and gadgets to experiment with. It's very hands on.

Bodiam Castle - The Most Stylish of Homes

When you think medieval castle, Bodiam, near Robertsbridge is exactly what you envisage. It's picture perfect, with its moat and turrets. Although it's what we might think of, it's not really a typical, fit for purpose, castle. It has no motte or keep - just the water, which could easily be drained. It was built, in 1385, by Sir Edward Dalyngrigge, a former knight of Edward III. He said it was to help with defence against the French, but its architecture would suggest its purpose to have been more about ostentation and status. There was a drawbridge, but it's now at the bottom of the moat and visitors take to a narrow footbridge instead.

Whatever, it's a lovely place to have a picnic, admire a panorama which could feature in legends and take in whatever medieval activities the National Trust have laid on, alongside. There are usually some archery butts by the café.

Ashdown Forest and the Pooh Trail

Ashdown Forest began life as an enclosed Norman hunting forest. Today, it's more heathland than forest, with high, open vistas and scatterings of trees. It's famous as the inspiration for Pooh Bear. This was the Hundred Acre Wood, where A.A. Milne took his son, Christopher Robin, walking. You can follow Pooh trails on Pooh maps. And play Pooh sticks at the bridge. You'll be able to find plenty of abandoned sticks marked with coloured tape, floating in the water beneath. The bridge had to be totally renovated, due to its popularity. Disney agreed to fund it.

West Sussex

I've spent more of my life (so far) in West Sussex than anywhere else, so I have quite a lot to say. There's a great deal to see in this beautiful part of the country.

West Sussex - Facts and Factoids

  • West Sussex is the third county, moving west along the south east coast, from Kent.
  • Most of the coastal towns in West Sussex developed as holiday resorts, as the sea here is in a direct line, south from London. (Here we need to sing, the rousing 'Sussex by the Sea' an unofficial county anthem, written in 1907 by William Ward-Higgs.)
  • Worthing is the biggest coastal settlement, but the largest town is Crawley, on the northern border. (Crawley dates back to the Stone Age and, as a village, was a coach stop on the London-Brighton road,. However, it is, for the most part, a new town, developed to home relocated Londoners and later, to service Gatwick Airport. It's known locally as Creepy Crawley.)
  • The county town is the much smaller city of Chichester.
  • The South Downs, Britain's newest national park, are a defining feature of the county. They traverse it from east to west, dividing the north and south. The Downs are a chalk escarpment, which falls away sharply into the Weald, to the north and more gently toward the south. They are great for walking. The most notable path, of course, is the South Downs Way, starting on the edge of Eastbourne and ending at Winchester. (My legs ached for days after I did all 100 miles in one week.)
  • The Weald is the name for the undulating clay and greensand (with some chalk), which occupies the space between the North and South Downs. It was once heavily wooded.

The Coastal Strip

The narrow strip of flat land between the hills and the coast, in West Sussex, is utilised to the full. The conurbation stretches from the port of Littlehampton, through Worthing, and all the way past Brighton and Hove. It has a total population of almost half a million.

Shoreham by Sea

Shoreham by Sea gets the first mention. It's the first West Sussex town (just about, if you don't count Southwick and Fishersgate) on the urban strip, coming from the east. And it's where I lived from the age of six, and went to school. Old Shoreham dates back to pre Roman times. New Shoreham started life just after the Norman conquest, as a fishing port at the mouth of the River Adur (so it's not that new). It was thriving, with all manner of chandlery and carpentry. It also dealt with cargo from ports upstream at Bramber and Steyning, when the river was tidal and navigable.

The river has changed direction over the years, moving further east, due to shingle movement. In 1816, a new channel was cut through the shingle. The original course of the river became the Southwick Ship Canal, a mainstay of Shoreham Harbour. accessible through lock gates.

Today, there are pretty moorings, boast bobbing (or marooned sadly on the mud, at low tide) as the river runs alongside the town main street. There are beaches beyond the river (the start of a famous kite surfing area), houseboats which make for an edifying riverside walk and a small beach inside the harbour itself. (This is where we used to escape after school.)The town has winding, narrow streets, lined with fishermen's cottages, an old museum, the Marlipins, various pubs and eateries (Shoreham is up and coming), Ropetackle Arts Centre, and a Norman church, (which used to be twice the size), St Mary de Haura.

On the outskirts, is the airport. This is the UK's oldest licensed airport, still in operation. It has an art deco terminal, which is much admired and has featured in several films, most notably Poirot and The Crown. The airport, for some reason, has recently been renamed Brighton City Airport. It's mostly used by light aircraft and private small planes. Magnificent views up the coast and over the Downs, if you can cadge a lift in one - which I was lucky enough to do.

Sompting and its Saxon Church

Sompting is mainly famous for the Saxon Church of St Mary the Blessed Virgin. It's the only church tower in England topped with a Rhenish helm - a four-sided gabled pyramidal cap. It was adapted by the Normans and William de Braose, first Lord of Bramber granted it to the Knights Templar in the twelfth century. This Grade I-listed building sits apart from the village, long separated by the A27 main road and its queues of traffic.

Sompting is also important, as I lived there. in an early Stuart thatched cottage, in the area known as Cokeham.

Worthing and the Best Pier in the Country

Worthing began life as a small mackerel fishing hamlet. It developed into 'an elegant Georgian seaside resort' attracted the well- heeled, in the late eighteenth century. There are still plenty of boats pulled up onto the shingle beaches. Its Art Deco pier was dubbed the best in Britain, in 2019. I'm unclear why, other than for its art deco. It's quite short and doesn't have much in the way of amusements. Though there's a very good fish and chip café at the end - The Perch.

Today, Worthing has a large service industry, particularly in finance -it's the home of banks, insurance and tax centres. It has three theatres, a museum and, almost opposite the pier, one of Britain's oldest cinemas, the Dome ( the setting for the film Wish You were Here). There are plaques celebrating numerous celebrities, especially writers, who have made Worthing their home for various lengths of time: Oscar Wilde, Harold Pinter, Jane Austen and Percy Bysse Shelley. Jane Austen stayed for six weeks and is thought to have based the setting and characters for her unfinished novel Sanditon on her experiences of the town. Shelley's family built eighteenth century mansion, Castle Goring, on the Downs, just outside Worthing. Oddly, and uniquely, it has a dual façade, Greco-Roman on the south side and Castellated Gothic on the north.

When I was a child, Worthing was surrounded by market gardens and Worthing tomatoes were stocked in every greengrocer's shop. Today, the gardens are gone and we buy our tomatoes from the glasshouses of the Netherlands and Morocco. (They don't taste nearly as good.)

On the Downs, above Worthing, the Iron Age hill fort of Cissbury Ring is one of Britain's largest. There are great views along the coastal plain, from its ramparts.

Littlehampton, Arundel's Port

Littlehampton is the westernmost settlement of the Brighton/Worthing conurbation. Its name, subject to jokes, is said to have been given to distinguish the port from the larger Southampton. The area appears in the Domesday Book, as the hamlet of 'Hantone'. The fishing community here grew into a harbour, at the mouth of the River Arun, as the river silted up, preventing easy access to Arundel, up river. But it was still known as Arundel Port.

In the eighteenth century, a familiar story with coastal towns, as Littlehampton developed from a fishing community to a holiday destination, boasting Lord Byron, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Constable as visitors. A railway line with a terminus here, was built and there was even a regular ferry to Honfleur, in France. Apparently, it was even known as 'The Children's Paradise' in the 1920s.

Today, the West Beach in Littlehampton is one of the only places on the conurbation that can claim a sandy beach. (There's sand in other areas when the tide goes out.) To compensate, the East Beach lays claim to most of the amusements in town and a very good sea food café, in a weird architect designed seascape building.

A History of West Sussex

  • For most of its history Sussex (East and West) has been just one area - a kingdom and then a county.
  • Settlement here dates back to the Stone Age. There are Iron Age forts, on the Downs at Cissbury Ring and Chanctonbury Ring
  • The Romans conquered the area and incorporated it into a Roman province, leaving behind Fishbourne Roman Palace and Bignor Roman Villa, together with a network of roads including Stane Street. The Romans used the Weald for iron production, on an industrial scale
  • Then, the Saxons came, in 477, giving the area its name, as they established the Kingdom of Sussex (South Saxons). In. 827, the kingdom was annexed by Wessex and became a county.
  • Later, the county of Sussex was divided into six units known as rapes. For administrative purposes, the three western rapes were grouped together informally, in the sixteenth century. They were governed by a separate county council from 1888, but it was not until 1974 that West Sussex officially became a single ceremonial county. At the same time, a large part of the eastern rape of Lewes (the Mid Sussex district which includes the towns of Haywards Heath, Burgess Hill and East Grinstead) was transferred into West Sussex.

Bosham and King Canute

The coastal strip widens to the west, where a ria - a drowned river valley, gives rise to three pretty natural harbours: Chichester, Langstone and Portsmouth. Bosham is a charming village, on Chichester harbour ,with its own small port, During spring tides, the sea sweeps onto the coastal roads. You have to be very careful where you park.

Bosham has a long history and, accordingly, many attached legends. The site has been inhabited since Roman times - it is is close to the famous Roman palace at Fishbourne. This is one of the many places suggested as the site where Danish King Canute demonstrated that he could not hold the sea back. There's an even stronger suggestion that his daughter was buried in the church here, after drowning in a nearby brook.

There is a child's coffin. in the graveyard, which supports the notion and another containing a richly dressed man. Some hypothesize that this is the resting place of Harold Godwinson. The land here belonged to Edward the Confessor and his family and he, met with Edward here, on the way to meet William of Normandy. They discussed who would succeed Edward to the throne. The meeting, at Bosham is mentioned on the Bayeux Tapestry. The Bishopric doesn't think the evidence is strong enough to exhume the body and check, however.

Finally, there is another legend that Bosham Church was plundered by Danish pirates, who stole the tenor bell. As the pirate ship sailed away, the villagers rang the remaining church bells. The tenor bell miraculously joined in, destroying the ship. The bell is still said to ring, beneath the waters whenever the other bells are rung.

West Sussex Inland

The interior of the county is mostly rural.

Bramber

The old port of Bramber is set by the River Adur, on the northern edge of the South Downs. The main point of interest is the Norman castle, though there is very little of it left behind (except for the attached chapel which is now the local church). This was the administrative hub of the newly created Rape of Bramber, ruled over by William de Braose, the first Lord of Bramber.

The castle later passed to the Mowbrays, who had more luxurious places to live and the building eventually began to disintegrate. In my younger days, I used to fantasise that it had been blown up in battle, perhaps by Cromwell. But nothing so dramatic. Locals stole the stones, over the years, for various building projects, including the bridge over the River Adur. This divides Bramber from the village of Upper Beeding. (I had a flint Georgian cottage there for some years.)

The ruined tower of Bramber Castle, West Sussex

The other notable building, in Bramber, is St Mary's House, a late medieval timber-framed house, with gorgeous gardens and some amazing topiary figures. They regularly hold recitals in the music room.

Arundel, The Home of the Dukes of Norfolk

There's considerably more left of Arundel Castle, in Arundel, on the River Adur. This much restored building (you pay for tours here, of course), has been the home of the Earls of Arundel and the Dukes of Norfolk, since the Norman Conquest. It's visible from some distance, as are the spires of the Roman Catholic Cathedral, although that only dates back to the nineteenth century. Arundel is a rewarding town to visit, listed buildings aplenty, narrow streets, half timbered and herringbone brick houses, antique shops and tea rooms.

When you're bored with all of that, there are river walks (and boat rides). Swanbourne Boating Lake is set in Arundel Park. Opposite is the Wetland Wild Fowl Reserve - you can have a quacking good time admiring all the birds on the ponds. There's even more good rambling to be had in the park, with the picturesque Hiorne Tower to admire and views across the Duke's own cricket pitch.

People born in Arundel are known locally as Mullets, due to the presence of the fish. in the river.

Chichester, the County Town of West Sussex

West Sussex has some lovely towns and villages, but the city of Chichester, the county town, is arguably the most interesting and beautiful. Chichester was founded by the Romans as Noviomagus Reginorum, connected to Londinium by the Roman road of Stane Street. Today's city still sits on the original Roman plan, with much of the city walls remaining (they were topped up in the Middle Ages) and North, South, East and West shopping streets radiating from the central ornate Market Cross. That dates from medieval times, when Chichester was a bustling market town (Alfred the Great was responsible for much of the development) . They still hold the markets here in these streets - blue and white canopies, sheltering all manner of tempting fresh food.

Just a few yards from the Market Cross, is the seat of the Church of England Diocese of Chichester, the twelfth-century cathedral. Inside are (unusually) double aisles, a modern altar cloth and a gorgeous blue Chagall stained window. Outside, you can view 'the most typical cathedral in the country', imposing flying buttresses, cloisters and a green copper roof, with a spire, which is the third tallest in England. It is the only medieval cathedral spire which is visible from the sea. It's not entirely typical - there is a separate campanile (bell tower.) Waving his finger - I'm not sure whether he's admonishing or waving - is St Richard, the patron saint of Chichester. He was a Bishop of Chichester, given a hard time by Henry III, who had opposed his selection, but was overruled by the Pope.

Wandering farther, is the deanery - an enviable Georgian residence (the previous one came to a bad end during the Civil War) and the Bishops Palace and formal gardens. It's a good place to sit and relax. There's not much left of the Norman castle- just a motte in the Priory Park, That's another nice place to rest. The only other building of note is the misleadingly named Guildhall. It's actually the thirteenth century chancel of the Grey Friars of Chichester building.

There are 85 protected Conservation Areas within Chichester District, although these cover the whole of the region. Medieval is always fascinating, but Chichester also has a plethora of Queen Anne and early Georgian buildings, around the main streets and lining the many narrow lanes. Most of the buildings are pristine and some renovated to the extent that their rosy brickwork looks like the buildings you see adorning toy train layouts. Pallant is the most well known area, with the stand out being the Queen Anne Pallant House and the attached, modern (in both senses of the word) art gallery. To the north, leading to Priory Park is Little London.

Tangmere Aviation Museum

Tangmere Aviation Museum, close to Chichester (on the site of RAF Tangmere), has been there since 1982, but I've successfully managed to avoid visiting, until recently. I don't enjoy anything to do with war and fighting. I have to concede that there is some interest in the array of aircraft parked around and inside two hangars. The exhibits cover the First World War to the Cold War and include fixed-wing aeroplanes (a Spitfire, of course), helicopters and aircraft engines. There are simulators, though you have to queue, a control room and map display and histories of the famous pilots, who flew from here, like Douglas Bader (made famous in the book and film Reach for the Sky.) There's also the Hawker Hunter, used by Neville Duke, to break the airspeed record in 1953.

Fishbourne Roman Palace

Fishbourne Roman remains are the largest Roman residence discovered north of the Alps, so it was decided it must be a palace. (It actually has a larger footprint than Buckingham Palace.) It also has an unusually early date -75 AD - around thirty years after the Roman conquest of Britain. Excavation is an ongoing project, as remains are unearthed from under roads and other buildings in Fishbourne village (on the outskirts of Chichester). As a result, it's now thought that the area has been inhabited since 4-5,000 BC. The palace burnt down, in around 270 AD, after which it was abandoned.

There are reconstructed paintings, columns and gardens, but the main attraction is the mosaics - the most famous is of Cupid riding a dolphin. There's a museum, video explanations and a well stocked shop, full of 'Roman artifacts', like soldier's helmets.

Weald and Downland Living Museum

The Weald and Downland Living Museum at Singleton, was known as the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum last time I went to visit it. It's always been a favourite with its displays of 50 or so rescued vernacular buildings (threatened with destruction). There are often displays such as ploughing with horses, a blacksmith at his forge, a charcoal burners camp or 'villagers' tending their fires. I've long nurtured a soft spot for the Bayleaf timber framed farmhouse. And watch out for the ducks. One stole my sandwich from my hand.

Ouse Valley Viaduct

Moving further inland, the Ouse Valley Viaduct (known locally as the Balcombe Viaduct) is worth a stop for a photograph. It's described as 'probably the most elegant viaduct in Britain'. I'm not sure if that's' a compliment or not. But it's definitely impressive. it dates back to 1839, has been repaired countless times, which has been problematic to say the least, and carries the London-Brighton Railway Line, over the River Ouse in Sussex.

Leonardslee Gardens

West Sussex is replete with gardens, especially on the Weald, where acid soils are ideal for rhododendrons, azaleas, camellias, magnolias and bluebells. Leonardslee Gardens (Grade I listed) at Lower Beeding, are especially famous for these, along with its colony of wallabies. There's also a nineteenth-century Italianate style house and lodge.

Nymans Gardens

Nymans, to the east of the village of Handcross, is a Grade 2 National Trust garden. The collections of camellias, rhododendrons, heather, eucryphias and magnolias again suit the Wealden soil and there are woodlands with plants from around the world. The gardens were battered and more than decimated by the Great Storm of 1987 and the house has had an even more traumatic history. Messel, who bought the property in 1890, altered the original Regency house, transforming it into a German-style structure. His son, in his turn, replaced the German-style wood-beam house with a mock-medieval stone manor. In 1947, the house was destroyed in a fire. The house was partially rebuilt, but some remains as a garden ruin.

Wakehurst Place

Wakehurst is another Grade 2 Listed National Trust garden, near Ardingly, but this one is leased and managed by the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. It's home to a late sixteenth-century mansion, as well as walled and water gardens, woodland and wetland conservation areas.

In December, it hosts the enchanting 'Glow' with beautifully crafted illuminations strung though themed areas of the gardens.

Woods Mill

South of Henfield is Wood Mill, the headquarters of the Sussex Wildlife Trust. There's a a large area of ancient woodland. However, the. highlight of the nature reserve is a lake, home to variety of insects: damselflies and dragonflies, (such as the scarce chaser and downy emerald), pond skaters and water boatmen.. I've taken several classes of happy children pond dipping here.

The Bluebell Railway

The Bluebell Railway is an 11 mile heritage steam railway, which runs from East Grinstead to Sheffield Park, with intermediate stations at Horsted Keynes and Kingscote. The railway is mainly run by volunteers and a legend amongst railway enthusiasts. It boasts that it is the first preserved standard gauge steam-operated passenger railway in the world to operate a public service. The first train ran on 7 August 1960, (less than three years after the line from East Grinstead to Lewes had been closed by British Railways under the Beeching reforms).

The company has managed to acquire today, over 30 steam locomotives, the second largest collection in the UK, after the National Railway Museum. The Bluebell also has almost 150 carriages and wagons, most of them pre-1939. So it's an authentic experience that I'm getting, as we chug along. Though it's raining hard, the windows are steamed up and there are definitely no bluebells to be seen.

We decant at Sheffield Park (location of another National Trust garden, this one designed by Capability Brown), just over the border, in East Sussex. This is the headquarters of the company and home to the locomotive sheds and a restored station. There's also a shop, model railway, museum and the Bessemer Arms pub (named after Miss Bessemer who fought British Rail over the closure of the line claiming it to be illegal, and whose victory spurred the movement to save the line). It's a Geek's paradise.

Catatonic in Kent

This week, I’m house sitting in north-east Kent. It’s a very long time since I was down (or up) this way. And it’s the first time I’ve done house sitting. I’m looking after two cats – Sooty and Pushkin. I’m hoping it’s not going to be a catastrophe. Or a catalogue of disasters for that matter. That would be cataclysmic. I could go on, but I should stop before you start caterwauling.

Sooty is 17, so he’s getting on and little grumpy. He doesn’t like to be stroked over much, maybe it’s because he has a bad back. But he enjoys his neck being ruffled and he snuggles up to me on the settee. Every so often he eyes up my lap, but then decides it doesn’t meet the required standards. Tabby Pushkin is younger and declaims Russian poetry from his favourite perch, which is the top of an elaborate cat tower, with assorted bells and whistles. Well, half of that is true.

The house is modern and superbly well equipped. It has all the bells and whistles too. There’s even a gym upstairs. I may or may not use it. But  I arrive in a deluge of rain, surfing narrow lanes, after I’ve navigated the M25 and the M20. The Garden of England, as Kent is known, isn’t at its best. There’s some blossom already but it’s too wet to be enjoyable. The cats and I peer forlornly out at the surrounding countryside. It’s what they like to call undulating. Flattish, with small hills. They have a flap in the wall, but they’re not deigning to use it.

Kent is exciting because it’s the closest county to continental Europe. It opens up endless possibilities. I can see the giant black circles that are the entrance to the channel tunnel, as I edge past Folkestone. And a little further on, signposts to the ferry terminals at Dover and Folkestone. If it were a fine day I would actually be able to see France from Folkestone, or the top of the White Cliffs of Dover. It’s only 22 miles away.

Kent - Facts and Factoids

  • I had forgotten how surprisingly wide Kent is. The M20 seems to take forever - endless grey tarmac. This  is the fifth most populous county in England, the most populous non-metropolitan county and the most populous of the Home Counties
  • Twenty-eight per cent of the county is designated as two  Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (the North Downs, which run east-west across the north of the county and The High Weald, beneath them) and it’s  an easy commute to the capital. That makes it high income country. Agriculture is still important here and the many hop farms and orchards have earned Kent the nickname  "The Garden of England". There was also significant coal mining in the relatively recent past.
  • The county town of Kent is Maidstone, (not the city of Canterbury as many assume), as that’s where all the county’s administrative buildings are located. And at 100,000, it has double the population of the city. Ashford is also larger. Sittingbourne, is almost the same size and Royal Tunbridge Wells (don’t forget the Royal) is slightly smaller than Canterbury.
  • The ceremonial county of Kent includes the Medway area (based around the river of that name) incorporating the ports of Chatham and Gillingham, the town of Rainham and the cathedral city of Rochester. But for administrative purposes this is a unitary authority, with Chatham its principal town.

Sandwich, The Best Harbour in the Country

The cats and I are the outskirts of the town of Sandwich (plenty of room for edible jokes there and they proliferate in the town), in a new estate. Though the heart of Sandwich, of course, is medieval. Sandwich bills itself as one of the best preserved medieval towns in the UK and dates back to the twelfth century.

Sandwich is one of the historic Cinque Ports. In fact, it once proclaimed itself as the best harbour in the country. It reminds me very much of that other Cinque Port, Rye. Both are now some way from the coast, but still inland ports (Sandwich is now two miles from the sea.) They both have a population of just under 5,000 and churches with towers that offer views across the town and countryside.  Rye is perhaps more spectacularly located, view wise, is more colourful and has more diversity. And cobbles. So it feels really quaint and medieval.

Sandwich has numerous architectural styles, and a very refined colour palette, almost entirely cream, grey and white. It’s much more appealing when the sun comes out. The narrow streets (Short Street, delightfully, No Name Street) wind down to the River Stour and a bridge and quay. There are punts and pleasure boats for  more suitable weather.

Georgian, Regency, Victorian, medieval, with a  sprinkling of Dutch gables, introduced by the weavers who settled here. The  main attraction is a large assortment of notable half timbered buildings, many jettied and some with amazingly detailed herringbone infill. One, dated 1400, is called Kings Lodge, as both Henry VIII and Elizbeth I stayed here. There are even earlier, thirteenth century buildings - chapels and a gaol (that’s now a sweet whitewashed house). Two gates and a length of stonework – The Bulwarks, are remnants of the old town walls. Richard II demanded that these be built, as the town was invaded so often. The Fishergate is the oldest, on the quayside, now surrounded by more youthful neighbours.

The Barbican Gate stands alone at the end of the narrow Toll Bridge, the only crossing from Sandwich to Thanet for many years. There’s a signboard listing the tolls inside the arch. Tolls were initiated in the time of King Canute (it was a ferry then) and payable until 1977. The queues of traffic must have been appalling.

The Guildhall is splendid, with its stained glass windows and fronts onto the square, which used to house the cattle market and is now home to festivals and farmers stalls. The mayors were elected at Saxon St Clements Church. You got your house demolished if you refused the honour. More churches (there are two Church Streets) and alms-houses. The many shops are inviting, of the genteel, 1950s, independent style – butchers, bakers, homewares, stationery, farm shops and tea rooms.

When you get to the coast, at Sandwich Bay, not one, but two, world-class golf courses, Royal St George's and Prince's.

But Sandwich, today, is most well known for the foodstuff it gave to the world, when the fourth Earl of Sandwich, famously called for a slice of meat between two pieces of bread. The placename 'Sandwich' actually means "market town on sandy soil". So that’s what you’re eating. (And Ham is just up the road.)

History of Kent

  • Being close to the European mainland isn’t always an advantage. Kent was one of the first British territories to be settled by Germanic tribes, most notably the Jutes, after the Romans left and has often been the first port of call for invaders, since then.
  • This accounts for the 26 castles dotted throughout the countryside, mainly to the south. Sea defences here were crucial and there are Martello Towers on the sea walls and old forts, out there on the water.
  • England has relied on the county's ports to provide warships through much of its history; most notably the Cinque Ports in the 10th–14th centuries and Chatham Dockyard in the 16th–20th centuries were of particular importance.
  • It suffered especially during the Battle of Britain in World War II and there's a memorial at Folkestone.
  • Kent also lays claim to the oldest cathedral in England (Canterbury) and the second oldest, at Rochester. (Even cathedral begins with cat.)

Pegwell Bay - Where Caesar Landed

To the east of Sandwich, nearly two miles away, now the Kent coastline has moved, is Pegwell and Sandwich Bay. It’s a marshy reserve and park, a paradise for seabirds, at the mouth of the River Stour. It’s thought that this is where Julius Caesar landed (twice), when he attempted the first Roman invasion of Britain. A fort was excavated a few years ago. Nearby, Ebbsfleet is the site of the landing of the first Christian mission to southern England, by St Augustine, in 597 AD. It's commemorated by St Augustine's Cross.

And a hovercraft service operated from the north of the bay, to Calais, 1969 until 1982. The terminal buildings are still there.

Tails from Kent

When I get back to my house-sit, mid afternoon, the cats both come to greet me, looking expectant. It’s not feeding time yet, I think. There’s plenty of dry food in their bowls still. So I sit and eat my late lunch, cold chicken and salad. They hover. I go to the bathroom. When I return. Sooty is on the table, admiring  my meat.

And then we get into our evening routine. Pushkin comes to be stroked and purrs ecstatically, but still keeps a wary distance. Sooty, however, indicates that I am to sit on the settee and he curls up next to me. If I dare to get up he comes to fetch me back, chirruping away. I suppose he’s cat-calling.

The Cinque Ports

  • The Cinque Ports date back to the eleventh century. Five (cinque pronounced sink) of the busiest harbours in the country, facing France, across the Channel. They were tasked with commerce and provision of sea defence, before there was an official navy. The originals were Hastings, Hythe, New Romney, Dover and Sandwich. Later, in 1190, two ‘ancient towns’, Rye and  Winchelsea, were added to the confederation, to make seven.
  • Over time, ‘limbs’ were created to support the original ports. Limbs were corporate or noncorporate.
  • Corporate limbs included Pevensey (limb of Hastings),  Seaford (limb of Hastings), Tenterden (limb of Rye), Lydd (limb of New Romney), Folkestone (limb of Dover), Faversham (limb of Dover), Fordwich (limb of Sandwich), Deal (limb of Sandwich; originally a non-corporate limb, but incorporated in 1699). Non-corporate limbs varied over time and many no longer exist.
  • The current limb list is: Tenterden (limb of Rye), Lydd (limb of New Romney), Folkestone (limb of Dover), Faversham (limb of Dover), Margate (limb of Dover), Deal (limb of Sandwich) and Ramsgate (limb of Sandwich).

The Isle of Thanet

The eastern most part of Kent was once the Isle of Thanet. It still bears that name, but it’s now a peninsula. The Wantsum Channel, which separated it from  the mainland and gave Sandwich its access to the sea gradually silted up. By Victorian times Thanet was no longer an island. But the Victorians were increasingly interested in seaside resorts and the area, with its gorgeous sand beaches thrived.  The three main tourist areas that developed were: Ramsgate and St Lawrence, Margate and Broadstairs and St Peter's. I’m headed that way, first on narrow country lanes, through villages lined with cute thatched cottages. There isn’t really room for two cars to pass comfortably. The Kent locals take the view that I shouldn’t be on their roads anyway and don’t bother to thank me for waiting, whilst they hurtle past.

To the southeast of Thanet I’m skirting, what used to be RAF Manston, and for a short  while, Kent International Airport. The signposts still point hopefully that way. At least there’s still the Spitfire Museum, to attract a spotlight.  The  interior of the island is a labyrinth of urban roads with the sole purpose of giving access to new housing estates (one  of the new development is even named after the famous aircraft) numerous retail parks and industrial megaliths, as far as I can see. In both cases it’s slow going.

Ramsgate, the Royal Harbour

Ramsgate was a  great Kent attraction in the nineteenth century. (St Lawrence is the inland farming community which twins with Ramsgate). It’s not quite that long since I’ve been here, but it has been many years, when I came to stay with friend Shauna. It doesn’t look to have changed much. The marina is still the main focus, one of the largest on the south coast, prettily backed by arched terraces. Up above, lofty Victorian and Edwardian hotels and shops, which extend along Marine Drive, above a lovely sweep of golden sand.  Fishing is still an important industry. The Port of Ramsgate is the only Royal Harbour in the country. Whatever that means. They completed it in 1850, in time for the Victorian invasion. Later, it was home to cross-channel ferries (bound for Ostend) for many years. It’s beautiful at night, when the terraces are all illuminated.

 The railways didn’t come to these parts of Kent until later in the Victorian era and initially the tourists came by boat from London. The original sailing hoys took anything up to 72 hours to reach Margate, whereas the newly developed  steamships were capable of making at least nine voyages in this time.

Today, the town shivers in a chill wind, off the North Sea. And the car park by the pier isn’t very welcoming. The pay machine won’t work. It insists I use an app which I download and try to register. It says I have already registered, so I have to reset my password, as I haven’t a clue what the original was. But it won’t send me a code, and when I try to phone the number given, the recorded voice of the very unhelpful man on the line says I have to use the app. So I remember why I gave up with this app last time. I decamp to the kerbside bays, where the machine works. At twice the price. All this, while I’m desperate for the loo. It doesn’t help rational thinking.

A stroll along the sands is invigorating in the breeze and the climb from the beach up to the heights of the Marine Drive exhausting. Perhaps the lift operates later in the season. I pass by the war tunnels (now the main tourist attraction), which dive deep into the cliff and were used as  bomb shelters. Up top, is the original toll booth they used to charge all the Victorians who wanted to promenade here in their holiday finery. There's plenty of Georgiana too, both real and mock. According to the local estate agents, Wellington Crescent is a sort after Regency parade of dwellings.

Broadstairs, The Jewel in Thanet's Crown

So, now I’m heading north along the coastal lanes of Kent, to Broadstairs, in search of free parking. I'm pleased to find this abounds here, on the esplanades, each side of town. The town lies above a harbour and is surrounded by lovely sandy coves, framed by green capped  chalk cliffs. They are (from south to north) Dumpton Gap, Louisa Bay, Viking Bay, Stone Bay, Joss Bay, Kingsgate Bay and Botany Bay. The headland of North Foreland, complete with lighthouse,  rises between Stone Bay and Joss Bay.

 Broadstairs and St Peter's (the ’historic village’ to which it is joined), has aspirations. It’s apparently  known as the "Jewel in Thanet's Crown". And its  Latin motto is Stella Maris 'Star of the Sea'). The name, Broadstairs derives from a historical flight of steps in the chalk cliff, leading  from the sands up to the eleventh-century shrine of St Mary, on the summit.

The main town beach, Viking Bay, is another stunning golden crescent, with rows of colourful  beach huts. Up above, is the Charles Dickens house. I assumed this was his holiday home, as he regularly spent his vacations here, but no, he sensibly stayed in the Albion Hotel, next door. The cottage was his inspiration for the home of Betsey Trotwood in David Copperfield. Apparently, he often had tea there,  with a Miss Mary Pearson Strong, and it was her belief in her right to stop the donkeys walking in front of her home, which fed into the character of Betsey Trotwood. The pub, the other side, is named after Dickens, of course.

The town is again, crammed with fishermen’s’ cottages, those charmingly last century, feel good independent shops and quaint cafes. And also some escape rooms, which are becoming increasingly fashionable.

Kingsgate Bay

The most lauded beaches of Kent, scenery wise, are the northerly pair, so I’m wending my way, up more ribbon thin roads, to find them.

Reposing on the cliffs above Kingsgate Bay is Kingsgate Castle, formerly part of the estate of Lord Holland. It looks very grand, with crenellations, based on a medieval castle. But Wikipedia says it was just the stable block  (1760) for Holland's inland country residence. It’s been rebuilt, over time, and is now private apartments. The world wide web doesn't have many good things to say about Holland. It claims that he embezzled 50 million pounds or more from the public purse, during the American war of Independence. That's an astonishing amount in that day and age. No wonder he could afford fancy stables.

There’s a great view of the castle from the Captain Digby pub (built in the same style as the castle), which is, surprisingly, chock full of older folk, eating lunch. Free parking and very reasonable prices. I’ve discovered that the so-called castle has the best view of the bay though. Chalk cliffs and an arch at the end. The bay is called  Kingsgate because  Charles II and his brother made an unplanned landing there in 1683 (the gate is the gap in the cliffs), to escape a storm. And  George II, also made use of ‘the gate’  in 1748.

And that's not the end of the castles around the bay. To the north, is Neptune's' Tower, a folly, built by Lord Holl, not long after Holland's castle went up. It was built to resemble the Henric forts, with four bastions and a central courtyard, but is now badly disintegrating,

Beautiful Botany Bay

From Neptune's Tower, I'm continuing north, as I’m walking to Botany Bay, which has only recently come to my attention. It's been highlighted, in the media, as one of the most photogenic beaches in England. And I’ve never been there. To be honest, I’ve only ever heard of the one in Australia. It’s a rewarding, if still chilly stroll. The snowiest of angular cliffs,  striated to the point where they look almost as if they’re built of bricks, fall away to more stretches of tempting sands. But I’m not bowled over. There are stacks, not easily discernible against the sea and so not hugely picturesque. I descend to the bottom and wonder along the beach, searching for a better vantage point, but I can’t find one. A huge windfarm on the horizon. Am I back in Brighton?

It's desolate and there are seabird colonies, in the seagrass. 'Mind the Curlews', say the boards. A few lonely gulls are surfing. I ask a solitary passer-by if I can get up to the top of the cliffs, at the next headland. 'Yes', he says, 'there are steps by the water works there'. So I struggle on, sinking into the sand. There is indeed a ladder, at the headland. It's vertical, running dizzyingly up to the railings and there’s a padlocked gate at the top of it. With a sign saying 'No Access', just to emphasis the point.

Back along the sand, where I spy a steep sandy path. A supreme effort and I’ve scrambled up. Axel from London kindly appears and hauls me up the last stretch. He’s wearing a great pair of glasses. And they match his tee shirt.

And there is, thankfully, a better glimpse of the stacks, from a gap in the vegetation up here. It’s a nice view. But Botany Bay is not making it onto my Best Beaches of the Country list.

Keep Margate Weird

Right on the north east corner of Kent is Margate. It sprawls along the coast, a hotch potch of ‘Old Town’ and the newer, decidedly  fraying seaside resort. Like Ramsgate and Broadstairs, Margate was an important medieval port and then a Victorian holiday destination. Like them, it has huge sweeps of glorious sand and several scenic bays – Margate Town, Westbrook, Mildred (with some chalk cliffs to enhance it) and Minnis (though that’s strictly Birchington.)

In the last century, Margate evolved into a Kiss Me Quick type resort, with tourist attractions like the  Dreamland Amusement Park, which, neon signs indicate, is still there today (it was closed down for awhile and reopened after petitions were presented. When the mods and rockers (later skinheads) didn’t head to Brighton, they came to Margate. But then, the town  fell out of favour (package tours abroad beckoned instead) and seems to be struggling to establish an identity. There's even a mural which declaims 'Keep Margate weird'.

The 'Old Town' doesn’t really have an old town vibe, though there is a square, in the centre of the narrow streets, with the old Town Hall (museum now attached) and a sprinkling of eateries and independent shops. I'm sampling a scone in the cute Little Fish Café. The western half of town looks down at heel, with its amusement arcades and pubs. Even the weather vane on the clock tower is wonky. The port and lovely beach hold it all together.

Efforts have been made to revive the town’s fortunes, with the installation of the Turner Contemporary Art Gallery. JMW Turner found inspiration in Margate’s skies and light and the gallery is built on the site of the boarding house, where he stayed during his visits here. The project was strongly supported by Tracey Emin, who hails (as they say) from Margate. Bizarrely, the building, on the cliff top, is decidedly contemporary and box like. Inspirational, as a stand alone, but jarring badly with the Old Town architecture, just across the promenade. Nevertheless, it’s free to enter and the exhibitions of abstract art and sculpture  inside, turn out to be thoroughly engaging. This is the highlight of my visit to Margate.

Canterbury, an Ancient Capital of Kent

When I wake up in the morning, Pushkin is on the landing, agitating for breakfast. After I’ve doled out sachets of gourmet cod and plaice to each of the felines and Pushkin has devoured both bowls, I decide to set off for the city of Canterbury. Better to be in town, in the rain, I reason. My first visit to Canterbury was a school excursion, after we had finished A levels. And  I haven’t been to Canterbury, since I was kidnapped by a headteacher 25 years ago and taken there forcibly for lunch, when I was working as a school advisor. I didn’t get a chance to look round then and  the meal wasn’t very good.

UNESCO World Heritage listed Canterbury is a very different experience to Sandwich, even in the wet. The streets are chock full of traffic and the pedestrianised areas  are bustling, with school parties and shoppers. More than a million tourists  a year  venture here.

The city has been occupied since Palaeolithic times and served as the capital of the Jute Kingdom of Kent. The High Street is a melange of architectural styles and significant historical structures. The city wall was founded by the Romans and rebuilt in the fourteenth century.

Canterbury Cathedral

Most importantly, the city has been the seat of the Archbishops of Canterbury,  the leaders of the Church of England, since the conversion of England to Christianity. That began in the sixth century with Saint Augustine. (I’ve walked to his priory too, on the edge of town, but, annoyingly,  it  is closed until April.)  As such, Canterbury Cathedral is the seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury,

I’m disappointed that the famous cathedral is partially shrouded  with scaffolding. Though I’m told that until recently there was a lot more. Originally founded in 597, the cathedral was completely rebuilt, just after William the Conqueror arrived, towards the end of the eleventh century, greatly enlarged at the beginning of the 12th century, and largely rebuilt again, in the Gothic style, following a fire, in 1174. Thomas Becket was murdered here, in 1170, at the behest of his erstwhile friend Henry I, resulting in huge numbers of pilgrims visiting his shrine. Significant eastward extensions were required to accommodate them. And the Norman nave and transepts were replaced in the late fourteenth century. I’m not sure if any of the original still exists.

Before Henry VIII’s reformation, the cathedral was part of a Benedictine monastery, known as Christ Church, (the university here is called Christchurch and the ratio of students to other residents is one of the highest in the country), hence the chapter house and cloisters. Henry also had the shrine removed -no-one knows where the body is now- to prevent it becoming a focus of dissent. You can still visit the Martyrdom Chapel, where one of the cathedral staff tells me Becket clung to a pillar, in an attempt to escape his four knightly assassins. A gruesome story we were all told in great detail, at school.

Becket was the second archbishop to be murdered here. The first was Anglo-Saxon Ælfheah, in 1012, captured by Danish raiders, pelted with ox bones (left from their feast) and then dispatched, after he refused to be ransomed, as the money he had was earmarked to feed the poor. He was later canonized.

Notwithstanding the scaffolding and the school parties and the exorbitant £17 entrance fee, the cathedral is still a worthwhile and peaceful visit. There isn’t an abundance of stained glass, but what there is, is lovely, and the vaulted ceilings really are awe inspiring.

Canterbury Tales

There's much more to Canterbury. There are museums and art galleries. And the  oldest extant school in the world, the King's School. You can’t escape Chaucer, of course, and variations of his bawdy Canterbury Tales, based on a pilgrimage to Becket’s shrine, in the cathedral, exist in a variety of forms, in and around the city.

Off, in pursuit of other major sights. I make a special excursion so see the castle - although I’ve read it’s small and mostly ruined. I follow the path atop the city walls – it’s not the most exciting of views -office blocks and more traffic. But I can’t find the fortress at all. It turns out to be  completely smothered in scaffolding and entirely unrecognisable as a castle. Some builders eating their lunch, close by, tell me authoritatively that it isn’t very exciting anyway. But that there’s a  bailey mound in the Dane John Gardens nearby. (I saw them from the city walls.) I don’t think it’s a proper bailey, as it dates back to the first century AD. There’s some sort of monument on top, commemorating the gift of the gardens to the city by an alderman. I see there’s a fountain, a playground and a bandstand.

The main street has an old gate at each end. One comes with come with a clock attached. Presumably, that’s not as old as the gate. Wandering in and around the High Street. I’ve also discovered  a ducking stool, over an arm of the River Stour, which runs through the middle of the city (by the Old Weaver’s House). And, after some searching, the  Greyfriars building, which I remembered from my school girl visit. This was the first Franciscan friary in the country and little of it survives today. It too suffered after  the Reformation. The principal remaining building spans the river picturesquely. It’s variously interpreted as a guest house or warden's lodging, but is  known today, as the Greyfriars Chapel.

From ancient to modern. There’s the Marlowe Theatre, Kent County Cricket Club's St Lawrence Ground and several shopping centres abutting the city's medieval centre. Not to mention several escape rooms. They seem to be the latest tourism essential.

Whitstable for Oysters

North Coast Whitstable isn’t at all as I remember it. It’s grown enormously over the last quarter century. Or so it seems to me. The Whitstable Oyster Company restaurant is still there, but it’s now crowded in by a new sea wall and sundry modern buildings, clad in dark wood to emulate fishermen’s huts. In fact, the whole of the quay is now covered in fishermen hut style dwellings. Either renovated original ones or modern copies. They house everything from hotels to shops to cafes and restaurants. There are a plethora of eating places. And a high street lined with quaint shops of the type I’ve come to expect from Kentish seaside resorts.

Fishing boats chug in and out of the port, and alongside the beaches, which are sand and shingle here. And there’s no promenade. Just the sea wall. I saunter past all the new edifices , to the east side of town. Up on top of Tower Hill is the Whitstable Castle and public garden. It’s sadly, a Victorian mock castle, a mansion with turrets and crenelations and views over Tankerton Beach. It was called Tankerton Tower to begin with, then Tankerton Castle. Now it’s been claimed by the town.

Whitstable developed as a port for Canterbury and as yet another Kent seaside town. It’s a useful stopping place on the main route from London to Canterbury. In 1830, the first entirely steam hauled  passenger railway was opened by the Canterbury and Whitstable Railway Company. The railway route, fondly known today as The Crab and Winkle Line, is now a cycle path between  city of Canterbury and Whitstable.

But Whitstable is most famous for its oysters. They go back almost two thousand years, to when the Romans discovered the shellfish and, regarded them so highly, they shipped them back, live, to Rome. The three companies  that developed to market them were sending as many as 80 million oysters a year to Billingsgate fish market, in the 1850s. However, in the twentieth century, pollution, disease and overfishing  kicked in and the native oyster was entirely eradicated. It’s an all too familiar story.

Pacific Oysters are now farmed on the foreshore instead and served up as ‘native’, to the eager punters at all the new eateries. They’re also, cannily, selling oyster shells. At 50 pence a pop. I’m eschewing oysters, however. They’re not my favourite . It’s scallops and moules mariniere for me.

Deal or No Deal?

I'm taking the long slow route back home to Brighton, all along the Kent coast. First stop, going south, is Deal, another limb of the Cinque Ports. Is it going to be a Big Deal I wonder? It's reminiscent of Worthing. Shingle beaches, fishing boats drawn up above the tideline. A pier. But this one is a brutalistic concrete. Narrow lanes, lined with old fishing cottages and shopping streets, with the all too familiar lines of small independent shops interspersed, with the odd chain store.

Deal never really had a harbour, but there is deep water, between the coast here, known oddly as The Downs, and the treacherous Goodwin Sands. When Sandwich silted up, Deal became, for a time, the busiest port in the country, sending boats off the beach to provision the ships at anchor. Later, it was also a mining area; there's a museum, dedicated to the industry, just up the coast.

And Deal has castles. one each side of the town, at Walmer and Sandown, and one, an impressively Tudor Rose shaped edifice right in the middle of the promenade, facing the ocean. They're connected by earthwork defences, part of Henry VIII's master plan, to protect against invasion from France and the Holy Roman Empire, Deal Castle has a keep, with six inner and outer bastions and a moat.

Departure Point Dover

Right on the corner of Kent (and England), Dover, of course, is a major Cinque Port and the key hub for ferry traffic to France. It's named after the River Dour, which flows through it and has an imposing grey castle, perched on top of the White Cliffs, famous because of the song. But there are no bluebirds. Not to miss a trick, the cliffs are now marketed as the White Cliffs Experience. It's five pounds to park your car and visit the café. Then, you can wander along the cliff top paths for some views of the ferries chugging in and out of the aforesaid port and of the cliffs, further along the coast.

Dover is classified as a Large-Port Town, which means that it has more port traffic than population. It's a good view, but you get a better one of the cliffs out at sea, as you actually leave the harbour. And I really have to squint, to convince myself I can see France, on the horizon, in the gloom.

It's a steepish climb, up to the first view point. You can go further along, to sheer drop views and a lighthouse, but it's drizzling. The café and exhibition centre at the far end are closed. And I've just discovered that I've lost my car keys. It seems prudent to return and look for them. Fortunately, some kind soul has handed them in.

Fashionable Folkestone

Now I'm heading west, along Kent's south coast. Wikipedia says that in its heyday – during the Edwardian era – Folkestone (once a fishing village) was considered the most fashionable resort of the time, and was frequented by Queen Victoria and Edward VII and other members of the English aristocracy. This legacy is evident in the architecture of the town, with elegant villas, and large hotels. But like its fellow resorts, after the two world wars, the town fell into decline. The opening of the nearby Channel Tunnel put paid to harbour trade and all the ferries leaving from Folkestone, were terminated.

But there's still a pretty little little port, with the railway that used to be the terminus for passengers coming to the ferries. preserved on the harbour arm. The cliffs here, where the North Downs meet the sea are greensand, but you can make out Dover's chalk cliffs in the distance.

Imperial Hythe

Hythe was the middle original Cinque Port, but its harbour has now completely disappeared. It's now a genteel and fading seaside resort with a long sea wall fronting a Victorian seafront promenade and a not hugely inviting shingle beach. The Imperial Hotel dominates the promenade. it brings back memories. I twice led residential training for a group of headteachers here. There was a lot of vodka involved.

There are three Martello Towers in Hythe. One is now a house, on West Parade, and the other two are on the beach. In total, 74 of these towers were built between Folkestone and Seaford. The walls were up to four metres thick, and each tower had a huge cannon mounted on the top. They were named after a tower at Mortella Point in Corsica which the Navy had captured from the French.

Luckily the French didn't come this way again (and neither did the Germans later), but the towers proved useful for keeping an eye on smugglers and were used as signalling stations and coastal defences during the two world wars.

Hythe is the northern terminus of the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway, running third-scale steam and diesel locomotives. The track runs parallel to the coast through Dymchurch and New Romney to the Dungeness peninsula and I'm going to follow its track.

New Romney and the Rother

Yet another of the old Cinque Ports, New Romney's harbour, at the mouth of the River Rother, and historically surrounded by sandbanks, has disappeared altogether - it's now Romney Marsh. In 1287, a severe flood filled the harbour and town with sand, silt, mud and debris, and the River Rother changed course, to run out into the sea near Rye, Sussex. The debris was never entirely removed from the town, which is why many old buildings, especially the church, have steps leading down into them from the present pavement level. New Romney is now about a mile and a half from the seafront.

I'm only passing through-I'm running out of time. But I do stop at the headquarters of the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway.

Desolate Dungeness

My last stop, on my Kentish exploration, is Dungeness. This is one of the largest expanses of shingle in Europe, a headland formed by longshore drift, which shelters Romney Marsh. The fields here are dotted with the sheep, for which the area is famous. The meat is said to have a very distinctive flavour. The animals produce extra fat to combat the hardy environment conditions. This marbles the meat, making it moist. The breed is also resistant to foot rot, which helps in these wetlands.

Dungeness is famous for the remarkable variety of wildlife found here: over 600 different types of plants (a third of all those found in Britain) and rare invertebrates such as moths, bees, beetles, and spiders. I'm not going to be looking too closely for those. I like wild spaces, but this is too bleak for me. It's importance as a natural habitat is astonishing considering that it is also home to the Dungeness Nuclear Power Station. But apparently, one of the most remarkable features of the site is an area known as "the patch" or, by anglers, as "the boil". This is produced as waste hot water from the Dungeness nuclear power stations is pumped into the sea through two outfall pipes. It enriches the biological productivity of the sea bed and, so I've read, attracts seabirds from miles around.

The flooded gravel pits on Denge Beach, also provide an important refuge for many migratory and coastal bird species and there's an RSPB bird reserve here. There's a small village, with a pub, some caravans an assorted rickety dwellings, rusty fishing boats and two lighthouses.

The wonderful online world reports that Dungeness has such low rainfall as to qualify as the only desert in the UK. However, it seems unlikely, given England's overall rainfall, and indeed, it is not true.

Tenterden - The Jewel of the Weald

Inland, in the heart of hop country - oast houses galore, is Tenterden. And I have another jewel on my hands. Tenterden is dubbed 'The Jewel of the Weald'. (The Weald is the area between the North and South Downs, extending from Hampshire to Kent.) Visit Kent boasts that the town has 'fascinating history, a wealth of architecture and excellent shopping - all within everyone’s idea of a typical country town and surrounded by Kent’s tranquil countryside.'

Tenterden developed on land granted to the Abbess of Thanet in the eighth century. So, Tenterden - deriving from the Old English Tenetwara (the Men of Thanet) and the word den (a clearing within a forest). The abbess had a saintly daughter, St Mildred, who was venerated in the town. It acted as a ship building Cinque Port limb for Rye and became prosperous as a wool town, with Flemish weavers settling here. It was also a centre for religious dissidence following the reformation, with several significant residents setting sail for the New World.

Mine is a peaceful and relaxing visit. I manage to get a parking spot on the High Street to begin with, though it's time restricted. So I can saunter along the bow shaped greens at the centre of the village. Georgian tiles and weatherboard and Victorian architecture, with shops to browse and plenty of cafes, to my left. Residential and quintessential Miss Marple type cottages, set back from the Village Green, with long emerald lawns, to my right. Antique shops, a small market, independent clothing boutiques. It's reminiscent of the Cotswold market towns. St Mildred's Church towers, literally, over the shops at the Old Town Hall end. It has a smaller Shambles area than York, an area where several butchers shops were sited (illegally to begin with.) A modern Waitrose is hidden up a small brick arcade.

There's even a small steam railway. The Kent & East Sussex Line will take you to Bodiam Castle, just over the border, in East Sussex.

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