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.)
  • The Weald is the name for the undulating clay and greensand (with some chalk), which occupies the space between the North and South Downs. Great views from many places on the South Downs Way. It was once heavily wooded and is still gorgeous. The High Weald National Landscape, lies at the core, the fourth largest Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) in England and Wales. It is a mosaic of small farms and woodlands, historic parks, sunken lanes and ridge-top villages.
  • 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.
  • 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, but still deemed to be worth preserving) 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, galleries 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.)

Some would argue that the city is itself an art gallery. The Prince Albert pub under Brighton Station is the site of Banksy’s famous ‘Kissing Policeman’. Wander the streets of North Laine and you’ll soon see the whole area has become a gallery with everything becoming a canvas – from walls to cable boxes. There's a sculpture trail with a ‘Kiss Wall’ on the seafront featuring six kissing couples. Also on the seafront are 'The Peace Angel' and ‘Afloat’; the shape is based on the globe where the north and south poles are pushed together forming a central hole. Locally the sculpture is known as the doughnut.

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, The dome, 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.

Take in the seaside atmosphere, wandering along the sea front. To the east of the pier, is Madeira Drive lined with mini golf, abseiling lines, a swimming pool, bathing machines, beach volley ball and so on. By the sea anyway. The other side is a series of Victorian arches badly in need of renovation. 'One day', we are told. If you get tired of walking - it's a mile up to Black Rock and the Marina (which has seen better days) You can catch the mini Vaulk's railway. It's the oldest electric railway in the country.

West of the pier, the arches under the road have been renovated and there's a mile of pubs, trinkets selling shops, art galleries, restaurants, ice cream shops and everything a tourist could want. And then there's Hove. And don't forget to go on the pier itself. Rides, ghost train, slot machines That's obligatory.

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 (American Express have their headquarters in town), 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. Not to mention Earthship Brighton, the Low Carbon Trust's first project (and the first Earthship to be built in England.). Earthship Brighton heats, cools and powers itself from the sun, harvests it's water from the sky and treats it's wastewater onsite, using plants.

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. The Victorian shopping area is known as Little Chelsea. 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, in the heart of the High Weald.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). Antique shop and markets galore. 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. This is a kite flying and windsurfers' paradise. 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, lush and beautiful. The reason the word bucolic was invented.

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.

Sheffield Park

The National Trust bought 200 acres of the Sheffield Park estates in 1954 (and another 250 acres, in 2007). The adjacent gothic style Sheffield Park House remains in private ownership. Sheffield because for some time, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. the land was owned by the earls of Sheffield. Though the estate is documented in the Domesday book (1086).

Much of the estate is woodland, but there are plant collections to admire, most notably 'the national collection of Ghent azaleas, some huge trees (along a 'Big Tree' woodland walk) and a series of interlinked lakes. For me that's the best bit. On the right day, the reflections are stunning and pink blossom petals even float on the surface. Capability Brown had hand in designing these but no-one is quite sure how far he was involved.

The lakes can also be overly exciting. Many of the smaller the woodland paths are unpaved and muddy. Indeed, it seems as if a couple may actually be streams. I make bad decisions trying to avoid sinking into the mire and end up sliding down a slippery bank. Take boots!

Down the A275, a half mile or so from the garden entrance, is the terminus to the Bluebell Railway, the Sheffield Park Station.

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 visit Pooh Corner, follow Pooh trails on Pooh maps and play Pooh sticks at the Pooh 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.

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