Hastings, in Sussex, was one of the five harbor towns known in the Middle Ages as the Cinque Ports (the other four were in Kent), which received special rights and privileges from the Crown in return for providing the King with fishing boats and crews to create what was, in effect, the country’s first navy. There is still a thriving fishing industry today: the boats are hauled up on the shingle at Rock-a-Nore. The 19th-century Fishermen’s Chapel now houses a small fishing museum. On the beach itself are the Net Lofts, curious tall wooden buildings made of tarred wood shingles and once used for drying nets. The seafaring theme is further emphasized at the Fishermen’s Museum, the Shipwreck Heritage Centre and the Sea Life Centre.
Hastings’ old town center has to be explored on foot. The ancient High Street and All Saints Street ascend between medieval houses, with steps mounting the steep hillsides to hidden gardens and courtyards. High above everything stand the ruins of the castle, which William the Conqueror built in 1096. A cable car can take you up to the castle and St. Clement’s Caves, while another (far steeper) leads up the cliffs of East Hill to the splendid scenery of Hastings Country Park.
The route now continues westwards along the coast, but not before an essential diversion northwest on the A2100 to Battle, the actual site of the 1066 conflict that has misleadingly become known as the Battle of Hastings. After his victory, William the Conqueror had a great abbey (consecrated in 1094) built in thanks; the high altar of the church marks the spot where King Harold fell in the battle.
Destinations in Sussex
When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, he turned the massive building over to a courtier, who tore down the Norman church and converted part of the monastic buildings; still, today you can see the gatehouse, ruins of the dormitory, and the impressive vaulted undercroft.
The Sussex Coast
Most of the Sussex coastal resorts have grown up within the past 200 years, their development generally financed by wealthy men with an eye to the future. First you reach the genteel seaside town of Bexhill with its golf course and pleasant Victorian houses. The little fishing village of Eastbourne was turned into a fashionable bathing resort in Victorian style by the seventh Duke of Devonshire in 1835. Elegant pastel-colored houses and luxury hotels line the three-mile promenade. Language schools, three golf courses, 60 tennis courts and a theatre more than 100 years old attract plenty of visitors throughout the year, both from home and abroad.
Between Eastbourne and Seaford, the A259 crosses one of the most celebrated tracts of scenery in southeast England. Anyone who enjoys walking should allow time to ramble across the springy, flowered turf of the South Downs above the gleaming white chalk cliffs of Beachy Head and the Seven Sisters. There are steps down to the beach at Birling Gap and Hope Gap, but the rescue services have been summoned to the aid of many an optimist who set out to walk from one to the other and was surprised by high tide. It is essential to check tide times before you start.
The A259 coast road continues to Seaford, the port of Newhaven and via Peacehaven and Rottingdean to Brighton. A more attractive route, however, leads north from the eastern outskirts of Seaford towards the attractive little village of Alfriston with its Tudor half-timbered houses. The narrow main street easily becomes a bottleneck in the height of the season. St. Andrew’s Church (14th century Decorated) stands on the village green; next door is Clergy House, a thatched and half-timbered vicarage from the 14th century.
After Alfriston, take the A27 west to Lewes. Firle Place, a mansion from the time of Henry VIII, was been the home of the Gage family for 500 years. General Thomas Gage commanded the British troops at the Battle of Bunker Hill in the American War of Independence, an event well-documented in this house. A turnoff here leads to Glyndebourne, home of the world-famous country opera festival held every year between May and August, which draws music-lovers from the entire world.
From Lewes to Brighton
The hilltop town of Lewes is East Sussex’s administrative capital. Note the Norman castle, Barbican House, built in 1088 and today an archaeological museum. On the southern edge of the town is the medieval Anne of Cleves House, reputedly once owned by Anne, the fourth wife of Henry VIII. The old town itself preserved its harmony as it grew over the years; its steep alleys are lined with a mix of half-timbered houses and buildings from the Georgian period.
From Lewes, you can take an attractive detour north to explore the high heathland of Ashdown Forest. The A275 from Lewes passes the extensive woodland garden at Sheffield Park, some of which was laid out by the 18th-century landscaper “Capability” Brown. Another attractive route, the A2028, leads northwest to the 140 acres of Wakehurst Place, another of the internationallyknown gardens of the High Weald whose acid soils yield wonderful displays of rhododendrons and azaleas in the spring. At Haywards Heath, the B2112 branches off to Ditchling. Beyond the village a minor road makes its way steeply upward to Ditchling Beacon on the South Downs, from where you have glorious views of the Weald to the north before descending into Brighton.
Into West Sussex
Arundel, an attractive little town on the River Arun at the edge of the South Downs, is dominated by its great castle, which since the 11th century has been in the possession of the leading Roman Catholic family of England, the Dukes of Norfolk. Narrow winding alleys lead past ancient houses to the turreted castle walls, which command a wonderful panoramic view. Lots of paths by the river promise enchanting walks and the Great Park with its beautiful lake and Potter’s Curiosity Museum are also worth a visit.
If you take the A284 north and turn off east onto the B2139, you’ll come first to the Amberley Museum, a working museum of industrial history. A little further on is the picture-postcard village of Amberley itself. From here, there is a lovely drive below a stretch of folded downland to Storrington.
Follow the A283 west a short distance and you arrive at the Elizabethan Parham House, set in a great park with oaks and elms. The Great Hall has a splendid stucco ceiling and the Long Gallery is almost 170 feet (50 m) long. Beyond Pulborough there is another stately home with an extensive deer park: Petworth House. The house took on its present form in 1688-96, while the grounds were designed by “Capability” Brown. For a time Turner had his studio here, and 20 of his paintings are exhibited in the Turner Room. Petworth itself is a lovely little town with narrow cobbled streets. From here the road runs south to Chichester.
Northeast of Chichester is Goodwood House (18th century) which houses a collection of furniture, tapestries, porcelain and paintings by Reynolds, Canaletto, van Dyck and Gainsborough. You can only visit the house as part of a guided tour.
It was the Romans who laid out Chichester; and remnants of their city wall, as well as the formal geometric pattern of their streets, radiating out from the ornate octagonal Late Gothic market cross, are still in evidence today. However, the city itself has a marked Georgian flair. The Cathedral, a blend of Norman and Gothic elements, was completed – all but its towers – by the end of the 12th century. Inside are two impressive stone reliefs dating from between 1120 and 1225: Christ, Mary and Martha at the Gates of Bethany and The Resurrection of Lazarus. Even modern craftsmen have contributed to the interior: there is a stainedglass window by Marc Chagall. St. Mary’s Hospital Almshouses were built as a hospital around 1290. In the Georgian quarter of Pallants, you can see an impressive collection of modern art in Pallant House.