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.

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