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Travel Story

Village hopping in the South Downs

The towns of Sussex and Hampshire preserve a wealth of English culture and history

Before leaving London we dropped in to British Columbia House, signed the visitor's book, and had a nostalgic look at some of the promotional pictures of Whistler. After five weeks on the road the familiar images added a tinge of homesickness to our last week in England. But driving south to the Channel Coast and wending our way through the Southern Downs of Essex and Hampshire was a memorable, and thoroughly enjoyable conclusion to our journey.

We took the tube to Victoria Station and British Rail to Gatwick. There, well beyond the terror of London traffic, we picked up a rental car and headed south on A23 for Brighton and the Channel Coast. Brighthelmstone, as it was known in Medieval times, began as a backwater port where impoverished fishermen struggled to wring a living from the sea. Now it's the largest town in Sussex, a swinging centre of culture and fashion, an upscale seaside resort only an hour from London.

Brighton's meteoric rise from subsistence fishing village to fashionable vacation spot began in 1753. That was the year Dr. Richard Russell published his ÒDissertation Concerning the Use of Sea Water in Diseases of the Glands.Ó He set up a clinic in Hove and hoards of people with real or imagined gland problems were soon clamoring to take his cure. Since few people in those days could swim, getting their glands safely in and out of the ocean spawned a whole new service industry. Horse-drawn contraptions were designed to haul seated clients in and out of the healing surf. Young men called ÒbathersÓ supervised the needs of men and, at a discrete distance, young women called ÒdippersÓ helped the ladies in and out of the water. Before long even those without gland problems discovered the joy of the seaside and Brighton prospered.

It was off-season and most things were closed when we strolled along the beach walk. A blustery wind carried a damp chill across the deserted strip of sand. Two tacky entertainment piers, one serviceable the other a moldering derelict, stood empty on their forest of spindly pilings, and across the busy waterfront road, a wall of three-storey apartment buildings, looking like something out of a Moscow suburb, faced the ocean with thousands of identical windows. We decided to move on.

Twenty miles west of Brighton we stopped for a snack in Arundel and instantly fell in love with the place. This quintessential small English town with its scattering of tile-roofed brick and flint houses is dominated by the walls and towers of its massive castle. Strategically located at the head of navigation on the Arun River, the town was once a thriving port trading local produce for French wine and Newcastle coal. The original castle, built to protect the port, dates back to the Norman Conquest but little remains of that first structure. During the civil war of 1643 the castle was pounded into rubble by cannon mounted in the nearby church. It was partially repaired in 1800 and a hundred years later the 15th Duke of Norfolk commissioned a massive rebuilding program.

We checked in at the Arden Guest House, a B&B on Queens Lane, and spent the next two days exploring the town, the castle and the surrounding countryside. The Arun River, no longer navigable due to silting, has become a refuge for thousands of ducks, geese and swans. A stroll along tree-lined Mill Road took us past Swanbourne Lake and out to the Wildlife Reserve — then lunch in the castle and a look around the lavish interior where the present Duke of Norfolk and his family still live.

That afternoon we drove up the Arun Valley to Amberly. Only eight and a half miles north of Arundel the tiny village, tucked into the northern flank of the South Downs, has all the ingredients of Olde England — a Norman Castle, a 15th century Church, and the River Arun flowing gently through the gardens of half-timbered thatched cottages. Through most of the 19th century a huge quarry in the hillside behind the town was the source of chalk for production of lime. The last kiln was shut down 45 years ago and the quarry is now the site of the Amberly Museum, a 36-acre, open-air park where skilled artisans, using traditional tools, bring to life the trades and crafts of the past century. We watched and chatted with blacksmiths, foundrymen, boat builders, and even an old fellow who makes brooms and walking sticks. In an amazing feat of skill and timing the local wheelwright shrunk a red hot steel rim onto the oak frame of a wood-spoked carriage wheel. For anyone with an interest in crafts, tools, and vintage machinery Amberly is a must.

Back in Arundel, we read the sign on the door of St. Mary's Pub before going in for dinner: ÒLoutish behavior, swearing, shouting and farting are unacceptable — but you can't get decent staff these days.Ó Nevertheless the ale and the food were excellent — service was OK too. Another posted sign alerted us to a Noel Coward play showing at the Festival Theatre in Chichester and we decided to make that our next destination.

An easy 10-mile drive west from Arundel, Chichester's park-like setting between the Downs and its many-channeled harbour is a pleasant blend of old forest, expansive green playing fields, and manicured gardens. It was first settled by the Romans, who established the layout of the town and built the lavish Fishbourne Palace. At that time it was the largest non-military Roman building in Britain, but fire and vandalism long ago reduced it to a ruin. The present skyline is dominated by the magnificent slender spire of the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, built by the Normans in 1108. Designed for aesthetics rather than function it was deemed too unstable to support the cathedral bells. Indeed even without its bells the spire, in 1861, came crashing down into the nave. It took years to restore and a separate tower was built for the bells.

With easy access to both the countryside and the sea, Chichester has become a popular up-scale residential area for people working in the large industrial cities of South Hampshire. After a hearty dinner at ÒThe BellÓ we made our way to the Festival Theatre for Noel Coward's play, Family Relations, a take-off on English manners, and a hilarious example of the BritsÕ ability to laugh at themselves.

The next morning Betty, the family plant person, decided we must see Exbury Gardens. From Arundel that meant a long white-knuckle loop around the north side of Portsmouth and Southampton. By the time we got to the little town of Totton, at the head of Southampton Water, we were both ready to call it a day. But it turned out to be a local holiday and every B&B we tried was full. After many phone calls a helpful proprietor located two single rooms for us in the town of Fawley, 10 miles farther down the coast. Thankful to have a place to sleep we took them and were intrigued to find we shared a common window, the old-fashioned kind that slides up and down. Our two adjacent rooms had clearly started as one. The wall between them extended only up to the window leaving one handle in Betty's room and the other in mine, a convenience that allowed us to chat and pass the toothpaste back and forth out the window and around the end of the partition.

We enjoyed a couple hours walking the maze of pathways in Exbury Gardens before heading inland and the beginning of our route home. Skirting Southampton and following back roads into the South Downs we made our way to the little town of East Meon where the County Fayre was in full swing. When the sheep-shearing contest ended Morris Dancers took over and when they finished the Wellington Toss began. The Wellington, a sturdy work boot, is to the English what the discus is to the Greeks and the caber to the Scots. Each toss was greeted with a cheer or a groan from the villagers and the winner, we were told, would get one of Mrs. Peterson's mince pies.

We enquired about a B&B and were directed to Mrs. Alderidge who was tending the flower stall. Monique Aldridge, the charming proprietor of Dunvegan Cottage met us after the Fayre. Her B&B, located in a three-acre garden half a mile outside the village, is surrounded by open farmland in the South Downs. Without doubt it is the nicest place we stayed during our entire six-week tour through Britain. With a packed lunch and map provided by Monique, we spent our last day on a nine-mile hike along the South Downs Way from East Meon to Butser Hill. At the top we could see across The Solent all the way to the Isle of Wight. We savoured that view for a long time before turning back to Dunvegan Cottage. Except for tomorrow's dash to the airport this is where we ended of our journey from the Highlands of Scotland to the Downs of Southern England. It was a wonderful trip but the next village on our itinerary was Whistler and we were ready to go home.