Surrey

Surrey is a very pretty county - not very far from London and fairly close to home. I also worked there for several years. It's been delightful exploring it again.

Surrey - Facts and Factoids

  • Surrey is known as a 'home county', as it borders London. This is one reason that it is an extremely desirable place to live. But you need a bank balance that fits. Surrey has the highest per capita income of any county in UK and pays the highest taxes. Over two thirds of the working population have managerial or professional occupations, compared with half for England as a whole. And Surrey has the highest average house prices - is the least affordable county - with prices almost double the national average.
  • Much of the north of the county, the other side of the M25 circular motorway, forms part of the low lying Greater London Built-up Area, For this reason, although Surrey sometimes claims the title 'Garden of England, (already taken by Kent) architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner more aptly dubbed Surrey 'The Patio of England'. To be fair, the south of the county is rural, and exceptionally lovely. Surrey has the densest woodland cover in England.
  • The Surrey Hills cover approximately one quarter of the county. They cover part of the North Downs and an area of the more southerly Greensand Ridge. They were designated an Area of Outstanding National Beauty (AONB) in May 1958, but were redesignated as a National Landscape, in 2023. I'm unclear why this is supposed to sound more impressive. It adjoins the Kent Downs AONB to the east and the South Downs National Park in the south west.
  • The chalk escarpment that is the North Downs, runs from the south-west to north-east, dividing urban from rural. The south-east is part of the Weald, whilst the south-west contains the remainder of the Surrey Hills and Thursley, Hankley and Frensham Commons, an extensive area of heath. There isn't a great deal of agriculture on this patio, but there are a huge network of footpaths and bridleways. The most notable is the North Downs Way, of which I've done the Surrey section.
  • The highest point in Surrey is Leith Hill, near Dorking (295 metres).
  • Government redesignation of part of Surrey as the London Borough of Kingston, left it as the only county with its "county town", of Kingston, in another authority. Although Guildfordians would claim that the town of Guildford has that status, despite the council being based elsewhere.
  • The largest settlement, however, is Woking. Brookwood, at Woking was home to a huge outer London necropolis, with coffins being brought in, from Waterloo (between 1854 and 1941) on London’s spookiest and strangest railway line. Most certainly a Dead End Line. Britain’s first official crematorium (after considerable heated debate and opposition), followed here. Britain’s first purpose-built Mosque was also in Woking. H G Wells, the author, moved to Woking in 1895 (he's blue plaqued in Maybury Road) and wrote The War of The Worlds there. Apparently, he used quite a lot of local detail, to make the story authentic; one of the best-known novels of all time.
  • Breakfast cereal was first made in Surrey, by the Seventh Day Adventist movement. Based at Shalford Mill, they intended to supply health foods to their British followers, but since these were only available in the U. S. and difficult to import, the venture failed. Instead, several of their members, led by one Dr. Kellogg, founded the ‘London Health Food Company and produced wheat flake breakfast food and ‘health biscuits’, as well as nut-based foods. (The mill burnt down in 1900 and the business was transferred to Birmingham.)

Godalming

Godalming is a market town, which dates back to the sixth or early seventh centuries. It has an idyllic setting, facing onto the Wey and buttercup carpeted water meadows, and was well situated for trade, on the London to Portsmouth route. Godalming made its early money from Kersey, a blue dyed woollen cloth, dyed blue, but, in the seventeenth century, focus switched to knitted textiles - manufacture of hosiery in particular.

Several buildings in the town centre date from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the High Street is almost impossibly cute. The distinctive Pepperpot, octagonal with a cupola, was built from crowdfunding of the time, in 1814, to replace the medieval market house and to house the council chamber. It's definitely the focal point of the town. It was also home, for a time, to the Godalming Museum, but that's moved on, up the High Street.

The church of St Peter and St Paul, with a great view of the meadows, is over a thousand years old. The King's Arms and Royal Hotel, in the High Street, is a former coaching inn, dating back to the seventeenth century. It's main claim to fame is a stay by Peter the Great and his entourage, The Russian ambassador even unveiled a plaque, in 1998, to mark the 300th anniversary of the Czar's visit.

Godalming was also home to my mountaineer hero - George Mallory , who made the famous 'Because It's There' quote. And the famous public school Charterhouse is based on a hilltop, overlooking the town.

A History of Surrey

  • There are just a few Pre-Roman remains, to be seen in Surrey: two fine Bronze Age barrows at Horsell Common in Woking and Iron Age hillforts at Hascombe Hill, Chertsey, St George’s Hill in Weybridge and Holmbury Hill. countryside.
  • The Roman Stane Street, connecting Chichester to London, traversed Surrey, literally paving the way for the modern A3 and A24. The Romans also built temples near Wanborough and Farley Heath.
  • But Surrey is named after the Saxons, who arrived in the fifth and sixth centuries. Surrey comes from the Saxon term Suthrige, which means, 'southern kingdom. Surrey was, for the most part, too far inland to suffer Viking raids, but the invaders were defeated at Farnham, in 892, by the army of Edward the Elder. Kingston was important enough to be the site of the coronation of English kings, during the following century, including Aethelstan and Aethelred the Unready. (The Coronation Stone is still on the High Street by Clattern Bridge).
  • Following the Norman conquest, William de Warenne became Earl of Surrey, and amongst his many castles were those at Guildford and Farnham.
  • And it was at at Runnymede, on the banks of the Thames, in 1215, that King John was forced to sign Magna Carta.
  • Proximity to London, and plenty of forests meant hunting for the nobles. So several opulent palaces were built. Although only Hampton Court now remains.
  • Surrey's mainly rural economy had revolved mainly around the woollen cloth industry in the Middle Ages. Industrialisation, from the seventeenth century centred led to the development of waterways. One of the country’s first canal systems, the Wey Navigation, opened in 1653. It enabled gunpowder (the area was the country's leading producer), timber, wood, corn and flour to be transported up to London. They brought back coal, to power the mills.
  • The arrival of the railways led to commuting to London and Surrey developed as a dormitory county.
  • In 1960, the report of the Herbert Commission recommended that much of north Surrey (including Kingston and Croydon) be included in a new "Greater London". These recommendations were considerably, but, in 1965, the areas which now form the London Boroughs of Croydon, Kingston, Merton, and Sutton and the part of Richmond, south of the River Thames, were transferred from Surrey to Greater London, leaving only a small part of the county's northern border running along the Thames (alongside Berkshire.)

Guildford

Habitation in the Guildford area dates back to the Mesolithic era and Guildford is mentioned in the will of Alfred the Great (c.880.), although the exact location of the main Anglo-Saxon settlement is unclear and the town centre we now today may not have been occupied until the early eleventh century. In medieval times Guildford prospered through the wool trade. The new River Wey Navigation and then, the arrival of the railways underpinned further growth, but building potential is limited, as Guildford is surrounded on three sides by the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

Guildford Castle and Museum

Guildford Museum and castle are adjacent. not exactly huddled, as the castle (or what's left of the keep) stands proudly on its motte, with stair and boardwalk access. And there are bits and pieces of wall and shell keep scattered around. It was built by William de Warenne, the first Earl of Surrey, just after the Norman conquest. It had its heyday in the time of Henry III. He extended and titivated to the point that it became worthy of the name palace. But after that defence was no longer necessary (other than the odd civil battle) and the buildings fell into decline.

Today, the castle is interesting, but the floral gardens surrounding the keep are more attractive. You can access both, to one side, through an arch, attached to the old gatehouse. This is home to part of the Guildford Museum. There's also a new gallery (well 1911), constructed in the Arts and Crafts style, and housing house objects donated by the horticulturalist, Gertrude Jekyll. and an early nineteenth century townhouse, acquired and to house manuscripts.

Guildford Town Centre

Guildford is an idyllic place to shop, if you're after upmarket chain stores in an eclectic mix of attractive old buildings, alongside cobbles. It's the epitome of middle class, or 'Overheard in Waitrose'. Although that supermarket is a relatively recent addition to Guildford. Head for the High Street, but keep looking up, towards the facades and roofs, as you wander uphill.

You can also get your shopping fix in the modern malls, like the Friary Centre, or the little squares and alleys that burgeon off the High Street. But first, take in the Guildhall and especially its splendid clock. Guildford has to have a guildhall, of course, but its name predates the guilds by a long way and refers to the crossing of the river here. The current building is thought to have been constructed around. 1550. The outer case of the Guildhall clock is dated 1683, but the workings may be earlier even than that. .

And you can't miss the Abbot's Hospital. This (officially) Hospital of the Holy Trinity, was founded in 1622, by George Abbot, the Archbishop of Canterbury and a former pupil of the Royal Grammar School, which is also in the High Street. (His statue is almost opposite.) The name is misleading - it was accommodation for singles from Guildford and it's still used for that purpose. It's a dark red building, around a rectangular courtyard, with a beyond imposing four storey gatehouse.

Opposite, is the Anglican Holy Trinity Church, a solid, red brick edifice, built in the early 1760s to replace the collapsed mediaeval church. It served as proxy cathedral, until the current one was finished

River Wey Navigation

It's a very pleasant stroll alongside the Wey if you cross the Millbrook Lock system. The curtain literally comes down on the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre here - you can just make it out through the gracefully weeping willow trees. Beyond that, and somewhat less elegant is a scruffy Debenhams building. And then, Dapdune Wharf. The main boatyard for the River Wey Navigation has been based here since the waterway was completed in 1653 and you can sometimes take boat trips.

Guildford Cathedral

Guildford became the centre of a new Anglican diocese, in 1927. The foundation stone of Guildford's relatively modern Anglican Cathedral Church of the Holy Spirit, was laid in 1936, on Stag Hill. It was donated land (from Lord Onslow) , which at that time was outside the town perimeter. Guildford University followed, next door in 1966. Its solid red brick and stands majestically above the town. Imposing rather than beautiful. I would say the same of the interior. Though the cathedral was listed as Grade II by Historic England.

RHS Wisley

RHS Wisley is one of five gardens run by the Royal Horticultural Society. Wisley is the second most visited paid entry garden in the United Kingdom, after the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, with well over a million visitors. (There were 5,250 in 1905.) Wisley began life as the 60 acre 'Oakwood Experimental Garden', where Victorian businessman and RHS member George Ferguson Wilson, attempted to 'make difficult plants grow successfully.' Wisley came into the hands of the RHS in 1903.

Today, Wisley covers 240 acres, incorporates numerous formal and informal decorative gardens, several glasshouses and an extensive arboretum and various research facilities. Not to mention the National Heather Collection. It's a jolly good place for an outing, (unless there are road works on the A3 intersection close by) especially when there's a sculptural exhibition integrating with the blossoms. There are nice cafes, good views across the countryside from the various landscapes and an excellent plant shop.

Painshill Park

Painshill, near Cobham, is a restored eighteenth-century landscape park. It was designed and created between 1738 and 1773 by Charles Hamilton, although the original house built there by Hamilton has long since been demolished. It now comprises 158 of the original more than 200 acres, stretching along the undulating banks of the winding River Mole.

Activity here, which is mostly strolling, centres on a serpentine lake of 14 acres created with water pumped from the Mole. It's surrounded by rarer tree specimens and decorated with islands, bridges, a causeway and several follies. These include a Gothic Tower and a restored Roman Temple to Bacchus. There's even a crystal grotto. Apparently there was also once even a 'hermitage', complete with resident hermit. but he went AWOL too often and had to be dismissed.

The Surrey Hills

The Surrey Hills are home to magnificent view points, leafy vistas and the prettiest of villages. I've been lucky enough to see much of this, from the North Downs Way.

St Martha’s Hill

St Martha's Hill is one of the first really good viewpoints on the North Downs Way, although its actually on the Greensand Ridge. There' are some wonderful gnarly trees, a Norman church (this is a sought after place to get married) and five circular earthworks, believed to date back to the Bronze Age. There used to be a Good Friday custom whereby all the local youth flocked here to dance and listen to music every Good Friday. It's a shame it stopped, Plenty of benches to enjoy the view. Or do as I did and sit on the gravestones in the churchyard.

Loseley Park

Loseley Park is a large Tudor manor house which appears in the Domesday Book, of 1086, as Losele. It was held by Turald (Thorold) and its Domesday assets were: two hides. It had four ploughs and five acres of meadow. Nowadays, it has 1400 acres. The present house was built with stone, brought from the ruins of Waverley Abbey, and replaced a smaller one, which Elizabeth I had dismissed as 'inadequate for her to visit'. The Great Hall contains panelling from Henry VIII's Nonsuch Palace (pulled down in 1682–3, by Barbara, Countess of Castlemaine, mistress to Charles II, to sell off building materials, to pay for her gambling debts). There's also a minstrel's gallery, carvings by Grinling Gibbons, panels from Henry VIII's banqueting tents, a collection of royal and family portraits (one of the few paintings of Anne Boleyn) and a massive chalk fireplace, designed by Hans Holbein.

The wall round the garden is as old as the house, but the garden itself is modern, based on a design by Gertrude Jekyll, with a series of themed 'rooms', divided by box and yew hedges. A redevelopment project began in 1993/4 and is ongoing. I'm very lucky. It's a gorgeous day and the huge spread of wisteria, just inside the garden entrance is in full fragrant bloom. the friendly gardener working there tells me that it's the best wisteria plant in the country. She may well be right. and to think I went all the way to Japan seeking wisteria.

The gardens are cleverly designed so that at least one is in full bloom. so, although it's too early for roses, the flower garden is frothily stunning. Beyond the garden wall, the tranquil lily pad dotted moat, with its moat walk, facing across the meadows beckons. It's a great place to escape, if you want to sit quietly, away from the bustling tea garden.

Loseley Park and the house boast an array of filming credits. I'm most impressed by Agatha Christie's Why Didn't they Ask Evans? The Favourite, Rebecca and The Crown.

Albury

Albury parish, just over three miles east of Guildford spans the small new and old villages and three hamlets: Farley Green, Little London and Brook – spaced out by Albury Heath, Foxholes Wood, small fields and Albury Park. There are some interesting houses to stop and peek out as you drive through, not to mention a couple of pubs and the village shop.

The medieval village of Albury was clustered around the old Saxon church of St Peter and St Paul. In 1842, Henry Drummond moved the the village half a mile westward, to what was originally the hamlet of Weston Street, where he also built a new church. The Duke of Northumberland owns the estate – Albury Park Mansion was once home to the Duke and Duchess.

Shere

A little further east and just off the A25 is Shere. I've already said that Godalming is impossibly cute so now I'm lost for words. Shere is pure chocolate box village. Timber farmed and flint cottages, atmospheric pubs, an ice cream parlour (called Shere Delight of course). It's most famous for its duck stream, which is signposted, of course. It's a long time since I visited and today I'm blessed with sun and honeycomb ice cream. Last time, they were filming The Holiday. Cameron Diaz and Jude Law had drinks in the White Horse Inn. They weren't there when I was testing the gin and tonic, but the street was covered in artificial snow, testifying to their recent departure.

Abinger

Tootle along the A25 some more. The gorgeous hills behind and more charming villages. Gomshall and then Abinger. Abinger is actually a collection of three picturesque villages: Abinger Hammer, Abinger Common, and Abinger Bottom. Abinger Hammer is named after its water-powered iron forge and hammer pond. The pond was created by digging a channel from the River Tillingbourne in the sixteenth century. The forge closed in 1787 and nowadays, the pond is used for the cultivation of watercress.

The famous clock (shown above) which overhangs the main road portrays the figure of' 'Jack the Blacksmith', who strikes the hour with his hammer. The clock bears the motto 'By me you know how fast to go'.

Leith Hill

Leith Hill, reaching s 294 metres (965 ft) above sea level, is the highest summit in Surrey and indeed, is the second highest point in southeast England, (after Walbury Hill in Berkshire). On top of the hill is an eighteenth-century Gothic tower, built by Richard Hull of nearby Leith Hill Place. It has the dual purpose of raising the hill above 1,000 feet (305 metres) above sea level and making it taller than Walbury Hill. Hull called it Prospect Tower and provided visitors with prospect glasses, (like a small telescope), through which to survey the extensive views: London in one direction and the south coast in the other.

When Hull died in 1772, he was buried under the tower, but the building fell into ruin. and it was filled with rubble and concrete and bricked up. In 1864, William John Evelyn of nearby Wotton House attempted to reopen it, but the concrete made access difficult. So, they added a turreted side-tower. The tower was fully restored by the National Trust in 1984. at summer weekends they open it up, so you can climb to the top. During the week you have to be content with refreshments from a serving hatch.

There are numerous footpaths meandering around here, through the woodlands and its a perfect place to stop, have a drink and admire those views. It's been claimed that on a clear day, 13 counties can be seen from the top of Leith Hill Tower.

Polesden Lacey

Polesden Lacey is a National Trust owned house and estate, on the North Downs at Great Bookham, near Dorking, Surrey. There have been houses on the site since the fourteenth century, but this one dates back to the Regency period, and was extensively remodelled in 1906 by Margaret Greville, a well-known hostess. So, it is considered to be Edwardian. Her collections of paintings (restoration and Georgian in the main), furniture, porcelain and silver are displayed in the reception rooms and galleries, kept as they were at the time of her celebrated house parties. The future George VI and Queen Elizabeth spent part of their honeymoon there in 1923.

On my last visit the house is hosting 'The Last Tree & The Art of Nature In Collaboration' exhibition. It takes up most of the rooms upstairs and the cynical might suggest that it's just a room filling exercise.A few twigs and some twinkly lights are not very engaging.

The 1,400-acre estate includes a walled rose garden, lawns (croquet anyone?), ancient woodland and landscape walks.The house is cleverly positioned for optimum views, with the wooded bank falling away from the principal rooms. It's thoughtfully littered with deckchairs and picnickers are enjoying the sunny weather.

Dorking

Dorking is a market town in Surrey, also surrounded on three sides by the Surrey Hills. A market is thought to have been held at least weekly since early medieval times - especially notable for the poultry traded there. There's a breed of domestic chicken named after the town. Hence, cockerels proliferate in Dorking, not least on the town crest. There's even a metal sculpture of a Dorking cockerel, by Peter Parkinson (2007), on the Deepdene roundabout, to the east of town. This cockerel is a frequent yarn bombing target and is often bedecked in hats, scarves and other items of clothing.

This was a boom town in Tudor times, but things went less well after that. Dorking wasn't hugely easy to get to (clay or chlak lay in the way) and it may or may not be relevant that many inhabitants were nonconformists, including the author, Daniel Defoe, who lived in Dorking as a child. Six of the Mayflower Pilgrims, including William Mullins and his daughter Priscilla, lived in the town before setting sail for the New World. There's a blue plaque on Mullins house. This is the only known surviving home of a Pilgrim Father.

Dorking started to expand again, as roads improved and the railways came. Lime was produced in the town (you can see the quarries on the sides of the Downs, to the north). Box Hill was a big attraction, with its views and Emmanuel Bowen proclaimed the air of ‘Darking’ the sweetest in England. London's Nouveau Riche looked to build country residences in the area - still in coaching distance from the capital.

I've seen Dorking described as charming, but that's stretching it. I think the High Street (which used to be East Street and the hub of all market activity) is a little ramshackle. Sometimes it's impossible to tell what's old and what's fake, or has had its original facade covered, in the name of fashion. If you like quirky shops and antique stores, no problem. There are plenty of those. And the newish St Martin's Walk with eateries and a Marks and Spencers. And there are definitely a few old buildings.

The White Horse Hotel dates back 400 years and the first building on the site belonged to the Knights Templar. The property became an inn around 1750, just before the opening of the Epsom to Horsham turnpike road. Famous guests have included Charles Dickens who wrote The Pickwick Papers there (that man got around). The church (St Martin's) with a splendid tall spire, is Victorian (the third incarnation on the site) and Pippbrook House, a Gothic country house to the east of the High Street, was designed, as a private residence, by George Gilbert Scott in 1856. The buildings now belong to the local Council. Almost opposite is the Art Deco Dorking Halls building, designed for the Leith Hill Musical Festival, in 1931. That's also now owned by the Council. Outside is a statue of Ralph Vaughan Williams, who lived in Dorking.

To the north of town, Denbies Wine Estate is one of England’s largest single estate vineyards, with 265 acres currently in production. It's relatively modern - the first vines were planted in 1986. there are tours and tastings. The North Downs Way passes right through the vineyard.

Dorking is still a relatively quiet place. The train service isn't the best and the car parks are free on Sundays, to encourage visitors. That doesn't mean there isn't a lot of traffic. Dorking has an infuriatingly slow one way system coming from the west. The A24 skirts to the east. It's dual carriageway, but again, not always easy driving. Today. I'm surrounded by maybe 100 motorcyclists heading south - and it's not even bank holiday. They swoop past, then slow down, wave their mates by, clog up the whole of the lane in front of me. I finally manage to get by. escorted front and back and then they all overtake again. And so it goes on.

Box Hill

This is a National Trust property full of footpaths that could keep you entertained for days on end. There are several parking spots around the property, the most popular of which is located near the memorial viewpoint, where you can enjoy views of Dorking and the surrounding area.

Major Peter Labilliere was buried, upside down, on Box Hill, in 1800. H had been unlucky in love. The woman of his dreams had turned him down and it's thought that this disturbed the balance of his mind. He moved to Dorking where, despite his wealth, he chose to live in a hovel called ‘The Hole in The Wall’. He predicted his death, to the exact day, ninth months in advance. He was convinced that there would be a resurrection, but also that then, the world would be turned upside down. So, he left instructions that he should be buried upside down, so that he would be ready and waiting.

Box Hill shot to fame during the 2012 London Olympics, when it was incorporated into the cycle road races. The men endured the climb nine times and the women twice. The route up the scarp slope zigzags through continental style hairpins, in a fashion that allows folk to imagine they are in the Alps for a short while. Every week now, cyclists test their skills, up the slope, participating in a virtual Olympics, even though it's not even the hardest climb in Surrey. (Leith Hill, to take one example, is steeper). It's 2.5 kilometres long, with an average gradient of 5%, gaining 129 metres in height. The ascent record currently stands at 4 minutes 46 seconds. There's your Sunday Challenge.

Brockham

Located just to the east of Dorking, and still just off the A25 Brockham (Bend in the Brook - nothing to do with badgers) is the most stereotypical of English villages. A lovely wooden bridge, the remains of yet another Norman castle (Betchworth), village greens surrounded by pubs (one of them either used to be the village hall or doubles as that too. I'm unsure.) We can't count the church - it's only nineteenth century sadly. But the main green is famous. Even WG Grace is said to have played cricket here. and it's also been renowned for hosting the UK's largest bonfire and firework display.

What more could you ask? Except, I'm talking about the northern, older part of the village. The rest winds south to where Beecham Research Laboratories Ltd (which merged with SmithKline and then with Glaxo, to become GlaxoSmithKline in 2000) operated from Brockham Park. This is where scientists did the groundwork for making synthetic penicillin. Today, it's a housing estate. But Brockham can't shake off its industrial shackles. In August 2018, retrospective (!) planning permission was granted by Surrey County Council for a secondary oil wellbore in Brockham.

Leigh

Potter south to find Leigh, more village greens, tow more pubs and a church that dates back to at least the fourteenth century- possibly even older in parts. Though the wooden tower is nineteenth century. There's a well, which became a pump, underneath its own roof. Even the traditional red phone box houses a history lesson.

Reigate

Reigate is another affluent Surrey town. It is recorded in the Domesday Book, in 1086, as Cherchefelle. Reigate, as a name, doesn't appear until the 1190s. One suggestion is that it derives derive from Roe-deer Gate, as the town was close to the entrance to the de Warenne's (Earl of Surrey) deer park. Then, and for some centuries, its wealth was based on agriculture. (A weekly market began in the late thirteenth century and continued until 1895). De Warenne preferred to make Lewes his base, but Reigate was important enough for his family to build a motte-and-bailey castle, in the late eleventh or early twelfth century. This was originally timber, but the curtain walls were later rebuilt in stone.

The castle was abandoned during the Reformation, after being owned by the Howard family and fell into disrepair. It was finally demolished, in 1648, after occupation as a garrison, during the Civil War, by Royalists. In 1777, one Richard Barnes built a folly or mock medieval gateway, over the ruins. He added a dedication to De Warenne in both English and Latin. It's still an interesting wander, if you can find the Castle Grounds entrance, to the north of the High street (it's not that well signposted). There's a grassy area, some flowerbeds and a stone pyramid, with a metal grille, which looks like a tiny gaol, but is the top entrance to the Barons' Cave (see below).

The other major historical building in Reigate was an Augustinian priory, founded to the south of the modern town centre in the first half of the thirteenth century. That building was also closed during the Reformation, but was rebuilt as a private residence for the Howard family. Maybe they moved there from the castle? The so called priory building was much later subsumed into Reigate Priory School, but is badly in need of repair. It's currently barricaded off. Its also left its legacy, in the name of the Park, formed out of the priory grounds. a small sunken garden, some fish ponds and beautiful views, across to a greensand ridge.

Reigate's fortunes fluctuated over time, as the new turnpike roads brought in cheaper goods rather than more custom. But expansion followed the railways and houses were built on some of the priory estate, after 1921. It's a nice, if pricey place to live (I worked here, running one of the schools for several years). The High Street is pleasant rather than attractive, but chock full of independent boutique type shops, bijou cafes and what are referred to as 'quality chains'.

The stand out building, on the northern side, is the Old Town Hall, though this is eye catching rather than pretty, like Godalming's Pepperpot. The site was previously occupied by the thirteenth century chapel and hospice of St. Thomas of Canterbury. It functioned as a pilgrims' resting place. The somewhat austere brick replacement was designed in the neoclassical style and completed in 1728. Markets were held in the arcades beneath and it was also later home to the local horse-drawn fire engine and the police station. It was used as a courthouse for petty sessions in the nineteenth century and as the headquarters of Reigate Municipal Borough Council from its formation in 1863. It's not really surprising that the borough council moved to a new town hall, in 1901.

The Cranston Library (opened in 1701) is the oldest public lending library in England, originally founded for use by the clergy. It is housed on the first floor of the vestry of the Church of St Mary Magdalene and the collection includes over 2000 books, most of them dating from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

I also need to mention the scenery to the north of town - much of the North Downs here is owned by the National Trust - Colley Hill (the Inglis Memorial here, dating from 1909, was originally a drinking fountain for horses) and Reigate Hill, contributing to the desirability of Reigate as a residence. Reigate Hill Footbridge carries the North Downs Way over the A217 to the north of the town, notable for the views and because it is one of the earliest reinforced concrete bridges in England. On the way up there pass by picturesque Wray Common Windmill, (just round the corner from where I worked). It's a tower mill, built in 1824 and used to grind corn until 1895, when it became an agricultural store. In the 1960s it was converted into a four-storey private residence.

Reigate Caves

Reigate has a hidden surprise. A network of caves riddle the town centre, although the Wealden Cave and Mine Society, who offer tours here, explain that these are these are mainly old sand mines, not caves. The sand mined was very fine and used mainly for glass making. The castle mound, overlooking Reigate town centre, is composed of soft sandstone and has been mined over several centuries. The castle building has almost entirely disappeared, but many of the excavations still remain.

The Barons’ Cave lies under the Norman Castle Grounds and no-one is entirely sure why it was dug. Size and quality of labour suggest that this was more than just storage, or a dungeon. Local legend has it the barons met here secretly, to draw up the Magna Carta in 1215, before making King John sign it. Hence the name. Sadly, this is not true. The cave may not even be that old - the first written record is not till 1586.

The warren of linking caves has collapsed and separated over time. There are also tours in East and West Caverns, in Tunnel Road. Tunnel Road was built in 1823, the oldest road tunnel in Britain and one of the oldest in Europe. The caves west of the tunnel were originally opened up as sand mines, but later used for storage. The caves on the east side were dug specifically for storing wines and beers. They were used to store explosives during World War I and as air raid shelters, during World War II.

But. my caving friends from the society tell me there are more mines, less easily accessible and so not open to the public. These are in nearby Merstham. (The first mines at Merstham were recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086.) Entry involves climbing down long scary ladders. I'm both claustrophobic and afraid of heights. But, as you can see, I survived.

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.

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.)
  • 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.
  • 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.

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.

The other place to go for good views, if you don't want to fly, is Mill Hill, on the edge of the South Downs behind the town. There's an excellent panorama of the winding River Adur, the sea, the airport and across to Lancing College. It's mock Gothic chapel is the largest school chapel in the world.

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', attracting the well- heeled, in the late eighteenth century. There are still plenty of boats pulled up onto the shingle beaches. Its pier was built in 1862, but has been remodelled several times and is nicely art deco still. It 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 The Perch restaurant, in what was once an amusement arcade, at the end, does very good fish and chips.

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 (1911), 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 (the cottage is now a Pizza Express) and is thought to have based the setting and characters for her unfinished novel Sanditon, on her experiences of the town. Oscar Wilde stayed in the Haven Hotel, now demolished, but wrote The Importance of Being Ernest here, and named one of his most famous characters, Jack Worthing, after the town. Typically, for Oscar, he wrote,

‘It has beautiful surroundings and lovely long walks – which I recommend to other people, but do not take myself.’

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.

Two pedestrian shopping areas. Montague Street, with what remains of the chain stores (the department stores are now all gone). Pavement cafes and boutiques, on slightly more upmarket Warwick Street. Behind the seafront, Beach House Park, is a famous venue for Bowling and has hosted Nationala nd World Championships. It's often a sea of white on the immaculate lawns. More poignantly, there's also a memorial to the huge losses suffered by the Royal Sussex Regiment in World War I. Adjacent, is the Warrior Birds memorial. This one relates to World War II and commemorates the carrier pigeons who were killed or wounded carrying messages for the army.

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, running from London to Chichester. 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, lush and beautiful. The reason the word bucolic was invented.

Steyning, Bramber and Upper Beeding

Steyning, Bramber and Upper Beeding are almost contiguous (there's a small gap between Steyning and Bramber), north of Shoreham and arrayed each side of the River Adur and its numerous small tributaries. They're an ongoing exhibition of pretty, historical architecture.

Upper Beeding

Upper Beeding straddles the River Adur and developed as a bridging point. It was once just Beeding (and still is to the locals), but the authorities didn't want it confused with the Lower Beeding, 18 miles, by road, to the north. That was established by some monks from the Sele Priory, at St Peter's Church here. They named it after their original base. It was my base too, for several years.

Bramber

The old port of Bramber (Portus Adurni) is set opposite Beeding, on 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 and the oldest Norman church in the country). There's just a 23 metre high piece of the keep, standing amongst the remains of the bailey walls. This was the administrative hub of the newly created Rape of Bramber, ruled over by William de Braose, the first Lord of Bramber. He built the first bridge over the river and charged hefty tolls to ships travelling upriver to the next port, at Steyning.

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 current bridge, over the River Adur.

This is a good picnic spot but Sussex has some better castles. When I was at primary school our house system celebrated four of them: Arundel, Bramber, Hastings and Lewes. (The latter two are in East Sussex.)

Bramber today is a thin strip of charming village, hugging the high street. The other notable building, 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.

The old Steyning Line clips the west edge of the village. This railway, from London to Shoreham, arrived in Steyning in 1861, but was closed, in 1966, as result of the Beeching Axe. It's now a bridleway and cycle path.

Steyning

Steyning dates back to Anglo-Saxon times. The church (now St Andrew, but originally St Cuthman) was built by the shepherd Cuthman in 857, at the latest. Legend tells that Cuthman was trying to care for his paralysed mother, after his father's death. Penniless and forced to beg from door to door, he built a wheelbarrow, to transport her. winding a rope round his shoulders to help take the strain. He decided that when his replacement rope broke, he would accept it as a sign from God, that he should stop to build a church. And so he did. (This was the same Cuthman who outwitted the devil at Devil's Dyke.) Steyning is very proud of their saint and his image greets you, as you enter the village.

Steyning rapidly became prosperous, with a market and a royal mint. King Alfred the Great's father, Æthelwulf of Wessex, was originally buried in Cuthman's church, before being transferred to Winchester. After William of Normandy's victory, the local lands were handed over to monks (controlled by Fécamp in France and ultimately by the Pope.) This led to prolonged 'war' with de Braose in Bramber. The king came down in favour of the monks. At one point, de Braose was ordered to organise a mass exhumation and transfer of all Bramber's dead, from the graveyard there, to the churchyard of Saint Cuthman's, in Steyning.

Steyning began returning two members of parliament from 1278, but rapidly became a rotten borough, as the port silted up and the population dwindled. It still returned MPs, until the Reform Act, of 1832. Today, its another Sussex jewel of a village, with plenty to look at in the High Street. When I lived in Beeding it was a perfect Sunday morning stroll away. Gentle, interesting walk up the High Streets, buy a paper and sit in the pub. Perfect.

Woods Mill

South of Henfield is Woods 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.

Lindfield

Lindfield is yet another tranquil, historic and lovely village. ( I lived here for several years too.) It's surrounded by the beautiful countryside of the High Weald - park and gardens all around and the upper reaches of the River Ouse. The name 'Lindfield' means 'open land with lime trees.' and the place name was first recorded as far back as 765 - as Lindefeldia.

The High Street is a mile away from the old coach road to London, but it follows an ancient north–south track which has existed for thousands of years. It is still lined with lime trees, with over forty medieval and post medieval timber-framed houses. Many of these house shops and restaurants, which change regularly as business increases and declines. Though I still can't used to eating curry in a timber framed cottage. The Bent Arms pub still has the spit roast chains, from the days when Sunday lunch was cooked over an open fire. The parish church, All Saints, at the top of the High Street dates back to 1098, along with Church House, generally known as The Tiger.

This was an important market town, especially for sheep sales. At the bottom of the High Street, is a chocolate box duck pond. Beyond, that is the green stripy Common (and Pickers' Green), still used for fairs, festivals, bonfire celebrations, cricket and stoolball (a Sussex bat and ball game with large 'stool' wickets, unusual in that it was mostly played by women (milkmaids) .

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.

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.

Arundel, The Home of the Dukes of Norfolk

There's considerably more left of Arundel Castle, in Arundel, on the River Adur. And I'm biased. I was in Arundel House, at school. 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, which dominates the little town. Although that only dates back to the nineteenth century. (I've been to a wedding there.)

Just along the road from it is the Anglican St Nicholas Church, with its adjacent priory. That puts the cathedral to shame and dates back to 1102. St Wilfrid's Priory, next to that, is a now a care home, in a crenellated castle. Peeping over the wall, opposite the cathedral, are ornate structures like wooden Oberon's Palace, standing in the elegant castle grounds, which run alongside.

Arundel is a rewarding town to visit, listed buildings aplenty, narrow streets, half timbered and herringbone brick houses, antique shops and tea rooms. There aren't as many unusual shops, as I remember. My favourite was a make your own jewellery place, called The Venerable Bede. When you're tired of all of that, there are river walks (and boat hire). 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.

Petworth

Petworth is yet another market town which dates back beyond the Domesday Book. In 1086 it was listed as having 44 households (24 villagers, 11 smallholders and nine slaves). Today, Petworth feels affluent. The car parking bays are filled with Range Rovers and there are independent boutiques and delicatessens and butchers. Bijou cottages and cobbled streets. It is cited as one of the best places to go antiques (or upcycling) shopping, in the south east. Petworth Antiques Market is home to 35 different dealers. It's also home to the Petworth Cottage Museum, which is a house belonging to Mrs Cummings that depicts life as it would be in around 1910.

Petworth is probably most famous as the location of the exceptionally grand seventeenth-century stately home Petworth House, standing in Petworth Park. The land is part of the Leconfield estates and has been held by the Egremont family, (descendents of the Percy family), since 1150. The Manor of Petworth has amounts to some 14,000 acres of let farms with 270 houses and cottages, (mostly Victorian) to house the estate staff. Petworth House and the Park were donated to the National Trust in 1947, but the current Lord Egremont, still lives there.

The house is jammed with almost as many paintings and sculptures and expensive curly edged furniture, as the shops in town. It was definitely designed to impress. The highlight is the 20 Turner oils. Joseph William Mallord Turner was very friendly with the Egremonts and often stayed with them, fishing and painting. His landscape showing Tillington Church, on the edge of the park is one of the most well known.

But nothing matches a stroll, admiring Lancelot 'Capability' Brown's work. This has to be the prettiest park in the country, with its 700 acres of gentle curves, immaculately placed clumps of trees, glistening lakes, cunning sculptures and follies and the huge wandering herd of dappled fallow deer. (Henry VIII had a good time hunting the poor creatures.) Many of the trees predate the buildings of Petworth. There are three ancient oak trees, one of which was a sapling during the Norman conquest of 1066. And the Deer Park is free to enter, if you can find somewhere to park (there's a National Trust charge for the signposted car resting places).

Pet dogs enjoy it as much as I do, rolling, cavorting and somersaulting in the grass (the dogs, not me). It's glorious.

Midhurst

Yet another delightful market town, Midhurst even has signposts to the 'Old Town'. The settlement dates back to Saxon, possibly Roman times, the church is Norman and the building that draws most attention is the herringbone brick of the fifteenth century coaching inn, the Spread Eagle Hotel. Nowadays it's a spa too. There was a Norman castle but all that's' left today are the foundations and the fishpond. The cross in the Market Square is actually a war memorial.

It's a peaceful wander around assorted architectural wonders and some lanes with quaint names: Knockhundred Row. Although the site might be ancient, the buildings in the Old Town, centred on the Market Square, are mainly Tudor. Even the apparently more modern North Street is lined with Tudor buildings. Its classical and Georgian façades were added later, though there are also a sprinkling of genuine Georgian houses and Victorian and Edwardian terracing, on the outskirts.

Easebourne and the Cowdray Estates

Just across the River Rother, on the edge of the village of Easebourne, is the ruin of the Tudor Cowdray House. This was said to be one of the great mansions of the time. It was built on the site of a thirteenth century manor house. by Sir John Bohun, from Midhurst. He named it Coudreye, the Norman word for the nearby hazel woods. The house and cowdray estate came into the hands of the Fitzwilliam Family (Earls of Southampton) , whose estates grew, to include Easebourne Priory, and even Battle Abbey, after the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Legend tells that a dispossessed monk from Battle cursed the family and house, 'by fire and water, thy line shall come to an end and it shall perish out of this land.'

The house played its part in several significant historical events. Henry VIII and Elizabeth I stayed here. Lady Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, the last of the Plantagenets and so a danger to the throne, was imprisoned at Cowdray, before she was taken to London and executed. Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton, who knew Shakespeare (and might even have written his plays) was born here. Guy Fawkes was briefly employed as a footman.

The Fitzwilliams had become the Brownes, created Viscount Montagues. The seventh Viscount Montague employed Capability Brown employed to modernise the gardens. But, in 1793, during restoration work, a fire started in the carpenters' workshop in the North Gallery. All the family treasures and artwork, including that from Battle, had been stored here to 'preserve them', so nearly everything was lost. Only three weeks later, the eighth Viscount Montague was killed, trying to ride the Rhine Falls. The title was inherited by a Mark Browne who died childless and the peerage became extinct. and so the curse was fulfilled!

Today, the 16,000 acres of estates are owned by Viscount Cowdray. You can easily spot the estates buildings and cottages, around the headquarters at Easebourne, as most are painted in a distinctive yellow paint (called Gold Cup). Apparently, it was chosen due to the first Viscount Cowdray’s connections to the Liberal party. You can rent an estate holiday home, hold your wedding at (the newer) Cowdray House, play golf, go shooting, fish in Benbow Pond (watch out for the black swans) or visit the farm shop and cafe. But Cowdray Park is most famous as 'The Home of British Polo'.

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.

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 (counties which border London).
  • 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 Weald is composed of undulating clay and greensand (with some chalk). 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.
  • 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.