A gorgeous natural harbour, colonies of seals and rare seabirds, plus Roman remains and a nationally important art gallery make the cathedral city of Chichester a gem, says Caroline Wheater.
At the foot of the South Downs, the ancient city of Chichester in West Sussex boasts beautiful beaches nearby – West and East Wittering – and a huge natural harbour. In summer it’s awash with sailing boats, 10,000 at peak times. While in autumn and winter, vast flocks of migrating birds glide in from Scandinavia and Russia, including all kinds of wader and dark bellied Brent Geese who swap Siberia for the Solent.
At the heart of Chichester is the Cathedral, dating to 1108, set within the Bishop’s Palace Gardens. It’s a peaceful place with some phenomenal artworks, such as a stained-glass window by Marc Chagall (his last design), and a huge, colourful tapestry created by John Piper for the high altar.
From here, the town radiates out along South, North, East and West Streets and a tangle of ‘twittens’ or lanes lined with independent shops, cafes and restaurants. More cultural credentials are provided by Pallant House Gallery and its collection of Modern British art, Chichester Festival Theatre and Fishbourne Roman Villa where there are ancient mosaic floors to rival those of Italy.
Our first stop is RSPB Pagham Harbour Nature Reserve, a couple of miles from the city centre and a lovely place for walk down to the sea. If you come in winter wader season you’ll spot long-beaked curlews, scurrying dunlin and bold oystercatchers hunting for small crustaceans and worms in the mud flats. In summer, it’s all about little terns, the second rarest nesting seabird in the UK, which is trying to make a comeback.
Fortified by cups of tea from the visitor centre, we follow West Side Walk across the salt marshes and sea purslane beds to Church Norton hide, and from there to a bench overlooking Tern Island. In summer, this shingle island transforms into a little tern nursery – 31 pairs at last count which each produce two to three pebble-coloured eggs per year. An incoming tide is the best time for little tern watching, says visitor experience officer Roy Newnham, as the parent birds hover over the water hunting for small fish.
There’s a cacophony of chirps as the birds bustle about, tending to their young (watch them on Tern Cam). Every chick that survives is a triumph and helps to bolster the current UK breeding population of 1,450 pairs. Inspired by the RSPB’s efforts to help revive the little tern’s fortunes, we walk back to the car serenaded by warblers and chiffchaffs. rspb.org.uk
Chichester Harbour is a couple of miles away and we arrive at Chichester Marina in Birdham for lunch at the Boat House. Newly refurbished, the brasserie’s teale blue walls are decorated with photographs of boats, echoed by the dinghy masts that drift lazily past. Double fish and chips with crushed peas and tartare sauce is filling and delicious after a morning outdoors. (Mains from £17; idealcollection.co.uk/venues/the-boathouse-cafe-chichester)
After lunch we go to the pretty quayside village of Itchenor where Chichester Harbour Conservancy is based. The Conservancy was set up in 1971 to ‘conserve, maintain and improve the harbour, for nature, natural beauty and recreation’ and has done a magnificent job of looking after this watery AONB, home to 14 sailing clubs. The harbour is shaped like the palm of a hand with four fingers, and is characterised by tidal channels leading to a maze of inlets that criss-cross the saltmarshes and mudflats – perfect for dinghy sailing.
To find out more and to spot some wildlife, we jump aboard a Seal Discovery tour on the Conservancy’s solar-powered catamaran, Solar Heritage (£25 each). The boat is virtually silent as it skims across the huge expanse of water that makes up the ‘palm’ of the sheltered harbour which leads out into the Solent.
We pass East Head, a less crowded beach than the Witterings, then, at the secluded creeks of Pilsey Sands and Oare Rithe, we spot harbour and grey seals hauled out on the mudbanks. The harbour seals have smaller heads and are more spread out, the larger greys cluster together. It’s a treat to get so close. (conservancy.co.uk).
Relaxed from all the fresh air we end our day at Bosham, another harbourside village, and the refined Millstream Hotel. Before dinner we walk down to the quayside to admire the coastal homes. Some of them have short Hobbit-like doors, with thresholds half a metre up from the pavement to counter daily flooding.
Back at the hotel, we sip on gin and tonic while waiting for a dinner of spicy crab cakes and scallops, followed by mains of halibut and calves’ liver, served with a crisp, French rosé. Crepes Suzette and a Sussex cheese board for pudding round off a most enjoyable evening. (Mains from £19.50; millstreamhotel.com)
Our second day is city-based and begins at Fishbourne Roman Palace, a ten-minute drive from Bosham. Chichester was an important trading hub for the Romans and the Palace dates to 75-80AD, probably built for a local chieftain who ruled on their behalf.
The North Wing is what we can see now (the rest is underneath houses and roads), and comprises VIP guest suites featuring the earliest mosaic floors in the UK. In what was probably a dining room, Cupid rides a dolphin, guarded by Neptune’s sea panthers.
In another room the head of Medusa writhes with snakes. It’s enthralling to think that all this lay hidden for over 1,600 years until a water pipe trench was dug in 1960 and revealed some tesserae, leading to a decade of excavation. (sussexpast.co.uk)
Chichester is still organised along Roman lines, with a 16th century Market Cross at the centre of streets that run north, south, east and west. One of the first shops we nip into, Winter’s Moon at 29 North Street, has part of a Roman road in the basement! Apparently, this kind of situation is all part and parcel of ‘Chi’ life and adds a frisson of intrigue to the stylish homewares on offer.
Next door, Refilled wholefoods emporium and liquid refills hub is a place we could spend hours in were it not for lunch booked at The Barn. The deli-cafe on Little London serves up a predominantly vegetarian menu cooked by head chef Rupert Smith.
Seated in a cosy private chalet in the back garden, we pick the Deli Board with Cornish mackerel and the quattro formaggi pizza flatbread. The flavours are dazzlingly good and we tuck in with relish. (Lunch dishes from £14; thebarnlittlelondon.com)
The afternoon is earmarked for Pallant House Gallery, a small art gallery with a big reputation for Modern British art, with pieces by Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore and Damien Hirst in its 5,000-strong permanent collection. It occupies one of the grandest Georgian merchant’s houses in town, and has a modern extension for the cafe, shop and temporary exhibition space.
We wander through the old rooms with creaky floorboards and original fireplaces, looking at paintings by Christopher Wood, Elisabeth Frink and Patrick Caulfield. Afterwards, we browse the encyclopaedic array of specialist art books and artist’s prints in the shop. (pallant.org.uk)
As evening descends, we find our accommodation for the night, a newly refurbished suite in the Cathedral’s former treasury. To be within the precinct of the Cathedral is special and before dinner we walk through the cloisters and out to the bell tower. We choose Purchases at 31 North Street for dinner and enter through an impressive Georgian porch (purchasesrestaurant.co.uk).
Attuned to art from our afternoon visit, we notice a collection of Enid Marx alphabet illustrations on the walls – turns out they are on loan from Pallant House Gallery. Art for the people! We wolf down flavoursome smoked mackerel rillettes, followed by warm chicken salad and baked fillet of chalk stream trout, and share a slice of lemon cheesecake – simple food done with flair. Then it’s out into the dark night as the Cathedral bells ring out reassuringly over a city close to sleep.
WHERE TO STAY
- The Millstream Hotel & Restaurant in Bosham has a traditional feel with excellent service. Lunch and dinner are served at Marwick’s Brasserie and the Sea School Restaurant, and in the summer the lovely garden is open for cream teas. It’s a few minutes’ walk down to Bosham quayside on Chichester Harbour to watch the boats go by. Premium rooms from £155 B&B per night (01243 573234, https://millstreamhotel.com/).
- Located just off the Cathedral’s cloisters, The Treasury Suites occupy the former Treasury Building and have lovely views onto Canon Lane. The suites are spacious and well appointed, with large beds, fridge, kettle and coffee machine, plus ensuite bathroom. Meals are eaten out, and for breakfast we walked over to Steph Carlin’s Serendipitous Bakery at 150 St Pancras for yummy homemade croissants and some sourdough to take home. Suites from £170 per night (01243 813586, chichestercathedral.org.uk).
For more information go to thegreatsussexway.org.
There’s so much to do around Chichester Harbour, including these outdoorsy ideas:
- Go on a cycle ride on the Salterns Way, a 19-kilometre cycle path that runs from the centre of Chichester to the sandy beach of West Wittering. The Chichester Harbour part goes from Apuldram to Shipton Green. For a group of six people (four midweek), Southern eBike Rentals can deliver electric bikes for the day, then pick them up at the end of your ride. A touring bike costs around £60 a day to hire (02392 424624, southernebikerentals).
- Book a three-hour Fluid Adventures kayak tour around the harbour, starting at Itchenor. Single and double kayaks are available and there’s an option to do the Pub Paddle, which includes lunch at Dell Quay. Prices from £70 for a single kayak (012343 942777, fluidadventures.co.uk).