You might be forgiven for thinking that this sunny beach photograph was taken in some exotic location abroad, it is in fact on the south coast of England, in West Sussex and to be more precise, it is the beach at Worthing!
Worthing has had its fair share of bad press in the past and was often dubbed “God’s Waiting Room” due to the number of its elderly residents. More recently the town even got a mention at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year show in a self deprecating joke made by the winner Andy Murray when he said he was as “dull as a wet weekend in Worthing”! The town’s official epithet is actually “Sunny Worthing”!
A windy but sunny weekend in Worthing!
We stay with friends in Worthing several times a year, and whilst it has its fair share of elderly residents it is an attractive seaside town which is definitely becoming more hip and less hip replacement!
Brighton some 15 miles to the east has become “London on Sea” but with its property prices booming in recent years, people have begun to head westwards along the coast in search of places to live.
Brighton and Hove in the distance
Worthing with its wealth of regency properties and its fast regular train services into London, is fast becoming a popular and a much sought after town in which to live, a fact picked up by The Guardian which listed Worthing as now being the 10th most unaffordable place to buy property in England!
From the Regency bow fronted grand residences of Liverpool Terrace…
…to the houses with flint knapped walls popular in Sussex
Looking more closely at Worthing and its near neighbours along the coastline reveal some unusual surprises! Tomatoes, literary greats, pioneers of cinema and flight all feature in this area’s past! All will be revealed on this journey…
Worthing whilst having all the usual high street shops has some interesting independent retailers. It also has a Pizza restaurant in a place where Jane Austen lodged!
It is thought that she stayed at Stanford Cottage during the autumn of 1805 and that she found inspiration for some of the scenes and characters for her novel Sanditon whilst staying in the town.
A mural inside the restaurant reminds diners that Jane was here! I wonder if she had a favourite table..?
Another writer attracted to Worthing was Harold Pinter whose first wife Vivien Merchant lived in Ambrose Place and this was where Pinter wrote The Homecoming in the 1960’s.
Oscar Wilde was here too! In the summer of 1894 he wrote The Importance of Being Earnest whilst staying in a turreted late Victorian villa called Esplanade House.
Percy Bysshe Shelley was also a visitor, another blue plaque marks the spot where two of his earliest works including The Necessity of Atheism were printed.
“Shelley and Miss Philips at Warwick Street Printery” by Charles Alfred Morris now hangs in Worthing Art Gallery
Every seaside resort needs a pier but unfortunately many of these beautiful structures are falling into disrepair. Worthing Pier however is looking good today and it is a great place for a sunny stroll or a very bracing walk, depending on the weather!
At 960 feet in length it was designed by Sir Robert Rawlinson; opening in 1862 it was the thirteenth pier to be built in Britain. Successful from the start, the pier had a pavilion built at the southern end and a landing stage for paddle steamers the best known of which was the Worthing Belle which regularly ran trips to Brighton.
View from the southern end of the pier
Disaster struck on Easter Monday in 1913 when strong gales battered the pier and washed away the boardwalk leaving the pavilion stranded at the southern end. Repaired and reopened again by 1914, it was hit by a further disaster in 1933 when fire destroyed much of the pavilion. Once again it was repaired and refurbished with an amusement arcade, and a windshield running the entire length of the pier added. I can personally vouch for the effectiveness of this glass shield on a windy day!
When war broke out in 1939 bringing with it the risk of possible invasion, in 1940 a 120 foot hole was deliberately blown in the pier’s decking to hinder an enemy attack. Repaired again after the war, it reopened in 1949 and is still popular today with a northern pavilion now the Pavilion theatre.
Southern Pavilion note the glazed windshield on the left.
Restored again a couple of years ago, there are some lovely Art Deco touches and a good cafe too in the southern pavilion!
The pier is also the venue for the “Worthing Birdman” a competition which involves human “birdmen or women” attempting to fly off the end of the pier into the sea for prize money! It first began in the 1970’s in Selsey but has since relocated to Bognor before moving to Worthing.
The Birdman, involves running off a 20 to 35 foot high elevated ramp at the southern end of the pier and attempting to “fly” the furthest distance. Divided into different classes including fancy dress, past winners have been the Pope, a squirrel, a skateboarding cow, and a naked man named John!
A hopeful competitor!
Over the road from the pier is an unusual building…The Dome. It is a unique example of an Edwardian style of leisure centre which offered many forms of entertainment all under one roof. Known as a Kursaal it was renamed the Dome at the start of the First World War because of the anti German feeling which prevailed at the time.
In its early days it had a dance floor and a roller rink and upstairs an Electric Theatre showing “the moving pictures”…Worthing was the first town in West Sussex where audiences paid to see films! The town’s first cinema venue was the Winter Hall, converted from a chapel, where films were shown from 1906 and for the price of 3d you could watch a romance, western or a documentary. The Kursaal’s new Electric Theatre opened in 1911 and for 9d you could watch the latest films in a comfortable upholstered tip up armchair!
The Dome remained open for film shows throughout WWI, and it was remodelled in 1921 with the ground floor transformed into a “luxurious picture house” with a grand staircase and ornamental panelling. Upstairs the Electric Theatre was converted to the Kings Ballroom with the fitting of a sprung dance floor.
The ornate foyer of the Dome today
The 1920’s were the Dome’s golden years but during the 1930’s and the following years 4 other cinemas had opened up and the Dome was forced through competition to show second run films and at cheaper prices. By 1987 the Dome was the only purpose built cinema in town the others having burnt down or been demolished and the town council took over the freehold.
The old projector today sits in the aptly named “Projectionists Bar!”
After years of different usages, and the threat of demolition, the Dome finally passed into the ownership of a Trust which still operates it today, showing all the latest films in two cinemas within the ornate and now Grade II listed building.
Along Marine Parade facing the sea stands a newly built apartment block in Art Deco style, on the site of the once famous Warnes Hotel built by George Warne in 1899.
A blue plaque marks the first hotel garage!
In its heyday Warnes was the premier hotel in town and was patronised by the rich and famous among them King Edward VII, King George V, Winston Churchill and General Eisenhower. One surprising visitor was Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia. The Lion of Judah stayed for several months at Warnes in 1936 following his country’s defeat at the hands of Fascist Italy, before spending the next years of exile in Bath. The hotel closed in 1985 and finally burnt down in 1987.
Where would we be without Blue Plaques telling us about local history?
Promenading along the seafront has always been a popular seaside pastime and if you turn and walk eastwards you can walk along the coastline until you reach Shoreham where the River Adur enters the sea. Heading west, you can walk the coastline until you reach Littlehampton where the River Arun enters the sea.
A helpful sign explains the history of promenading! I like the metal fish atop the sign!
The fish forms part of Worthing’s coat of arms along with a cornucopia. Together with its wavy blue sea, the emblem represents the three main industries of the town, fishing seaside tourism and market gardening.
The motto: “Ex terra copiam e mari salutem” is Latin for “From the land plenty and from the sea health”
Behind Worthing lie the South Downs giving the town protection from the cold northerly winds. Its climate and fertile soil were major factors in the development of the town’s market garden and glasshouse industry.
By the early 1890’s some 600 tons of fruit left Worthing each year, much of it bound for the markets in the Northern towns of Leeds, Birmingham. Manchester and Glasgow as well as Brighton and London.
Grapes, mushrooms, strawberries, melons, cucumbers and other vegetables were all grown in Worthing glasshouses which by 1904 covered some 81 acres. By 1904 there were 82 fruit growers and four special fruit trains left each week from Worthing station.
Hot house table grape production near Worthing. Much of the crops were destined for the Paris markets until protective export tariffs greatly reduced the price.
West Worthing station was built in the hope of attracting holidaymakers from the Midlands using a line that unfortunately was never built, but it had a large sidings which were opened for fruit traffic. During the First World War the growing of exotic fare was replaced with the growing of tomatoes and salad crops and by the time of the Second World War, tomatoes were the main crop. Many glasshouses moved outside of Worthing where they still continue today.
A view of Grand Avenue in 1927 leading from West Worthing station, showing the extensive glasshouses now gone and replaced by housing.
Our friends live just off Grand Avenue, which as its name suggests is quite grand, with its elegant wide road punctuated with wonderful mature pines and Holm Oaks
Grand Avenue West Worthing today with its sculptural Corsican or Black Pine trees
A short walk down Grand Avenue and across the road the English Channel greets you!
Lets walk the coast…firstly westwards… towards the small town of Littlehampton…
The seafront promenade behind the beach huts is wide, flat and cyclist friendly, but I like to walk along the shingle strand line.Being a beachcomber at heart, I can always find something of interest perhaps a shell, a piece of sea washed glass, an unusually shaped piece of flint or maybe even a fossil!
I have seen these unusual concrete pillars along the top of the beach, placed at regular intervals, I think they may be some kind of marker used as a baseline for measuring coastal erosion, but I am not entirely sure…
Further along the coast you reach Goring, a small settlement which allegedly gave its name to Lord Goring one of Oscar Wilde’s characters in his play An Ideal Husband. It is also oddly home to a church with an unusual ceiling on which is a copy of the ceiling of the Sistine chapel! I have yet to visit the church to see this for myself!
Goring is often known as Goring-by-Sea to differentiate it from its namesake in Oxfordshire, Goring-on-Thames and a little known fact about this settlement is that Pete Townshend of the Who recorded the sounds of the sea at Goring beach for inclusion on the classic rock album “Quadrophenia”!
After the large grassy stretch of land backed by holm oaks, Ferring is the next port of call.
At Ferring brightly painted beach huts line the shore and there is a super little cafe, The Bluebird, that we often visit when walking along here. After Ferring heading westwards lie the highly desirable residential areas of East Preston and Angmering, derived from the Saxon, meaning the people of “Angenmaer”, before reaching Rustington.
During WWI Rustington was home to an American air base and it is also notable for two air speed records.
Air speed record location
Group Captain Teddy Donaldson flying a Gloster Meteor Star was the first man to exceed 1,000 km/h on 7th September 1946. This record was broken on 7th September 1953 by Squadron Leader Neville Duke flying a Hawker Hunter at a speed of 1170.9 km/h.
A plaque makes the spot
On towards Lttlehampton… home to a unique cafe and Britain’s longest bench!
Thomas Heatherwick is one of my favourite designers. From his sculpture…
“B of the Bang” that was commissioned to mark the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester…
…to his rolling footbridge in Paddington Basin…...
…and more recently for the Olympic Cauldron for London 2012, his work never ceases to inspire me.
In Littlehampton Heatherwick designed an unusual cafe…
Opened in 2007, the East Beach Cafe is quite unique with its rusted metal exterior which seems to grow organically out of the beach.
East Beach Cafe
The entire metal structure was fabricated in Littlehampton by just two men. Its raw weathered tough exterior made of four separate pieces of mild steel, rusted and coated in oil is well fitted to cope with the demands of the seaside location. The inside was sprayed with rigid insulating foam. Not only is it a great piece of architecture is also a great eating place too.
Endways on, it always reminds me of toast in a rack!
Inside is like a white cave…and is cosy whatever the weather!
Just along from the cafe there is another curious feature… Britain’s longest bench!
Yes it is official!
At 324 metres long the bench begins in a metal shelter and from there it twists and winds its way along the seafront promenade until it ends in another metal shelter near the bandstand.
Made from some 9,000 reclaimed hardwood slats the bench dips in and out of the ground…
and snakes around lamp posts!
The bench was inspired by many different ideas including one from a local junior school whose pupils wanted a place where they could all sit together. Studio Weave the architects designed the bench and some of the slats have personalised messages from the public including one inscribed as a marriage proposal!
The seafront promenade ends where the River Arun meets the sea at the harbour, but just inland across the wide green lawns is a small street with a local grocery shop with an unusual claim to fame. The late British comic actor, Ronnie Barker used to live around the corner from this small shop and it was apparently the inspiration for his programme “Open all Hours”
As the sign in the window testifies! Also around the corner is Granville Road…perhaps also the inspiration of David Jason’s characters name..?
At the harbour and the River Arun, my journey westwards ends…now back to Worthing to head along the coast in the opposite direction, eastwards…to the River Adur
On a calm sunny day the sea can look quite tropical…it can also be a wild and windy place too…
Worthing beaches today are clean and the ozone filled air feels positively healthy…it apparently wasn’t always the case! On the beach near the pier is an information board describing the menace of Worthing’s seaweed..!
About 5 miles off Worthing’s coast there is a range of underwater chalk cliffs called the “Worthing Lumps” with some at 10 feet high, they are one of the best examples of undersea chalk cliffs and are designated a Marine Site of Nature Conservation. In addition there is a large seaweed zone which is believed to be responsible for the towns marine menace!
Excessive seaweed deposits began piling up on the beach in the Victorian period but whilst many old postcards show families enjoying the beach surrounded by it, others complained of the smells when it began to decompose. Along with primitive sewage methods and the discarded fish guts left by the local fishermen, it wasn’t the attractive seaside venue that the town was trying to promote!
Even fifty years ago if you had walked along the beach you would have been confronted with piles of seaweed up to 8 or 9 feet high, full of pesky flies which would infest the town and began to affect the values of seafront properties.
Bulldozers tackle the seaweed menace near the pier!
Many methods were tried over the years to rid the town of its smelly menace. In the 1930’s the council encouraged farmers to cart it way for use as a fertiliser but then began charging them 12 shillings and 6 pence a load, so that effort soon fizzled out! Later attempts were to try to bulldoze it out to sea, transporting it along the beach and dumping it close to the boundary with Lancing in the hope that the tides there would help wash it way. That didn’t work and the Lancing residents weren’t too happy either!
Somehow the tide turned (no pun intended) and the town today is virtually free of its unwelcome marine visitor although I understand that the Town Council monitors the situation on a daily basis…
I pass some more unusual seating along the seafront heading eastwards…
Leaving the town behind, the promenade continues towards the small village of Lancing. I have already mentioned that Oscar Wilde wrote The Importance of Being Earnest whilst staying in Worthing, however the play’s working title was “Lady Lancing”.
The shingle beach has a few remaining boats from Worthing’s once thriving in shore fishing fleet, and on certain days you can buy their catch straight from the fisherman.
Lancing College is an independent school which lies some way inland on the other side of the A27, but it is worthy of inclusion as its chapel is visible from not only the coast but for miles around. Built in the English Gothic style of the 14th century it was actually built in 1868. It is an impressive looking place.
Lancing College Chapel
Past alumni of the school include the novelists Tom Sharpe, Evelyn Waugh and lyricist Tim Rice.
The coastal village of Lancing became a popular seaside resort in the mid 19th century with the gentry favouring its secluded atmosphere. The coast road is still today lined with guest houses.
After passing by more beach huts and chalets, an unusual wetland area is reached…
Widewater Lagoon is a landlocked brackish lagoon with special nature conservation status
Hidden from the road by houses, the lagoon is best seen from the raised seafront path. This saline environment is an ideal home or a stopping off point for a wide diversity of birds and other wildlife. On the day I visited, the lagoon was full of colourful plants and flowers that thrive in this salty, shingle landscape, and the pools were full of birdlife, I saw oystercatchers, swans, herons and a couple of Little Egrets were a bonus!
It is hard to discern when Lancing ends and Shoreham or Shoreham-by-Sea as it is sometimes known, begins. Dating back to pre Roman times the town’s name is of Old English origin and the port and town were established towards the end of the 11th Century by the Normans. With the growth of nearby Brighton, Hove and Worthing and the arrival of the railways, Shoreham grew as a Victorian sea port and still today has several shipyards in commercial operation.
Shoreham beach is a shingle spit built up over many millennia by longshore drift and the mouth of the River Adur has moved over the centuries. The river’s mouth was defined by Shoreham Fort or Redoubt built in 1857 to defend the town from the possible threat of French invasion.
An aerial view of the fort
Some fort terminology is called for here! The fort’s ground plan is that of a “lunette”, a type of rectangular half moon with earthen ramparts on which guns were mounted. The rear part comprised a defensible barrack block and it is surrounded by a ditch which carried a “Carnot” wall along the bottom. At its three corners are covered bastions or passageways called “Caponiers” which can be accessed from within the fort whilst still being under cover from fire.
The earthern ramparts with Carnot wall are still reasonably intact
The covered bastion or Caponier
The fort was used for a period of some 49 years and again was utilized during WWII with a battery of six inch guns. Their concrete emplacements are all that remain today.
During 1913 Shoreham fort took on a different role…it became a film studio! Early cinema pioneers were not unusual in this area, as in 1898 an American, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson had arrived in Worthing and shot several short films of typical seaside scenes with his magic “Black Box” camera.
A scenic artist, Francis Lyndhurst (and incidentally, grandfather to actor Nicholas Lyndhurst, probably best known as Rodney in “Only Fools and Horses”), brought his film company Sunny South Films, to Shoreham. Utilising the pure smog free air and the clear quality of the light, the fort was the ideal location and in addition the high walls and ramparts cut down wind on the canvas backdrops and it was secure to keep people out.
The film studio inside the fort
The first film made by Lyndhurst’s company was called “A Showman’s Dream” and starred Will Evans, a music hall star and local Shoreham beach resident. Many film staff rented bungalows along the beach front and along Old Fort Road and this area soon attracted music hall stars and others in the industry. The area became known as “Bungalow Town” and in addition to the houses, many redundant railway carriages from the nearby Lancing railway carriage works were sold off and dragged across the river to be located along the beach to house this new community.
Hauling a railway carriage to its new home in Shoreham
In 1915 with the growing confidence in movie making, Lyndhurst launched a grander enterprise along the beach called Sealight Film Productions and a glasshouse studio was built in 1916.
The Glasshouse studios operated using only artificial light as electricity was not available!
The Great War intervened and also financial difficulties hit Lyndhurst’s studios. Filming began again at the glasshouse in 1920 with the arrival of the Progress Film Company under producer Sidney Morgan, who produced the first film of Little Dorrit.
Last year the town was again back in use as a film location for a BBC series “Cuffs” which used the beach and part of the Civic Centre to stage their police drama.
Another Shoreham landmark is the airport, also a popular film location for period dramas such as Poirot. Officially known as Brighton City Airport, the terminal building is a must see place for fans of Art Deco with its original 1930s styled interiors and white concrete facade…it also has a great restaurant “The Hummingbird” which is open to all!
The flying ground was established in 1910 and in July 1911 it was the starting point for the first recorded cargo flight, when a monoplane flew a box of Osram light bulbs to nearby Hove! By 1914 the Royal Flying Corps had arrived at Shoreham and following the war, the land had reverted back to its former use as grazing land.
In 1925 the airfield was home to the Gnat Aero Company and by 1930 the municipal authorities of Brighton, Hove and Worthing formed a joint committee to establish Shoreham as the airport for the three towns.
The plaque marks the opening of the airport…
…whilst a Sepecat Jaguar aircraft guards its gate!
The aircraft sadly no longer flies, but I must, and so head back to Worthing…
Thank you for accompanying me on this coastal ramble of about 12 or so miles along this fascinating stretch of the West Sussex coastline. If you are ever in this area don’t forget to visit Worthing and its environs…it’s well worth it!