Tidal creeks where yachts sail and sea-birds flock
The narrow entrance to Chichester Harbour opens out into a landlocked lagoon, where peninsulas split the main channel into a multitude of tidal creeks. Until the 19th century many of the waterside villages were busy commercial harbours, and in recent years they have sprung to life again as boating centres. Beyond the harbour there are dangerous currents round Selsey Bill, which separates the Witterings from Bognor Regis.
The westernmost of the three peninsulas that divide Chichester Harbour, Thorney Island is flat and featureless, and is mainly the property of the Ministry of Defence. The road across the island to the village of West Thorney is closed by a manned barrier at the point where it crosses the channel known as the Great Deep. Though the public cannot set foot on the island, there is a footpath right round its foreshore.
At the head of Thorney Channel, Prinsted is a pretty village of old cottages, with a cul-de-sac ending above the tidal flats. There is a small car park, from which a walk along the river-wall gives views down Thorney Channel. South of the village, the road becomes a rough lane leading to boatyards. Small boats can be launched near high water.
One of the beauty spots of the south coast, Bosham (pronounced ‘Bozzam’) stands on its own little peninsula, looking out over an unspoiled riverscape of reeds, water, mudflats and small boats. The best view of Bosham – and one of the most photographed views in England – is from the south side of the creek, along the Old Bosham Road.
In 1064, Harold, Earl of Wessex, embarked on a voyage to Normandy from Quay Meadow, near Bosham’s Saxon church. The meadow remains a green acre of ground, owned today by the National Trust and an ideal spot for a picnic.
In summer a ferry, for foot passengers only, runs from a point 1 mile west of Bosham Hoe across Chichester Channel to West Itchenor.
The centre of Chichester still has the simple logic of its Roman plan – four main streets (North, South, East and West) meeting at a central point, and surrounded by a roughly circular wall. The Romans called the city Noviomagus. Today Chichester is the administrative capital of West Sussex, with a cathedral dating back to Norman times, a largely traffic-free town centre, streets of superb Georgian houses, and a graceful market cross, built in 1501, at the focal point. Chichester is well known for its annual summer theatre season, which is held in the Festival Theatre, opened in 1962. On the south-east outskirts of the city is the Southern Leisure Centre, which covers 200 acres of grass, trees and lakes and offers windsurfing tuition, sailing, water-skiing, and fishing for coarse fish and trout.
It is hard to envisage this quiet little sailing village as a bustling port; yet in the 18th century Dell Quay became the main harbour for Chichester, after Chichester Channel had become too silted for ships to reach higher upstream to the city. Near the village are several boatyards, and boats can be launched from the shingle foreshore within 3 hours of high water. Parking is very limited.
Though Birdham is still a village in its own right, it has lost much of its identity to the two major sailing centres that lie near it. The Chichester Yacht Basin is one of the biggest yacht harbours on the south coast, with 1,000 boats moored along its jetties.
Beside the basin is a bustling conglomeration of boatyards, sailing clubs, chandlers and yacht brokers. There are two slipways which visitors can use, for a fee. The disused Chichester Canal, just to the south of the yacht basin, is lined with houseboats and covered with water lilies.
Birdham Pool, just north of the village, is smaller than the yacht basin but more picturesque. Like the basin, it is connected to Chichester Channel by a lock gate.
Like Dell Quay, West Itchenor has changed down the years from commercial harbour to picturesque sailing village. The road runs down to a beach of hard shingle, from which boats can be launched at any state of the tide; parking is very limited near the foreshore. A ferry for foot passengers runs across Chichester Channel between West Itchenor and the Bosham bank in summer.
Smart estates of substantial houses, many of them on private roads, have grown up behind the old village, centred on the parish church. West Wittering’s sandy beach, more than 1 mile long, is reached down a narrow road from the village; the road ends at a large car park below the dunes.
At its western end, opposite Hayling Island, the beach curves.round to form a sickle-shaped area of dunes, sheltering a tidal lagoon on its inner side, and with a 4. shingle hank on the seai 76 acre East Head, a fragile natural environment, under constant attack both from the sea and from the pressure of visitors walking round from West Wittering beach. Owned by the National Trust, the dunes have been fenced off to enable marram grass to establish itself and stabilise the sand with its roots.
Swimming is safe from West Wittering beach, where volunteer lifeguards patrol at weekends and bank holidays in summer, but is forbidden in the entrance to Chichester Harbour because of dangerous currents.
The Saxon church at Bosham features in one of the earliest panels of the Bayeux Tapestry, which depicts the events of the Norman Conquest. It was from Bosham, an important harbour in Saxon times, that Harold, the powerful Earl of Wessex who was soon to become King of England, set out on his fateful voyage to Normandy in 1064. By swearing an oath of loyalty to Duke William, he set in motion the events that led to William invading and conquering England.
From West Wittering beach, East Wittering’s caravan parks and estates of small houses stretch for some 2 miles, linking up with those of Bracklesham to form a continuous ribbon of heachside development. There is easy access to the sea at only two points: in East Wittering down Shore Road, where the only parking is some way from the beach, and in Bracklesham down a road which ends at a seaside car park, with a concrete slipway beyond.
This low-lying headland jutting into the Channel attracts many holidaymakers, and the village of Selsey is expanding rapidly. Fast currents sweeping round the point make it dangerous to swim near it, and so the bathing beaches are half a mile along the coast on either side; even there, bathers are warned at low tide to be careful of currents and hidden pools.
East Beach is the resort’s main centre. Protected by a strong sea-wall and many groynes, it has a car park and boat park, with a wooden ramp down to the beach. East Beach still keeps much of the seafaring flavour of old Selsey, with fishing boats offshore, lobster pots in heaps along the seawall, and stalls selling locally caught crabs, whelks, cockles and fish.
This beautiful and unspoiled stretch of tidal mud-flats and shingle beach is now a nature reserve, covering more than 1,000 acres. The easiest approach is from the car park beside the B2145, 1 mile south of Sidlesham; an information centre there is open at weekends.
Pagham Harbour is a refuge for dozens of species of birds and plants. Among the birds are little terns, shelducks, curlews, redshanks and oystercatchers. The salt-marsh plants include spartina grass, sea purslane and glasswort, while the hedgerows support a large variety of butterflies, including red admirals.
At the southern end of the harbour is the hamlet of Church Norton, where the tiny chapel of St Wilfrid looks out over the lonely saltings. Wilfrid was a 7th-century missionary who preached Christianity to the heathen inhabitants of Selsey – the South Saxons, whose name was later given to their homeland of ‘Sussex’. The name ‘Selsey’ means Seal Island in Old English, and in those days Selsey was a real island, cut off from the mainland by the channel of which Pagham Harbour formed part.
Sidlesham now sprawls along the main road, but its old centre is at the head of a creek opening off Pagham Harbour. Until the mid-19th century Sidlesham was a working harbour, but it is now just a pretty backwater.
Pagham village is the westernmost part of Bognor; but it retains its own flavour, best sampled by walking down the lane from the church and on to the sea-wall round Pagham Harbour. From there a path runs all the way from the harbour to Church Norton, on the opposite side of the harbour mouth.
The centrepiece of a continuous seaside resort that stretches for more than 7 miles from Pagham to Middleton-on-Sea, Bognor
SUMMER VISITORS From the warm shores of West Africa, little terns come back to Pagham Harbour every summer to breed. itself still seems small and unpretentious. The seafront has not a single high-rise building, and even the elegant new civic centre and theatre complex is no taller than the average two-storey hotel. The beach consists of sand backed by shingle, with frequent groynes. Bognor’s pier has amusements and cafes at the landward end; the seaward end is derelict, but gradually being restored.
Bognor was founded as a resort in the late 18th century by Sir Richard Hotham, a wealthy London hatter, who wanted to call it ‘Hothampton’. Queen Victoria referred to it as her ‘dear little Bognor’, while her grandson, King George V, gave it the title ‘Regis’ in 1928 after recovering there from a serious illness. Aldwick, where the king went to recuperate, is today the prosperous western offshoot of Bognor, with private roads serving estates of half-timbered houses with green tiles or thatch.
Felpham, at the eastern end, still keeps something of the atmosphere of a traditional Sussex village, with narrow winding streets and flint-walled cottages.