IF LAST week’s walk was brought to you by the words ‘flat’ and ‘dull’ then yesterday’s walk was sponsored by the noises ‘brrr’ and ‘thud-clang!’ The latter is of course the sound of a metal alloy simian undergoing meteorological castration. The Met Office had promised, more or less, that the day would be bright and sunny but only sunny enough that the ‘brisk’ wind (their adjective) would elicit surprise as one’s sunglasses froze to one’s face.
‘Aha,’ I thought, ‘Just the conditions for a bracing twenty mile walk.’ And a half. It’s important that last half mile. It doesn’t sound much but by God I certainly felt it.
My walk began as is now traditional, with no sleep and the first train of the morning, which turns out to be the train before the one I thought was the first train. As it happened, the only route to Bognor Regis at that time in the morning was via Brighton, so via Brighton I went, acquiring some breakfast on the way.
Bognor, when I got there, was looking better by daylight although not enough to make me want to hang around. Not that I planned on staying still for more than about five seconds for fear of freezing solid in the wind. Yes thank you, O Met Office, the wind was, as you said, ‘brisk’.
I returned to Bognor Pier which lacked the crowd of aggressive teenagers that had graced it last week, on account of it being half eight in the morning and not entirely warm (did I mention that?).
As with the rest of Bognor, the pier looked much better by daylight and I figured out why it looks a bit wrong to me: The pier has a large building at its entrance but the head of the pier, which typically also has some sort of structure, lacks one. This means that you have this big block of a building with what looks like a short landing jetty sticking out of its back. It just seems the wrong way around, in a manner not immediately obvious until you look close – like a sock turned inside out.
Apparently it used to be a lot longer and had a pavilion at the end but a series of bad storms in the mid 60s, followed by decades of neglect, left the end so ruined that eventually demolition was the only way to deal with it. Much of the remaining length of the pier was taken out by a more recent (twenty-first century) storm. A sad end for a pier (pun intended).
I set off from Bognor at a pace almost as brisk as the wind, following the promenade until it ended and then a path behind some beach huts, which itself ended where the nearby road swept inwards into the town. The beach at this point, like almost all the beaches so far on these walks, was shingle.
I decided to follow the road into town, and soon found myself wandering about in the suburban streets of Aldwick, the part of Bognor (originally a separate village) in which George V convalesced in 1929. The place where the King stayed, Craigweil House, has since been demolished but Bognor retains a link with its royal visitor in the suffix Regis, which it gained as a consequence.
Obviously, I didn’t see any kings in Aldwick, although I did see three very impressively tall trees, just before I decided to follow a path back onto the beach. Naturally, I picked a path that emerged at the only point on the beach which was impassable at high tide. Equally inevitable was that I did this at high tide.
I looked at the waves (quite small) splashing against the rocks that made up the groynes and sea defences at that point and the ‘common sense’ part of my brain decided to rouse for its annual outing.
‘Uh no,’ it said.
So back into Aldwick I went, and soon found my way onto another part of the beach further along.
Ninja Dog Lady
An old lady walking her dog confirmed (after apologising for her dog’s Ninja Surprise Reveal more-or-less under my feet) that I had previously tried to get past the only impassable point on the entire beach and went on to indicate which clusters of houses along the beach were Aldwick and which were Pagham. She also warned me that I couldn’t follow the beach all the way to Selsey Bill on account of Pagham Harbour being in the way, although I already knew that.
Ninja Dog Lady went on to tell me that she and her husband had also been walking lately, along the South Downs Way, but that the longest day’s walk she had done was fourteen miles. I felt quite heroic as I crunched away across the shingle to continue my twenty mile trek, expecting that that adjective would be switching to ‘pathetic’ by the end of it.
I did take a photo of the beach and the bay, stretching away in front of me. But when I reviewed it on the train home I realised that it was actually just a picture of a boring shingle beach stretching away ahead. I think we all know what a shingle beach looks like by now. I know what it feels like underfoot too.
For some of the way the very top of the beach had been fixed by vegetation, with grass defiantly growing amid the stones. I walked on this where possible, which carried me close to the beachfront houses, many of which sported flagpoles in their gardens. By far the most popular flag for these properties was the Union Flag, although the Cross of St George and the Welsh Red Dragon (Y Ddraig Goch) also managed a good showing. The only flag that actually made me stop in mild puzzlement was the state flag of Arizona, which fluttered proudly from one house.
‘I wonder if they moved here for the weather?’ I asked myself, muttering aloud through my chattering teeth.
At some point, more or less where Ninja Dog Lady had pointed, the conurbation stopped being Aldwick and became the village of Pagham.
Pagham Village itself dates from at least the thirteenth century but the stretch along the beach front is a twentieth century development. Like Shoreham Beach (two walks ago) it originally comprised a number of bungalows constructed from disused railway carriages although many of these have since been rebuilt with more conventional materials.
At low tide, Pagham Beach reveals the remains of a WW2 Mulberry Harbour – the concrete floating harbour sections which solved the problem of Normandy’s beaches not having suitable harbours, or at least no suitable harbours not crawling with heavy German defences. Obviously, the remains aren’t particularly floaty, or they wouldn’t be submerged at high tide. Equally obviously, my having already mentioned that it was high tide, I didn’t get to see it.
In Search of Coffee
I decided to quell my immense and crushing disappointment (‘oh well,’ I said to myself) by finding a coffee. To this end I accosted a man having a smoke on the beach and asked him where I might find a café. He looked at me as if I were a gibbering idiot.
‘Hmm,’ I thought. ‘I have had no sleep. Maybe I asked him in some other random language by mistake – Swahili, perhaps? (Je, mkahawa wapi, tafadhali?) Or Cornish (Ple’ma koffiji, mar pleg?)
I tried again. He nodded as if agreeing that yes, I was a bit dim, and pointed to the street behind him, which was end on to the beach.
‘You see that black land rover?’ he asked, ‘that’s the café it’s parked outside.’
Moments later I had a cup of tea and a bacon sandwich in a café that was, for some reason, decorated inside with American vehicle licence plates. I neglected to specify black tea, so my beverage contained a dash of moo juice (I drank it anyway, black is only a preference). My bacon sandwich was okay but not spectacular.
Suitably warmed I continued the short distance along to where Pagham runs out of beach on account of encountering the mouth of Pagham Harbour. I also found this helpful sign:
Pagham Harbour represents a coastal form I’d not really encountered yet on my journey from Gravesend, the natural harbour, with its low-lying surrounds and sea birds and so on. I’d passed the ghost of such a harbour – the Pevensey Levels were once such, but had long since silted up. Pagham Harbour therefore made a nice change.
As it turns out however, the harbour hasn’t always been full of water. In the 1870s the enterprising Victorians decided to dam the harbour entrance and drain the harbour basin, reclaiming the land for agricultural use along with an unreliable light railway. This impressive endeavour lasted all of about forty years until a massive storm in 1910 breached the shingle sea wall and re-flooded the harbour. It has been tidal again ever since.
That the harbour is tidal soon turned out to be a bit of a problem when the footpath I was following around it turned out to be, if not actually submerged, then certainly rather more soft, squelchy and shin-deep than I’d prefer.
The path beside the harbour also smelt quite bad, although some – but not most – of the odour turned out to be a decomposing fox. I have to admit I wasn’t all that keen on wading through the Bog of Eternal Stench and delightedly took the first alternative path that presented itself, which was merely ankle deep in mud – a paradise by comparison. As I squelched away from the water’s edge I felt the eyes of two coots upon me, which turned their backs on me and swam off.
‘Idiot mammal,’ they seemed to say, ‘if you don’t know to splay your feet on the mud and not sink, you’re just not worth bothering with.’
I saw very few other coots, so perhaps they’d spread the message. No one told the ducks though, of which there were one or two.
The paths got muddier and muddier until they were essentially just waterlogged and not all that different from if I’d just stuck to splashing about at the harbour’s edge. Eventually though, a path spat me out onto a narrow road and I found myself in part of the village of Sidlesham.
Sidlesham is an ancient village and is proud to have had a prebendary (a type of church canon associated with a cathedral) since mediaeval times. The nearest cathedral is in Chichester these days but there used to be one on the banks of the harbour – the village called Church Norton is the most probable location, being the traditional site of St Wilfrid’s landing – back when Sussex was an independent Saxon kingdom.
Sidlesham’s other claim to fame (for a given value of fame) is that it is home to Sussex’s earliest documented reference to cricket, two men having been fined 12d by the courts in 1611 for failing to attend church on account of playing the game.
I paused in Sidlesham and sat on a bench, looking out across the harbour while I ate a sandwich that I had cunningly bought earlier. The bench was located on Sidlesham Quay, the remnants of a quayside that faced onto an expanse of mud and reeds.
The quay, one of a succession which dated back to mediaeval times, used to service a tide mill. The last mill ceased operations in 1865, a few years prior to the harbour being drained, and was demolished in 1918.
A Leafy Path
I was running almost an hour behind plan by now, so I set off along the squelchy, muddy paths at quite a rate only to find, to my surprise, that the path I was on suddenly stopped being a linear quagmire amid open fields and instead became something of a leafy tunnel, which was only a little bit muddy. I love paths that are also leafy tunnels. There is something magical about them.
I was less impressed when this idyllic-seeming path then spat me out onto the busy B2145 in the village of Upper Norton, so I joyfully turned off the road soon after, onto a footpath that also happened to be a long farm track. A very long farm track indeed.
As I wandered along I saw that at least two plants had decided to flower already. One was the snowdrop, which I found in isolated patches, always secluded somewhere impossible to reach and photograph. The other was the gorse, which was a veritable riot of yellow. Having spent a fair few hours of my childhood wandering about in heathland habitats, I always love to see the gorse bloom.
Back to the Beach
A succession of farm tracks and a narrow road so full of potholes that its 30 mph speed limit sign was more of a taunt than a limitation brought me back to the coast a mile or so southwest of Pagham Harbour. Here, I stopped to rest my weary feet and looked out across the view only to find that others had done so before me.
A short while later I resumed my journey, now travelling along a concrete promenade towards Selsey Bill, the southernmost point of the Manhood Peninsula.
Selsey (Saxon Sealsey, ‘Isle of Seals’) has been occupied since palaeolithic times and became the capital of the Kingdom of Sussex, after the Saxons arrived. The Venerable Bede recorded that St Wilfrid arrived circa 680 and converted the kingdom to Christianity, hence the cathedral built at Church Norton. The town is recorded as Selesie in Domesday.
The town is also home to one of England’s oldest cricket clubs, of which television’s famous astronomer Sir Patrick Moore is a member (he has lived in Selsey since 1968.)
Just past the lifeboat station is a stretch of grass verge that is all that remains of the gibbet field, a field (now mostly lost to the sea) in which gibbets once stood.
In 1749 fourteen smugglers, members of the notorious Hawkhurst Gang, were accused of the murder of a Customs officer and another man. Seven were tried and condemned to death at Chichester Assizes, one died in gaol before sentence could be carried out but the other six were duly hanged.
Subsequently, two of the smugglers, John Cobby and John Hammond, had their bodies hung in the gibbets in this field so that they could be seen at great distance as a warning.
There is still only one road in and out of Selsey, this being the B2145 which I had tried to avoid earlier. At one point the road crosses a bridge over the Broad Rife, a stream flowing into the harbour. The bridge is at a point called ‘the Ferry’ (because that’s what was there before the bridge and why mess with tradition). The ferry was necessary because otherwise Selsey lived up to its island-y name, becoming inaccessible at high tide.
I reached Selsey Bill and found that it was covered in large and expensive houses so that I couldn’t actually stand on the tip of the headland unless I went down onto the beach. The tide was on its way out by now, so I could have but I chose not to, having already decided that my next few miles after Selsey would be on the beach and I didn’t want to spend even more time on shingle until necessary.
As it turned out though, that plan was doomed.
I had realised that by sticking to the beach, I could shave a mile and a half off my walk which would otherwise involve a spider web of footpaths across the countryside (there is no coast path here and, as mentioned, only one road out of town). It appears that Chichester District Council thought was being a bit un-ambitious of me and so they decided to embark upon a programme of beach work, moving the shingle about and generally blocking off beach access while their bulldozers crawled about all over it.
I rapidly re-plotted my route therefore and managed to find two paths that allowed me to travel two sides of a triangle in order to bypass the blockage.
By the time I returned to the beach in Bracklesham Bay the tide was right out, revealing the layer of clay that forms the Bracklesham Beds, which are rich in fossils. So much so, in fact, that the observant can often find fossils just sitting about, half-embedded in the beach.
My feet were quite tired by now so I approached the town of Bracklesham by walking along the soft clay sands, measuring my pace in terms of the number of groynes passed.
Bracklesham Bay was the site of Exercise Fabius, one of the preparatory test exercise that preceded the D-Day landings. The exercise enjoyed mixed success, as the rusting carcass of a Valentine tank, offshore in ten metres of water, demonstrates. The Valentine had been testing the equipment to be used for making tanks amphibious enough to float. (test result: not that reliable; new tanks and crew now required).
Further along the bay I reached East Wittering where I accosted an elderly lady and her dog to check how far along the coast I was (it’s hard to tell from the beach). The woman confirmed that I was where I thought I was while her dog leapt about excitedly and showed a noisy lack of ninja skills. I let slip that I planned to cut inland and head to West Wittering by road
‘You can,’ she said, ‘or you can go all around the coast here. It’s a lovely day for it.’
‘Yes,’ I thought, ‘it’s a lovely day. For polar bears.’ But the Non-Ninja Dog Lady had put the idea in my head now. I looked at the sun, low in the sky, and calculated my remaining daylight. It would be seriously touch and go. I’d be an idiot to try it, while the road route would be more direct.
‘Not giving up are you?’ asked my inner voice. I told it to shut up. It did so, knowing already that it had won.
I set off again along the beach. A little further a second, dogless but very helpful woman gave me precise directions for which paths to take and how to find my bus stop in West Wittering. The sun set as I was talking to her, leaving me with just half an hour of twilight but I charged on, coaxing a turn of speed from my tired legs that surprised me.
The shingle and clay gave way to fine sand as I approached East Head, the eastern end of the mouth of Chichester Harbour. Here I turned right, heading along the edge of the harbour as the light began to fail.
I made it into West Wittering as darkness enveloped the village and navigated the last few streets by torchlight until I found the bus stop exactly where I’d been told.
It was outside a pub. Hooray!
I collapsed into a chair with a gin and tonic and a packet of crisps, feeling pretty pleased with myself, and waited the twenty minutes until the next bus. One bus, three trains and a tube ride later I made it home, tired but smugly accomplished.
This time: 20½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 255 miles