If anticipation heightens the start of a holiday, then there can be no better destination than West Sussex. The journey by car requires crawling through Croydon and, viewed through a kaleidoscope of pigeon poo smeared across the windscreen, south London’s capital city is in fact the perfect beginning to a mini-break. Why? Because things can only get better. Sorry Croydon.
The relief when turning off the A23 and heading towards the South Downs is uplifting: it builds at first sight of the distant turrets of Arundel Castle, and climaxes somewhere up a lane to Burpham, a village tucked away in the heart of the 1600 square km National Park.
Burpham is the type of English idyll of thatched cottages with Sussex-flint walls, a Saxon church, a cricket pitch nestled amongst water meadows, and a pub where the morning’s Telegraph is enjoyed with a G&T. It also has a fine Country House hotel, where we stayed whilst exploring the area for a few days.
Run with love and care by owners Steve and Jackie, the house was initially a hunting lodge in the 1700s, before spending much of the 19th century as the village Rectory and home of the noted naturalist and author the Rev Tickner Edwardes. Converted to a hotel in the 1930s, the current owners have managed to embrace the varied character of the house whilst providing very comfortable rooms, a relaxed and very welcoming atmosphere, croquet lawn, four-poster beds, and through Steve, excellent food.
We relaxed in the 1920s drawing room and fixed a pre-dinner drink through their well-stocked honesty bar, reading up on the local history and attractions. Dinner was a spiced welsh rarebit, mouthwatering steak with a generous serving of the rare Cafe de Paris butter (blended with over 20 ingredients), and a roast chicken with delicious home grown summer veg. The menu’s award-winning Caroline’s Dairy ice-cream from a local farm topped off the meal, and the only thing missing was a warning that just three scoops would cause addiction.
But the next day saw the sun reflecting off the beautiful rolling hills of the Downs, and demanded a morning’s exploring – after a substantial breakfast in the conservatory. On the advice of Jackie, we set off up the hill towards the South Downs Way, a path that stretches 100 miles from Winchester in Hampshire right up to the white cliffs of Beachy Head. The Way passes only a few miles north of Burpham, so we took footpaths that wind across the Duke of Norfolk’s Estate, where, in summer, the fields are purposefully bordered with wild flowers to encourage a vibrant eco-system and to add more colour to what is still a working landscape.
Another chocolate-box village is Amberley, popular to two distinct groups of tourists, as it boasts the attractions of Amberley Working Museum, a large site dedicated to the industrial heritage of the South East – and also a chalk quarry used in the James Bond caper View to a Kill.
We wandered back to Burpham along the Arun river (main pic), idly wondering if Mole or Rat might be messing about, such was the picturesque Wind in the Willows feel. West Sussex encourages the imagination to run wild, as there’s simply so much to stimulate wherever you look. A glance up from the birds in the water meadows and the medieval turrets of the castle beckon you forward. For us though, on such a sunny autumnal day it made sense hit the beach, and West Sussex boasts everything from Bognor to the more secluded sands at Clymping. We chose to follow the Arun to its source – the seaside town of Littlehampton.
Unfortunately, we were greeted upon arrival by a sea fret, a metereological term for a bloody great fog. This rather spoilt Littlehampton’s fairground attractions, but it boasts a boisterous East and much calmer West beach (divided by the Arun river), with a small marina and harbour as well – plenty to keep everyone occupied, assuming the sun’s shining. We settled straight for some succulent fish and chips from Osca’s, enjoyed the way nature intended – on a harbour wall, battling a stiff wind, with gulls eyeing every crumb.
The next day, the sadness of having to leave Burpham’s 1920s tranquillity was made up by the medieval allure of Arundel Castle, still home to the premier family of England’s hereditary peerage. Founded in 1067, the present version was the creation of the 13th Duke of Norfolk who rebuilt it between the 1870s and 1890s to become a Gothic masterpiece. Although bang up to date with their prices (£41 for a family ticket!), the gardens, Chapel, private rooms, armour, gallery, and of course the magnificent view out from the turrets back across the countryside makes for a full day out.
On the other side of the walls, the town itself yields plenty to do, built up on a steep hill dominated by the Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady and St Philip Howard. A mix of antique shops, tea rooms and delis, Arundel is like a calmer version of Stratford-upon-Avon, another town dominated by Elizabethan-era heritage.
The train from Arundel to Victoria is less than 90 minutes, so the Croydon challenge is in truth optional. But whether you drive or hop on the train, a weekend’s getaway in West Sussex lingers in the mind long after you’re back in K-Town. And in October, the crowds have scarpered.
Words & Photography: Tim Sowula