West Sussex and the South Downs

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A view over the South Downs National Park from Cocking, West Sussex. Credit: Tony Watson / Alamy

West Sussex’s rolling hills, dotted with castles, gardens and stately homes, soothe the soul

Words by Catherine Jones

With its glorious, undulating countryside punctuated by historic market towns and impossibly idyllic villages, it’s no wonder West Sussex has beguiled so many visitors through the centuries.

For poet, painter and mystic William Blake, who penned his verse And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time while living in the little village of Felpham, it really was ‘England’s green and pleasant land’.

Some 70 years later, Victorian Poet Laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson fled to the area to escape the starstruck fans who flocked to his front door on the nearby Isle of Wight. He built a new home at Black Down – at 918ft the highest point in the county. From there he could gaze across the purple heather and ancient woodlands, immortalising the scene before him in verse:

“You came, and looked and loved the view
Long-known and loved by me,
Green Sussex fading into blue
With one grey glimpse of sea.”

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Laurie Nobel/ Getty images

While they may not all have captured it quite so poetically, millions of others have admired that same landscape since Neolithic man first traversed the county’s tracks and droveways some 5,000 years ago.

Bounded by Hampshire, Surrey, East Sussex and the waters of the English Channel, West Sussex combines a rural landscape with a sand-and-shingle coastline stretching 50 miles from the exclusive sailing waters of the Witterings in the west to the Georgian seaside resort of Worthing to the east.

Rising behind the coast is the South Downs National Park, dissected by the South Downs Way from where you can explore sites like Cissbury Ring, peeling back layers of history to its beginnings as an Iron Age hill fort.

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Cobbled Lombard Street in Petworth, West Sussex. Credit: Greg Balfour Evans / Alamy

Nestling in the southwest, the county town of Chichester is a microcosm of West Sussex’s rich and varied history, from the city’s Roman origins, which still define its modern layout, to its Norman cathedral and 18th-century townhouses.

The Romans arrived in the area in the 1st century AD, leaving their mark not just in its names and street patterns but also at nearby Fishbourne where there are the impressive remains of a Roman palace, the largest ancient residence discovered in Northern Europe.

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Chichester Cathedral dates back to Norman times. Credit: Christopher Nicholson / Alamy

The vast, colonnaded complex is believed to have been built soon after the Roman conquest of Britain, and a museum building constructed over the site allows visitors to explore the treasures of its excavated north wing, while its gardens have been planted as they would have appeared to the palace’s original wealthy occupants.

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A Roman mosaic at Bignor Roman Villa. Credit: Bildarchiv Monheim GmbH / Alamy

The remains of a second Roman villa lie a few miles away at Bignor, where you can admire some of the most intricate and best-preserved mosaic floors to be found in Britain.

Thanks to its location on the South Coast, West Sussex was inhabited by successive waves of invaders, including the Saxons, from whom it derives its name. Harold Godwinson was the last Saxon king, and the village of Bosham (pronounced Bozzom) on the Chichester estuary is said to be his ancestral home. Its Holy Trinity church, where he is reputed to have prayed before the Battle of Hastings, is immortalised in the Bayeux Tapestry.

Bosham harbour

The most recent invasion threat came just 80 years ago when Britain was at war with the Nazis on land, sea and in the sky. RAF Tangmere, on the outskirts of Chichester, was an important part of Britain’s air defence. And it was from here on 9 August 1941 that flying ace Douglas Bader, the airfield’s Wing Commander in charge of three Spitfire squadrons, set off on the flight that ended with him being shot down and taken prisoner of war. Bader’s Spitfires may be long gone, but Tangmere itself is now a military aviation museum where you can learn more about the airfield’s story.

The 16th-century Poplar Cottage at the Weald and Downland Museum. Credit: David C Tomlinson

Some 700 years of history, from medieval times onwards, is preserved at the Weald and Downland Living Museum at Singleton. While its thatched court barn has become known in recent times as the picturesque backdrop for television’s The Repair Shop, the wider open-air museum holds an array of rescued working, farm and public buildings – from a watermill to a smithy, and a medieval shop to a timbered market hall – all dismantled at their original locations and painstakingly rebuilt on the site.

The museum’s modest structures stand in contrast to the grand historic houses that punctuate the West Sussex landscape. Magnificent Arundel Castle was built in the wake of the Norman Conquest to protect the Arun valley and has been the ancestral home first of the Fitzalans and then the Dukes of Norfolk, Britain’s pre-eminent Catholic family, for more than 850 sometimes turbulent – years. Thomas Howard, the 4th Duke, was beheaded for plotting to marry Mary, Queen of Scots and put her on the English throne.

An aerial view of Arundel Castle

As Earl Marshal, the Duke of Norfolk is also responsible for organising important state events – including the coronation of King Charles III this year.

Arundel’s richly decorated state rooms are home to fine art and beautiful furniture, while the castle itself overlooks the town below with its Roman Catholic cathedral, museums and more than 200 listed buildings.

Treasures also fill the interior of Standen, an Arts and Crafts beauty set in a hillside garden near East Grinstead and whose carpets, wallpaper and furnishings were all designed by William Morris & Co. The mansion, dressed as if for a weekend stay in the Roaring Twenties, was one of the first houses in the country to have electric lighting and still boasts its original fittings.

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Hand painted wallpaper at Standen House, Sussex. Credit: Andrew Mason / Alamy

West of Standen, Petworth began life as a medieval manor – the current house dates from the 1690s when it was built by the 6th Duke of Somerset. Petworth was given to the National Trust after the Second World War, and inside its imposing Baroque exterior you can discover one of the Trust’s most important art collections, which includes works by Van Dyck, Gainsborough and JMW Turner.

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Petworth House

The latter, a frequent house guest, kept a studio at Petworth and was inspired by both its dazzling interiors and its Capability Brown-designed pleasure garden and deer park.

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The North Gallery at Petworth House. Credit: ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Indeed, West Sussex is home to some of the country’s most quintessentially English gardens, helped in no small part by it being officially the sunniest county in the British Isles. Among them is West Dean, a few miles north of Chichester, whose 90 acres include a walled kitchen garden boasting 100 varieties of apple, a collection of Victorian glasshouses and a magnificent 300ft Edwardian pergola dripping in magnolia, roses and honeysuckle.

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West Dean Gardens. Credit: West Dean Gardens/ John Glover

Springtime sees its arboretum ablaze with rhododendrons and azaleas, while an amphitheatre in the formal gardens becomes a stage for open-air performances in the summer. Leonardslee, near Horsham, was first laid out in the early 19th century, but over the years its important Grade I listed landscape suffered periods of neglect and was almost lost forever before new owners embarked on a major restoration project.

Now described as the finest woodland garden in England, its 240 acres also embrace lawns and parkland, a sculpture garden and even a rare colony of wallabies, first introduced to Leonardslee in the 1880s.

The village of West Dean on the South Downs, West Sussex. Credit: Paul weston / Alamy

From chalk downs to charming cottages, and mosaics to marsupials, ‘England’s green and pleasant land’ continues to inspire the mind and soothe the soul.

This is an extract, read the full feature in the July/August 2023 issue of BRITAIN, available to buy here from Friday 9 June. 

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