MY CUNNING plan for my fourteenth coastal walk was to walk from Newhaven to Shoreham on Saturday. Indeed this plan was so cunning it mutated to keep everyone guessing.
In truth, the weather forecast for Saturday was one of bucketing rain, which didn’t sound a bundle of laughs. The best day this week, according to the Met Office, was yesterday (Thursday). So yesterday I went.
I went, in fact, slightly further than intended although I had previously given some thought to upping my mileage to twenty. As it happened, I just got to the end of my walk and thought ‘oh, what the hell…’
So, yesterday morning I was up with the lark – or at least the crow, I didn’t see any larks – by the simple and time-honoured expedient of not actually going to bed. Still, I was pretty awake and keen and surprisingly full of beans – not actual beans but maybe toast and marmalade – when I arrived back at Newhaven Town and set off.
The station is close to the entrance to the ferry terminal, Newhaven being an international ferry port with a regular service to Dieppe. From there I followed a path into the harbour area, passing a number of old, decayed jetties, roped off and plastered with warning signs. These rotted, unsafe structures added a note of melancholy, pointing as they did to days of a larger fishing fleet which is no longer here to need or maintain them.
A lone cormorant sat upon one of the posts and I bid it a cheery good morning, just because. Down below it, on the surface of the water, a number of ducks and coots were swimming about. Coots, of course, are almost guaranteed to dispel any melancholic thoughts.
Soon I started to pass intact jetties on which fishermen were bustling about on their boats. Odd snatches of conversation drifted to my ears of which the highly sarcastic snippet: ‘yeah, thanks for not cleaning my lifejacket, I only have to wear it all day,’ was by far my favourite.
The Seven Sisters
As I progressed along the harbour I drew nearer to where the ferry port lay on the other side of the water. The vast bulk of an enormous ro-ro ferry, decked out in her yellow livery, put me in mind of Douglas Adams and the Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy as she floated on the water in exactly the same way that bricks don’t. Her name, pleasingly, was the Seven Sisters, which nicely called back to my previous walk.
The quayside turned away to my right and became a marina, packed full of small pleasure boats, which have largely replaced the old fishing boats in these waters. Even so, I like that Newhaven has such a mixture of vessel types – fishing boats, pleasure yachts and cross-channel ferries – it’s good to know that small ports such as these can survive.
Like many coastal towns Newhaven also houses a lifeboat but here it has done so since 1803, twenty years before the founding of what would become the RNLI. Then, after the RNLI was established, the first ever lifeboat ordered by that organisation was also delivered to Newhaven. Thus this is one of the oldest established lifeboats in Britain (although not the actual lifeboat herself, which is a modern Severn class lifeboat, if a model introduced 15 years ago still counts as modern).
From the marina the road headed towards Newhaven Fort. A Palmerston fort, resulting from the 1859 Royal Commission on the defence of the United Kingdom, it is a good half century younger than the Martello towers that line the coast to the east and, arguably, far less useful.
Lord Palmerston, the Prime Minister, had a number of forts built to defend us from the French only to see the French reduced as a meaningful power by war with Prussia in 1870, rendering the forts a bit pointless. Worse still, the acceleration of gun technology made them out of date almost as soon as they were finished.
These days Newhaven Fort is a museum but as it was closed for the winter and the road past it comes to a dead end, I turned right before I reached it and headed uphill along a residential street.
By now people were waking up and heading to work or school, dogs were barking etc. and it was pretty much a perfect slice of English urban life. At the top of the street a set of steps led to a dirt track which carried me over Peacehaven Heights, which contain a handful of houses and a small field with goats in it but also house a Bronze Age barrow dated to at least three and half thousand years old.
The path curved over Peacehaven Heights and down into Peacehaven, which spreads along the cliff tops.
In contrast to all the ancient ports and villages thereabouts, Peacehaven is surprisingly modern, dating only to 1916. Its founder, a property developer named Charles Neville, advertised his venture by setting up a competition in a newspaper to name the new town. The results were perhaps not quite as expected…
Firstly the newspaper itself, the Daily Express, observed that although the competition was free to enter and runners up received free land, they could only do so on paying conveyancing fees to Mr Neville. This, they decided, made it a scam and, rather than be seen as party to it, the newspaper decided to sue him.
As it turned out, the court agreed with the Daily Express and fined Mr Neville accordingly. Of course the attendant publicity only served to garner more free publicity for Peacehaven and so ultimately worked in Mr Neville’s favour. Except the town wasn’t called Peacehaven yet, because that wasn’t the name that had won the competition. Instead it was called…
No, really. It honestly was. Admittedly, WW1 was in full swing at the time and the Australia & New Zealand Army Corps was pretty popular, being composed of the brave sons of the Dominions, fighting for King and Empire and all, but this is definitely the sort of daft name that only a public competition could supply.
As it happened, a cunning plan of the First Lord of the Admiralty, Mr Winston Churchill, to assault the Turkish Gallipoli Peninsula was going badly and infamously wrong at this time, killing approximately eleven and a half thousand Anzacs and scarring itself into the Australian and New Zealand national psyches.
Gallipoli also killed over twenty-one thousand British soldiers and ten thousand Frenchmen and would have utterly destroyed the career of any politician less tenacious than Churchill but, in any event, New Anzac-on-Sea was suddenly not a popular choice for a name. And so it became Peacehaven.
Cliff Top Footpath
Rather than walk through the middle of Peacehaven, I diverted back to the cliff edge, which here was characterised by a chain-link fence, mown grass and pretty little houses, the whole effect marred by the apparent inability of dog owners to clean up after their pets.
Still, it definitely felt quite seaside-y. This was just as well because for two and half miles it was all going to look much the same.
Peacehaven marked my two hundredth mile since Gravesend, which I celebrated by scoffing the chocolate I’d been planning to keep for the end of my walk (when a sudden burst of sugary goodness is usually quite welcome).
Marching merrily along under blue skies, I soon happened upon a monument, the foundation stone for which was laid by Charles Neville in 1919. The present monument atop it dates to 1935 and commemorates the coronation of George VI. The reason there was already something there when the coronation monument was built is that this is also the point where the Prime Meridian, running south from Greenwich, intersects the coast.
Reflecting that my flat was not all that far from directly north from this point, I strode briskly up to and past the monument, thus passing from east into west.
After another half a mile or so, Peacehaven shaded imperceptibly into Telscombe Cliffs which, from the cliff edge looks exactly the same.
Teslcombe is a town incorporating Telscombe Cliffs – essentially a continuation of Peacehaven but with a different town council and mayor – and the tiny village of Telscombe about a mile to the north. That’s a mile on foot however, not by road, because Telscombe lies at the end of a dead-end road from Southease, another two miles further north.
There is, in fact, no direct road link between Telscombe and Telscombe Cliffs and it’s a good eight miles via Peacehaven, Newhaven, Piddinghoe and Southease. Of course, none of this insanity was obvious from the cliff edge, where I couldn’t even tell that Peacehaven had ended and Telscombe Cliffs had begun.
The same was not true of the approach to Saltdean, another settlement largely built and promoted by Charles Neville. Between Telscombe Cliffs and Saltdean all the houses disappeared and the path crested a hill, atop which was another monument, this time an obelisk bearing a weather vane.
Saltdean is pleasant enough and has only two real points I thought of interest.
It’s All About Luxury Flats
One is its 1938 art deco lido, then hailed as highly innovative (many others were based on it) but now at the centre of a complicated wrangle between locals, the council (which owns the freehold) and the leaseholder, who wants to fill in the pool and redevelop the site as luxury flats.
The other is the Ocean Hotel, another art deco masterpiece, also built in 1938. After a stint as home to the Auxiliary Fire Service in WW2 it was bought by Billy Butlin in 1952, who described it as one of the best investments he’d ever made. It subsequently changed hands in the 90s and was closed in 2005, becoming (of course) more luxury flats.
Brighton & Hove
Beyond Saltdean lies Rottingdean, an ancient town with much history but that also bears the unfortunate distinction of being home to the shop whose terrible service inspired the Local Shop in the macabre comedy series The League of Gentlemen.
Rottingdean (meaning valley of Rōta’s people) sits in a dry valley, its skyline dominated by the black windmill depicted on their welcome sign.
A Harsh Review
The League of Gentlemen writers were not Rottingdean’s first dissatisfied visitors. In 1377, long before leaving a bad review on TripAdvisor was a thing, Rottingdean was raided by French pirates. They were so frustrated by the retreat of the locals into their Saxon church tower (possibly crying out ‘what’s all this shouting? There’s nothing for you here!’) that they simply set fire to it, killing over a hundred people.
The following day the Prior of Lewes turned up with a force that drove off the pirates although not before the pirates had captured two of the prior’s knights, whom they later ransomed for profit. Nice of him to make sure the pirates didn’t leave with nothing.
Brighton and Rottingdean Seashore Electric Railway
Rottingdean was also, briefly, the terminus of the frankly bizarre Brighton and Rottingdean Seashore Electric Railway. A venture by local engineer Magnus Volk, this avoided some inconvenient geography by running just offshore with the carriages on stilts to keep them above water.
The system worked, although slowly at high tide, and ran from 1896 to 1901 when various sea protection defences required more expensive alterations than Mr Volk could afford. Some of the sleepers from the track are still visible at low tide.
After Rottingdean it was once again cliffs on one side and fields on the other, albeit with the busy A259 between where I was walking and the fields. Further inland, on the far side of a hill, is the village of Ovingdean, which I mention because Magnus Volk is buried there, and because just outside it is St Dunstans, the home for blind ex-servicemen, where Henry Allingham lived until his death in 2009.
Henry Allingham was the last surviving serviceman from the founding of the RAF, a WW1 veteran and, at 113 years and 42 days, briefly the world’s oldest man.
I paused on the outskirts of Brighton for a cup of tea and a bacon sandwich at the Roedean Café. A sign inside the café claims that the AA has cited it as the best independent café on the south coast, or something similar, and I believe it. My bacon sandwich was perfect. I mean, it ought not to be possible to go far wrong with a bacon sarnie but apparently you can if you put some effort into it (I’m looking at you, café in Capel-le-Ferne, may you hang your head in unbearable shame).
Duly invigorated, I ambled past Black Rock, a part of Brighton that was home to an art deco lido in 1935 but which was demolished in 1979. On the beach a small building marked the western terminus of Volk’s Electric Railway, serving a marina development.
VER is the oldest operating electric railway, established in 1883 by (unsurprisingly), Magnus Volk. The first station at Black Rock wasn’t built until 1901 however. The VER still runs during the summer, making it rather more successful than Volk’s trains-on-stilts idea.
The eastern end of the VER lies near the Palace Pier, now marketed simply as ‘Brighton Pier’ since the West Pier is now little more than a bundle of charred sticks.
Brighton dates from before Domesday, in which it is listed as ‘Bristelmestune’. It had the sort of turbulent history one might expect of a south coast town and was burned down by French raiders in 1514 (when it was known as Brighthelmstone).
By 1780 the fishing village was becoming a holiday resort, with the first of the Georgian terraces, and the coming of the railway in 1841 accelerated this.
These days it is the quintessential southern English seaside town and part of a wider Brighton-Worthing-Littlehampton conurbation with a combined population of around 480,000.
The town is famous for its tolerance for topless sunbathing, it’s gay-friendly reputation and for this:
I love the Brighton Royal Pavilion. Admittedly it’s a massive monument to ego and ostentatious extravagance but it’s also so colossally ridiculous it has a charm all of its own. There’s the Indo-Saracenic Revivalist exterior, a style all the rage in the contemporary Raj but rather out of place in Sussex. And then there’s the interior, which is equally at odds with both Brighton and its own exterior, being realised in Chinoiserie, the eighteenth century European take on Chinese style.
It was, of course, the palace for which Palace Pier was named.
Because I was at the seaside, I bought myself an ice cream and relaxed, gazing at the wreckage of Brighton’s West Pier.
Currently a magnet for underage drinkers, there is a plan to rebuild it incorporating a 183m (600ft) observation tower to be named, with disappointing inanity, the i360. One can only imagine the excited marketing meeting that dreamt that up although the tower itself isn’t a bad idea.
A little further along the seafront is the Grand Hotel, formerly one of Brighton’s most prestigious five star hotels but these days not doing quite so well.
Built in 1864, it housed the first domestic lift (as opposed to industrial lifts in mines) in any UK building outside London, and the third in the entire country.
In 1984 the hotel housed attendees for the annual Conservative Party Conference when the IRA, having apparently learned nothing from Argentina, tried to blow up Margaret Thatcher. Several people died and many more were injured but the Iron Lady gave her planned speeches the next day in a Sterling display of stiff-upper-lip resolve.
Mrs Thatcher may have been a highly divisive Prime Minister but she was excellent in the face of armed aggression. Thus, like General Galtieri before them, the IRA took this then unpopular PM and massively increased her standing overnight, which is probably not quite what they were aiming for.
Following the bombing the Grand Hotel was rebuilt and extended.
Further along still, where Brighton meets Hove, is a building that I very much wanted to see.
Embassy Court is a block of flats built in 1936 and designed by Wells Coates. It is one of the earliest examples of the modernist style in Britain and rather less ugly than most; at the top is the UK’s first custom-designed penthouse suite.
Sir Rex Harrison used to live in this building but that wasn’t why I wanted to find it. No, this is the building in which Helena’s grandmother lives in the Neil Gaiman-written, Dave McKean designed (and directed) film Mirrormask.
I love that film.
Hove is mostly a collection of large Regency and Victorian houses, arranged into avenues many of which, unusually in England, are numbered as First Avenue, Second Avenue and so on. It likes to see itself as the genteel and civilised neighbour of raucous Brighton, make of that what you will.
Although everything in sight dates back only a couple of hundred years at most, Hove has more history than that as attested by the Hove Amber Cup, dug up from a round barrow in 1852. The cup, one of only two amber cups found in Britain, was accompanied by a Mycenaean-style bronze dagger and other artefacts, suggesting the barrow’s occupant had been an important and wealthy king in life.
Hove led into Portslade-by-Sea, the industrial centre of Brighton and a massive culture shock after all the genteel hotels and holiday homes; what felt like an endless stretch of road, frequented by goods lorries, stretched along the southern edge of Shoreham Port.
This was a working port and bustling quaysides and warehouses could be glimpsed through the fences keeping the likes of me away. I was just losing both the will to live and any remaining confidence that a way across the harbour would be waiting up ahead, when a girl who was overtaking me on a bicycle suddenly pulled up beside me.
‘Is there a way across the harbour up ahead?’ she asked, ‘only I’ve been cycling down this road for ages and I’ve not seen one yet.’
It’s amazing how much better you feel when someone else is in the same boat.
Eventually the docks gave way to the uncompromising bulk of a small power station and beyond that a café where I grabbed a drink and a rest for my feet. A path led across the lock gates that maintain water levels in the port, depositing me in Southwick.
It was then that I realised that by leaving Hove I’d entered a new administrative county, for this was now West Sussex.
Southwick was looking a bit industrial where I was but it generally has more in common with the rest of Brighton and Hove. It was in Domesday as Esmerwick but was known as Suthewicke by 1309. May 1840 brought the railway and the inevitable transformation into a thriving seaside resort.
Kingston by Sea
Southwick gave way imperceptibly to Kingston by Sea, another ancient village with Bronze Age and Roman antecedents, which has been swallowed by the Brighton-Worthing-Littlehampton conurbation. Here I passed a stone lighthouse, aligned with the entrance to Shoreham harbour and port.
Not long afterwards, I found myself just a stone’s throw from Shoreham Station and thus at the end of my walk.
While Old Shoreham to the north is an ancient village on the River Adur, and Shoreham Tollbridge to the west is a Grade II* listed building, I was staring at a long and slightly rickety-looking footbridge that crossed the Adur to the suburb of Shoreham Beach. I looked at my watch. I started doing the maths.
Running Walking the Numbers
It’s almost half past four, I told myself. The sun sets at about twenty past five. This is where I planned to stop and I feel fine, to press on further would be madness. It’s at least four and a half miles to Worthing Pier, that’s an hour and fifteen minutes at a fresh brisk pace, let alone at the end of a walk. Realistically I’m looking at two hours. It will be properly dark by ten to six. There is no way I can make it in time. For God’s sake, Helpful Mammal, just catch the train, why don’t you?
Aha, I answered, somewhere inside my head. Are you making this a challenge? And off I set…
Shoreham Beach, on the far side, used to be called Bungalow Town and contains a number of houses first built as holiday homes by the ingenious if unlikely method of bricking up the outside of a disused railway carriage. The whole suburb is built on a shingle spit and from around 1890 to the 1930s was the home of Britain’s nascent film industry, having started as a retreat for hedonistic actors during the Victorian ‘Gay Nineties’.
I paused for a moment on one of the shingle beaches and asked an elderly couple, who were strolling along the beach with his’n’hers walking sticks, if the distressingly distant structure I could see to the west was Worthing Pier.
‘Why yes it is,’ they told me. ‘But. Oh my goodness, you won’t reach it on foot before dark.’
We’ll see about that, I thought.
I explained that I had walked from Newhaven which almost caused their eyebrows to go orbital in surprise.
‘Oh, you must be so fit,’ said the little old lady.
I denied this, since I’m blatantly not, but added I hoped that the walking might help.
‘Oh, I should be doing that with you,’ said the little old lady despite not having any visible fat. I watched her hobble awkwardly away with her stick, at a rate of maybe almost a mile an hour and wondered if she was one of those strange breed of pensioners who do the things they always did through the sheer force of will, pain and arthritis be damned.
I was pretty tired by now and really needed to rest for a good fifteen minutes rather than the five I’d allowed. Nonetheless I charged on as fast as I was able, past the Widewater Lagoon, which is a long and narrow bird sanctuary, and the southern edge of Lancing, which claims to be the largest village in Britain.
As I walked, a series of light aircraft droned overhead, all heading for Shoreham Airport – the oldest licensed airfield in the UK – in order to land before sunset.
Sunset was pretty cool. I was heading directly into the sun at its point and so watched the big red disc slip slowly behind nothing in particular, atmospheric lensing meaning that it never actually got to touch the horizon at all.
Now into twilight, I raced along next to a rush hour A259 (really not my favourite part of this walk), pausing only to see how far away the pier looked.
I made it to the foot of the pier, footsore and slightly headache-y, the latter thanks to the road, just in time for twilight’s last gleaming.
I could just see on the western horizon a touch of lighter blue and a cloud and so, as I hobbled off for a sit down, a coffee and then a train, I felt in some strange way vindicated. Besides, it was twenty-one miles. That’s a new personal record.
Any sense of elation died at Worthing station, when my train back to Brighton was delayed. But that’s another story…
This time: 21 miles
Total since Gravesend: 217½ miles