FOR yesterday’s walk, I once again stayed up all night to ensure that I could catch the earliest possible train without having to worry about snoozing through my alarm or anything. And indeed I could have caught that train had I not been distracted by something else in my tired, slightly trancelike state.
Fortunately I am no stranger to starting a walk half an hour behind schedule, my schedules being nominal at best and designed to accommodate an ambling pace. It should perhaps be no surprise then that I eventually finished my walk before sunset and a good forty minutes ahead.
I was pleasantly surprised nonetheless.
Content & Contentment
Yesterday’s walk was brought to you by the words ‘flat’ and ‘dull’. There were no exciting and vertiginous cliffs. There were no hills, very few interesting buildings or features and no scenes of breath-taking beauty. There were also no Martello towers, which was almost a nice change in itself.
But don’t be misled into thinking that I didn’t enjoy my walk. I actually enjoyed almost all of it, even the miles of shingle that I chose to walk towards the end. While there was little that leapt out and urgently grabbed my attention, it was all in all a pleasant day.
West Sussex’s countryside is relaxing and green, and walking by the sea is one of my favourite things. Yesterday then, was basically just one long, nice constitutional stroll along the beach. For seventeen miles. It was great, just don’t expect a lot of interesting photos.
I started my walk at Worthing Pier, which I had reached last week just before the last glints of twilight had failed. Seeing it in the morning light – I was going to say sunshine but at this point a thin veneer of cloud obscured the sun – I could see that it was one of the better south coast piers, with its structure intact and looking well-maintained. And empty.
February is somewhat out of season of course, and thus most of the seafront’s attractions were closed. Even the sea, which was on the turn of low tide, seemed to have decided that it was time to shun Worthing’s seafront. Well, who am I to argue with the power and majesty of the sea? I followed its example and headed out of town. The seafront to the west of the pier set the tone for the morning:
I’m possibly being unfair to Worthing. Although these days it is known as one of those quiet seaside towns to which pensioners retire, it used to be considered an elegant seaside resort and apparently has over two hundred listed buildings. It claims Oscar Wilde and playwright Harold Pinter among its former residents.
Originally a mackerel fishing village in an area that has been occupied for at least six thousand years, it is surrounded by the greatest concentration of Stone Age flint mines in Britain (and some of the oldest in Europe).
Worthing acquired its name from the Anglo-Saxons – ing names indicate ‘the place of [someone’s] people’ and in this case the someone was probably called Worþ (where þ represents the th sound), meaning ‘valiant one’. And now I am imagining an Old-English Klingon…
Captain: Fire phasers, Mr Worþ!
Anyway, moving on…
Moving on through West Worthing, that is, and Goring-by-Sea, where I found that the path along the top of the beach had become a little more detached from the town but had also ceased to be tarmac, becoming instead compacted pebbles, which is harder to walk on but not as bad as loose shingle.
Goring-by-Sea, not to be confused with Goring-on-Thames in Oxfordshire, is essentially just a suburb of Worthing, although it was considered a separate town until the late 20s. It claims Billy Idol as a former resident and its catholic church’s ceiling apparently has a copy of that of the Sistine Chapel.
Of far more importance to me was its beach café, where I joyfully stuffed my face with a late breakfast comprising a rather excellent bacon sandwich and a nice cup of tea (truly the bacon sandwich is the Ultimate Food of Walking). I think every other table in the café was occupied by people of retirement age, which neatly illustrates the town’s overwhelming demographic. It’s been quite a while since I was the youngest person in the room.
Suitably fortified, I resumed my journey at a suitably enthused pace and soon passed beyond the limits of the conurbation into what a helpful sign identified as the Goring Gap. This was, the sign told me, a carefully managed space between the conurbations in which the fields run right down to the beach; it is a very definite attempt to ensure that the Sussex coast doesn’t become just one big seaside town.
I have no problem with that; I applaud it. I may however quibble with the name.
Beyond the Gap
After the Goring Gap I passed by Ferring where I decided, more or less on a whim, to take advantage of the tide being out. The upper reaches of these West Sussex beaches are all shingle but there is sand further out, which was now exposed.
Accordingly, I crunched over the shingle – which I still say is about as much fun as eating wasps – to the sand and spent the next couple of miles trotting merrily along at the water’s edge listening to the gentle sound of waves that were nothing more than ripples. The sand was wet and firm underfoot and covered with more worm casts than I have ever seen in my life. Honestly, it was as if lugworms were trying to set some sort of record.
By walking along the beach I completely bypassed the tiny villages of Kingston Gorse and West Kingston and quite possibly walked over where the original village of Kingston once stood before being lost to the sea.
Kingston Gorse may sound oddly familiar – as it did to me – from news reports eleven years ago, when an eight year old girl, Sarah Payne, was kidnapped there and murdered. Her body was found after seventeen days of searching and heartfelt pleas from her family.
The murderer, Roy Whiting, was convicted a year later and is serving life in Wakefield. Child killers and paedophiles being pretty much despised by other prisoners, Whiting was subsequently attacked by another murderer, who scarred him with a razor. As attacks within a prison cannot formally go unpunished, his attacker received a sentence of six years but six years concurrent with his own sentence. This means that he will serve no extra time and amounts to the legal system saying ‘that was naughty, but yeah the bastard deserved it.’
On the back of revelations that Whiting had a prior conviction the News of the World launched a campaign that fuelled a national and frankly hysterical paedophile scare. They campaigned that parents of young children should be granted access to the Sex Offenders Register; a scheme of limited, strictly controlled access was subsequently introduced.
As I wandered along the beach, now in nowhere near as bouncy a mood as I had been, I realised that the tide was coming back in again and that I would soon be unable to walk around the groynes but instead would have to start clambering over them. This seemed like too much effort so I returned to the top of the beach and reluctantly crunched along the shingle until I found a route off the beach between a couple of the houses that backed onto it there.
Thus, I found myself in East Preston, in a pretty little street that turned out to be part of a private estate with all sorts of local rules designed to make it more like Stepford than the eastern extent of the Littlehampton conurbation.
To be honest, East Preston struck me as more cloying than appealing, as though someone had decided that having their village look like a chocolate box illustration was the most important thing of all. I decided not to take any pictures as that felt like aiding and abetting terminal tweeness, and took the first route I could back towards the beach.
The next mile and a half was a bit like my walk through Peacehaven, if you reduced the cliff edge at Peacehaven to exactly the same height as the beach and took away the chain link fence. I walked upon a neat grass verge – which was actually pretty muddy following two days of rain – with houses on one side and the beach on the other.
I’ll say this for the people of East Preston though, they do clean up after their dogs (unlike Peacehaven); I lost count of the number of people I saw with an excited dog’s lead in one hand and a little plastic bag of poo in the other. It was almost as if it was the latest in fashionable accessories (“dah-ling, no one but no one is seen dead these days without their little bag of dog poo”). Perhaps there’s a rule for that too.
East Preston turned into Rustington, which is home to a number of Grade II listed buildings including a street of thatched cottages. I didn’t see the thatched cottages but I did see a bunch of definitely unlisted flats, which would have looked right at home in Bracknell or Slough. I was just beginning to feel a bit underwhelmed when I passed the magnificent edifice of Rustington Convalescent Home, purpose-built in 1897 by Sir Henry Harben.
Sir Henry was the President of the Prudential Assurance Company and, before that, Master of the Worshipful Company of Carpenters, one of the City of London’s ancient livery companies dating back to the thirteenth century.
The Convalescent Home is actually managed by the Carpenters and is still in use for the purpose for which it was designed; it is basically a private nursing home for those recovering from surgery or illness and typically offers short-term bookings for just one or two weeks. It is open to anyone that can pay the necessary £485 to £640 a week (space permitting) and is subsidised by an endowment from its late founder.
Rustington was the scene of two successful air speed record attempts, the first in September 1946 involved a Gloster Meteor Star while the second, in September 1953, used a Hawker Hunter. This mini-tradition of record setting seems to have struck a chord in Rustington, which is next door to Littlehampton and seems to feel somewhat overshadowed by its neighbour.
Thus it was that in 2002 a local baker set about baking the world’s largest hot cross bun (almost 43 kg and 1.3m wide) as a more than slightly desperate attempt to promote the town.
And Did Those Feet…
One claim to fame that Rustington genuinely has is that it was the home of composer Sir Hubert Parry from 1880 until his death in 1918. It was here that he lived when Robert Bridges, the Poet Laureate in 1916, asked him to put William Blake’s poem And Did Those Feet In Ancient Time to music for patriotic, morale-boosting reasons (it being WW1 at the time). The result was of course England’s beloved ‘hymn’ and unofficial anthem, Jerusalem.
No, I wasn’t singing Jerusalem to myself as I passed from Rustington into Littlehampton. Not at all, Much.
East Beach Café
Things became a bit more touristy as I entered Littlehampton, with beachside refreshments and a bizarre looping art form that was, with only slightly less desperation than the Rustington hot cross bun record, touted as the Longest Bench in the World. Much more interesting to look at, although not to enter on account of being absolutely packed, was this:
The East Beach Café is a monocoque design, meaning that it’s a one piece shell whose exterior design is in fact also its structural support, and was built in 2007 by Heatherwick Studio. It has won a score of international awards for design, architecture, steelwork etc. I have no idea if it has won any for its food.
Listed in Domesday as ‘Hantone’, Littlehampton dates back to before the Romans but was given to the Abbey of St Martin de Seez following the Norman conquest. In 1400 it passed to the Earls of Arundel and Dukes of Norfolk, whose seat is still in Arundel a little further inland.
The town sits on the mouth of the river Arun, although the current channel was cut in 1735 following expansion of the port and the bane of coastal ports, river silting.
By the eighteenth century it was selling itself as holiday destination and claims pretty much all the romantic poets – Byron, Coleridge, Shelley etc. – as visitors. It was formerly also a cross-channel port, sending steam packets to Honfleur, Le Havre and St Malo, until Newhaven overtook it and the boats went there instead.
These days it houses a garish holiday fun park – all plastic water slides and the like – and the global headquarters of the Body Shop.
I made an enforced right turn at the river mouth and headed into town past a number of tempting but crowded cafés and an RNLI lifeboat station, which in 1967 was the first beneficiary of the children’s magazine programme Blue Peter’s lifeboat appeal. After Littlehampton, Blue Peter went on to provide another 24 lifeboats across the country.
Before long I came to a retractable footbridge, which sits on the site of a 1908 swing bridge. The swing bridge, which had replaced the 1825 chain ferry, was itself replaced in 1973 by a new bridge half a mile upstream, better suited to heavy motor traffic.
The West bank of the Arun is surprisingly undeveloped and I set off down a short road towards a footpath I intended to take towards Atherington. I was not entirely overjoyed to find that this footpath, which skirted a golf course (ugh) was ankle deep in mud. I was all set to squelchily persevere when a very helpful lady with two dogs approached from the other direction.
‘Don’t,’ she told me, ‘it’s much, much worse further on.’
‘How deep is the mud?’ I asked her. She pointed to her wellies, which had mud to halfway up the shin. I looked at the dogs, which the mud had rendered two-tone.
‘’I’ll go another way,’ I said.
And so I found myself wandering right down to the mouth of the Arun again, although this time on the west bank. I had been reluctant to do this because my OS map showed no path along the beach there, but even shingle is better than shin-deep mud. My new route did take me past another café, which being on the west bank was almost empty, so I popped inside to buy some chips before walking down onto the beach.
A Stroll Along the Beach
Climping Sand Dunes
To my surprise, although most of the beach was shingle, the very top comprised a system of sand dunes. Not big dunes, admittedly – the terrain was still fairly flat – but dunes nonetheless. I like dunes, with their tall, spiky grass and soft sand underfoot and so was quite contented as I strode along, munching my chips.
My original plan had been to follow footpaths and back roads to Atherington, a tiny coastal hamlet, and then onto Middleton-on-Sea. What I actually did was just to stay on the beach. After a while the dunes became fenced off and I was forced to walk on shingle after all but this was okay because it was fairly compact at the top of the beach. I more or less bypassed Atherington completely and only strayed from the beach in Middleton because the incoming tide made a few short sections impassible.
Middleton-on-Sea is another ancient village now absorbed into a larger conurbation (namely Bognor). There was an aircraft factory there in WW1 and a lot of development in the 20s.
I didn’t care about that though, for me Middleton is where I sat on a bench and watched the sea, which had picked up a bit, crash into the beach’s flood defences. Some of the spray was absolutely spectacular but quite hard to photograph – the delay between pressing the button and the phone taking a picture meant I had to try to anticipate a good spray. I’m not good at anticipating such things, it turns out (and I was blissfully unaware that the camera had a sports mode that would have completely solved this problem).
I stomped along the shingle, accompanied by the crash of waves, and wondered to what extent the smugness of owning a house that backs onto the beach is countered by the risk of inundation. Middleton-on-Sea became Felpham, where Wiliam Blake wrote Milton and therefore also And Did Those Feet In Ancient Time, which makes Jerusalem a very West Sussex-based endeavour indeed.
Felpham (historically pronounced as ‘felfum’ although ‘felpum’ is more usually heard now) provided me with a promenade to walk on, although it was partly strewn with shingle, which made it a little bit like walking on marbles.
Sir Billy Butlin opened his holiday camp in Bognor in 1960 and it is one of only three left (although these days they are owned by Bourne Leisure).
From 1936, when he opened the first one in Skegness, through to the boom in cheap holiday flights, they were highly popular but remain my idea of a holiday from hell. In founding Butlin’s, Sir Billy was reacting to his own holiday from hell on Barry Island in his youth, where (as was common at the time) their B&B would not allow anyone in during the day and there was little to do elsewhere.
While Butlin’s does nothing for my spirits, as I approached it a very cute redhead joined the promenade and spent the next half a mile or so walking a little ahead of me, which perhaps occupied more of my attention than it ought. It did however mean that I was feeling quite upbeat as I entered Bognor proper, which is perhaps just as well.
Bognor (Bucgan ora in a document dated 680) is one of the oldest recorded place names in Sussex and means ‘Bucge’s landing place’, Bucge being a woman’s name.
Once a fashionable and wealthy resort – it was chosen for George V to recuperate in 1929, which is when it gained the Regis suffix – these days Bognor is a shadow of its former self. I realised this almost as soon as I reached Bognor Pier and the end of my walk. A number of teenagers were lurking about near the pier in that bored and listless way that teenagers do. They were also being pretty loud and obnoxious to each other in a way that suggested that there would be a fight before long.
I headed inland towards the station past a small park full of listless, bored kids hanging about in like manner to their older counterparts at the pier.
As I approached the town centre (bombed by the IRA in 1994, damaging 15 shops but no casualties), I found it looking a bit past its best. It was hard to put my finger on exactly, but Bognor just felt a bit run down.
When I found the station, the nearest entrance was closed due to vandalism, so I made my way in through another and found the toilets likewise closed due to vandalism. By now Bognor wasn’t scoring highly on my list of towns to hang about in after dark and I jumped on a train home fairly sharpish.
As the train pulled out of the station, the most beautiful sunset turned the sky all the colours of fire. I reached for my camera and, in that brief time, the reds had already faded. Even so, it put the smile back on my face. I love a good sunset.
This time: 17 miles
Total since Gravesend: 234½ miles