When I’m busy writing about far-flung city breaks or adventures abroad, I forget to shout about the sights on my doorstep here in Sussex. It’s high time this was resolved, especially as East and West Sussex have some really unusual attractions that need to be in the spotlight. From an Indian-inspired pavilion to a 15th century Chaucer text, these unique locations are certainly worth your time.
It started life as a small Saxon village, but today Arundel is a busy town, dwarfed by a cathedral and a huge castle that’s nearly 1,000 years old. Just along from the castle, you can hire a rowing boat at Swanbourne Lake, before checking out the Blackfriars ruins as you head back to the main streets.
Away from the obvious tourist attractions, Kim’s Bookshop is one of my favourite places in Arundel. Packed to the rafters with second-hand books, ranging from well-thumbed paperbacks to prized first editions, it’s a goldmine for any book lover. I also have a soft spot for the Bjorn Wiinblad Nymolle plaques at Scandinavian Collectibles and the gorgeous food supplies from Pallant of Arundel.
Tarrant Street has a great selection of independent tea rooms and cafes, including Tudor Rose, Bertie’s and Belinda’s – the last of which is based in a picture-perfect 16th century building and sells cream teas at ridiculously low prices. Also on Tarrant Street you’ll find Peper and Harrow, a new shop specialising in eye-catching luxury socks, and Nineveh House, a small antiques and craft market based in an old church.
This quiet harbour village has a few claims to fame, including a reference in the Bayeux Tapestry, and a rumour that Harold Godwinson (King Harold II) may have been buried here after his defeat at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
It’s also believed that King Canute – who ruled England, as well as large parts of Scandinavia – has a daughter buried in the churchyard: Gunhilda of Denmark is said to have drowned in the mill stream. Maybe a good reason not to wade in there yourself.
In less distant history, Bosham has been used as a filming location for episodes of Poirot and Midsomer Murders. The village tends to be pretty packed at weekends, with the sailing club in constant use, artists and walkers enjoying the views, and the local fudge shop doing a roaring trade in handmade fudge.
Immortalised in Graham Greene’s novel, Brighton Rock, loved by the Georgians and used as a battleground between Mods and Rockers in the 60s, Brighton is an iconic Sussex destination. It has a packed events calendar for visitors, including the Fringe, the Great Escape Festival, the London-Brighton Veteran Car Run, and the Pride march, which has been going strong for 25 years. In between events, landmarks like the Palace Pier and the famous Brighton Pavilion are huge draws in their own right (though personally I still love the skeleton of the old West Pier at sunset).
Whilst there’s a big club scene and plenty of painfully cool bars to choose from, Brighton also famously appeals to hippies and health food fans. You don’t have to look far to find an eco-ethical boutique or a veggie/vegan/raw food cafe – admittedly not cheap, but definitely in demand.
Away from the high street stores surrounding Churchill Square, the Lanes and the North Laine are two alternative shopping areas you can’t afford to miss. My top tip is to set aside at least half an hour to browse in Snoopers Paradise, an indoor market in the North Laine selling vintage clothing, books and collectibles, with customised clothes and jewellery on the top floor. Prices vary, but you can usually make £10 go a long way.
This city offers a more low-key alternative to London’s arts scene. It’s best known for the Chichester Festival Theatre (est. 1962), which reopened last summer and has since showcased a range of headline-grabbing plays, including Amadeus and Gypsy.
Pallant House Gallery, tucked away on a side-street, has a rolling programme of innovative exhibitions and a tempting permanent collection, including plenty of Pop Art. There’s also a small collection of street art dotted around the city centre, with irresistible spidery figures splashed on buildings courtesy of Phlegm and other high-profile urban artists.
History-wise, Chichester was a Roman settlement with baths and a temple; today you can see remains of the temple at the local museum, called the Novium, or head out of the city to Fishbourne Roman Palace.
Wondering why the Washington Post called Lewes a ‘feisty British town’? Revolutionary thinker Thomas Paine honed his debating skills and began to write about politics during his six years here. The White Hart Hotel was one of Paine’s regular haunts, and he lived in Bull House before emigrating to the USA. He went on to influence the American Revolution with his works, including ‘The Rights of Man’ and ‘Common Sense’, and is known as one of the Founding Fathers.
Beyond Paine’s legacy, the town has other talking points, with a Norman castle, a brewery dating back to 1790, and a handful of twittens – tiny passages or alleyways between walls and buildings, used since Saxon times. Today its antique shops are thriving, and its gift shops sell merchandise stating ‘Lewes is the centre of the cosmos’.
The Bonfire Night celebrations in Lewes are some of the best (and definitely the biggest) in the UK. Tens of thousands of visitors watch effigies of famous unpopular figures being set onto bonfires, to remember Guy Fawkes Night and the Lewes martyrs. Every 5th November, the town’s various ‘Bonfire Societies’ run their own events, followed by a combined street parade. Previous headline-grabbing effigies have included Vladimir Putin, Bashar Al-Assad and David Cameron. A feisty British town indeed.
Petworth House, owned by the National Trust, should be your first port of call. This grand estate is full of quirky artefacts and lavish decor. Make sure you track down the Molyneux Globe, which is the oldest English globe in existence and dates from 1592; it was given to the Earl of Northumberland by Walter Raleigh when they were in prison together. Another piece of history is the Chaucer Manuscript, dating from around 1420-1440.
Petworth also has a vast art collection, including works by JMW Turner, who had a studio in the house itself; the Mr Turner film was partly shot here, so a temporary exhibition fills you in on the story behind the filming. The grounds surrounding the house are perfect for long walks, and they’re also the setting for outdoor events such as vintage brocantes (a posh French word for fairs).
Like Lewes and Arundel, the town is a magnet for antiques enthusiasts, though you’ll need a slightly bigger budget here. In between window shopping, pop into one of two branches of The Hungry Guest – their deli, to gorge on freshly baked bread and cakes, or their cafe for main meals using local ingredients. If you like Petworth, head for nearby Midhurst afterwards – it has a similar feel, and the floor-to-ceiling piles of antiques crammed into Marmaduke’s (on Rumbold’s Hill) have to be seen to be believed.
Need any more Sussex inspiration? Don’t forget to check out my Rye photo essay.