The southeast corner of England was traditionally where London went on holiday. In the past, trainloads of East Enders were shuttled to the hop fields and orchards of Kent for a working break from the city; boats ferried people down the Thames to the beaches of north Kent; while everyone from royalty to cuckolding couples enjoyed the seaside at Brighton, a blot of decadence in the otherwise sedate county of Sussex. Although many of the old seaside resorts have struggled to keep their tourist custom in the face of ever more accessible foreign destinations, the region still has considerable charm, its narrow country lanes and verdant meadows appearing, in places, almost untouched by modern life.
The proximity of Kent and Sussex to the continent has dictated the history of this region, which has served as a gateway for an array of invaders. Roman remains dot the coastal area – most spectacularly at Bignorin Sussex and Lullingstone in Kent – and many roads, including the main A2 London to Dover, follow the arrow-straight tracks laid by the legionaries. When Christianity spread through Europe, it arrived in Britain on the Isle of Thanet – the northeast tip of Kent, since rejoined to the mainland by silting and subsiding sea levels. In 597 AD Augustine moved inland and established a monastery at Canterbury, still the home of the Church of England and the county’s prime historic attraction.
The last successful invasion of England took place in 1066, when the Normans overran King Harold’s army near Hastings, on a site now marked by Battle Abbey. The Normans left their mark all over this corner of the kingdom, and Kent remains unmatched in its profusion of medieval castles, among them Dover’s sprawling cliff-top fortress guarding against continental invasion and Rochester’s huge, box-like citadel, close to the old dockyards of Chatham, power base of the formerly invincible British navy.
Away from the great historic sites, you can spend unhurried days in elegant old towns such as Royal Tunbridge Wells, Rye and Lewes, or enjoy the less elevated charms of the traditional resorts, of which fashionable Brighton is by far the best, combining the buzz of a university town with a good-time atmosphere and excellent restaurants. The picturesque South Downs Way – which winds its way through the South Downs National Park – offers an expanse of rolling chalk uplands that, as much as anywhere can in the crowded southeast, gets you away from it all. Kent and Sussex also harbour some of the country’s finest gardens, ranging from the lush flowerbeds of Sissinghurst to the great landscaped estate of Petworth House.
The home of wealthy metropolitan commuters, Surrey is the least pastoral and historically significant of the three southeastern counties surrounding London. The portion of the county within and around the M25 orbital motorway has little for tourists, though beyond the ring road it takes on a more countrified aspect, with swathes of open heathland along its western borders and the sleepy market town of Farnham, home to a twelfth-century castle.
Top image: Mermaid Street, Rye, Sussex © Kevin Eaves/Shutterstock
The hilltop town of ARUNDEL, eighteen miles west of Brighton, has for seven centuries been the seat of the dukes of Norfolk, whose fine castle looks over the valley of the River Arun. The medieval town’s well-preserved appearance and picturesque setting draws in the crowds on summer weekends, but at any other time a visit reveals one of West Sussex’s least spoilt old towns. The two main attractions are the castle and the towering Gothic cathedral, but the rest of Arundel is pleasant to wander round – especially the antique-shop-lined Maltravers and Arun streets. North of Arundel lie a couple more attractions: Bignor Roman Villa, with some outstanding Roman mosaics; and the grand, seventeenth-century Petworth House, which has a notable art collection.
In the last week in August, Arundel’s festival features everything from open-air theatre to salsa bands.
The excavated second-century ruins of the
Bignor Roman Villa
, just six miles north of town, have some of the best Roman mosaics in the country – the one showing Ganymede being carried by an eagle from Mount Ida is the most outstanding. The site is superbly situated at the base of the South Downs and features the longest extant section of mosaic in England, as well as the remains of a hypocaust, the underfloor heating system developed by the Romans.
, adjoining the pretty little village of
, is one of the southeast’s most impressive stately homes. Built in the late seventeenth century, the house contains an outstanding art collection, with paintings by Van Dyck, Titian, Gainsborough, Bosch, Reynolds, Blake and Turner – the last a frequent guest here. The extensive
, connected by a tunnel to the main house, contain an impressive series of kitchens bearing the latest technological kitchenware of the 1870s, while the 700-acre grounds were landscaped by Capability Brown and are considered one of his finest achievements.
Recorded as the tiny fishing village of Brithelmeston in the Domesday Book, BRIGHTON seems to have slipped unnoticed through history until the mid-eighteenth century, when the new trend for sea-bathing established it as a resort. The fad received royal approval in the 1780s, after the decadent Prince of Wales (the future George IV) began patronizing the town in the company of his mistress, thus setting a precedent for the “dirty weekend”. Trying to shake off this blowsy reputation, Brighton – which was granted city status in 2000 – now highlights its Georgian charm, its upmarket shops and classy restaurants, and its thriving conference industry. Despite these efforts, however, the essence of Brighton’s appeal remains its faintly bohemian vitality, a buzz that comes from a mix of English holiday-makers, foreign-language students, a thriving gay community and an energetic local student population from the art college and two universities.
Any trip to Brighton inevitably begins with a visit to its two most famous landmarks – the exuberant Royal Pavilion and the wonderfully tacky Brighton Pier, a few minutes away – followed by a stroll along the seafront promenade or the pebbly beach. Just as interesting, though, is an exploration of Brighton’s car-free Lanes – the maze of narrow alleys marking the old town – or a meander through the quaint, but more bohemian streets of North Laine.
In any survey to find England’s most loved building, there’s always a bucketful of votes for Brighton’s exotic extravaganza, the
, which flaunts itself in the middle of the main thoroughfare of Old Steine. The building was a conventional farmhouse until 1787, when the fun-loving Prince of Wales converted it into something more regal, and for a couple of decades the prince’s south-coast pied-à-terre was a Palladian villa, with mildly Oriental embellishments. Upon becoming Prince Regent, however, George commissioned John Nash, architect of London’s Regent Street, to build an extraordinary confection of slender minarets, twirling domes, pagodas, balconies and miscellaneous motifs imported from India and China. Supported on an innovative cast-iron frame, the result defined a genre of its own – Oriental Gothic.
Approached via the restrained Long Gallery, the Banqueting Room erupts with ornate splendour and is dominated by a one-ton chandelier hung from the jaws of a massive dragon cowering in a plantain tree. Next door, the huge, high-ceilinged kitchen, fitted with the most modern appliances of its time, has iron columns disguised as palm trees. The stunning Music Room, the first sight of which reduced George to tears of joy, has a huge dome lined with more than 26,000 individually gilded scales and hung with exquisite umbrella-like glass lamps. After climbing the famous cast-iron staircase with its bamboo-look banisters, you can go into Victoria’s sober and seldom-used bedroom and the North Gallery where the king’s portrait hangs, along with a selection of satirical cartoons. More notable, though, is the South Gallery, decorated in sky-blue with trompe l’oeil bamboo trellises and a carpet that appears to be strewn with flowers.
One of England’s most venerable cities, CANTERBURY offers a rich slice through two thousand years of history, with Roman and early Christian ruins, a Norman castle and a famous cathedral that dominates a medieval warren of time-skewed Tudor dwellings. Its compact centre, partly ringed by ancient walls, is virtually car-free, but this doesn’t stop the High Street seizing up all too frequently with the milling crowds.
The city that began as a Belgic settlement was known as Durovernum to the Romans, who established a garrison and supply base here, and renamed Cantwarabyrig by the Saxons. In 597 the Saxon King Ethelbert welcomed Augustine, despatched by the pope to convert the British Isles to Christianity; one of the two Benedictine monasteries founded by Augustine – Christ Church, raised on the site of the Roman basilica – was to become England’s first cathedral.
At the turn of the first millennium Canterbury suffered repeated sackings by the Danes, and Christ Church was eventually destroyed by fire a year before the Norman invasion. A struggle for power later developed between the archbishops, the abbots from the nearby Benedictine abbey and King Henry II, culminating in the assassination of Archbishop Thomas à Becket in 1170, a martyrdom that established this as one of Christendom’s greatest shrines. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written towards the end of the fourteenth century, portrays the unexpectedly festive nature of pilgrimages to Becket’s tomb, which was later plundered and destroyed on the orders of Henry VIII.
In 1830 a pioneering passenger railway service linked Canterbury to the sea and prosperity grew until the city suffered extensive German bombing on June 1, 1942, in one of the notorious Baedeker Raids – the Nazi plan to destroy Britain’s most treasured historic sites as described in the eponymous German travel guides.
Mother Church of the Church of England and seat of the Primate of All England – the Archbishop of Canterbury –
fills the northeast quadrant of the city with a sense of authority, even if architecturally it’s not the country’s most impressive. A cathedral has stood here since 602, but in 1070 the first Norman archbishop, Lanfranc, levelled the original Saxon structure to build a new cathedral. Over successive centuries the masterpiece was heavily modified, and with the puritanical lines of the Perpendicular style gaining ascendancy in late medieval times, the cathedral now derives its distinctiveness from the thrust of the 235ft-high Bell Harry Tower, completed in 1505.
The precincts are entered through the superbly ornate early sixteenth-century Christ Church Gate, where Burgate and St Margaret’s Street meet. This junction, the city’s medieval core, is known as the Butter Market, where religious relics were once sold to pilgrims hoping to prevent an eternity in damnation. Once through the gatehouse, you can enjoy one of the best views of the cathedral, foreshortened and crowned with soaring towers and pinnacles.
In the magnificent interior, look for the tomb of Henry IV and his wife, Joan of Navarre, and for the gilded effigy of Edward III’s son, the Black Prince, all of them in the Trinity Chapel behind the main altar. Also here, until demolished in 1538, was the shrine of Thomas à Becket; the actual spot where he died, known as “The Martyrdom”, is marked in the northwest transept by the Altar of the Sword’s Point, where a jagged sculpture of the assassins’ weapons is suspended on the wall. Steps from here descend to the low, Romanesque arches of the crypt, one of the few remaining relics of the Norman cathedral and considered the finest such structure in the country, with some amazingly well-preserved carvings on the capitals of the columns. Back upstairs, look out for the vivid medieval stained glass, notably in the Trinity Chapel, where the life and miraculous works of Thomas à Becket are depicted. Look out too for an animal-skin-clad Adam delving in the west window and Jonah and the whale in the Corona (the eastern end of the cathedral, beyond the Trinity Chapel). The thirteenth-century white marble St Augustine’s Chair, on which all archbishops of Canterbury are enthroned, is located in the choir at the top of the steps beyond the high altar.
On the cathedral’s north flank are the fan-vaulted colonnades of the Great Cloister, from where you enter the Chapter House, with its intricate web of fourteenth-century tracery supporting the roof and a wall of stained glass.
The handsome market town of CHICHESTER has plenty to recommend it: a splendid twelfth-century cathedral, a thriving cultural scene and one of the finest collections of modern British art in the country on show at the Pallant House Gallery. The town began life as a Roman settlement, and its Roman cruciform street plan is still evident in the four-quadrant symmetry of the town centre. The main streets lead off from the Gothic Market Cross, a bulky octagonal rotunda topped by ornate finials and a crown lantern spire, built in 1501 to provide shelter for the market traders. The big attraction outside Chichester is Fishbourne Roman Palace, the largest excavated Roman site in Britain.
The old-fashioned resort of DEAL, six miles southeast of Sandwich, was the site of Julius Caesar’s first successful landfall in Britain in 55 BC. Today it’s a pleasant if unexciting spot, with a shingle beach backed by a jumble of Georgian townhouses, and a striking 1950s concrete pier that gives great views back across the town. Two seafront castles, built during the reign of King Henry VIII, are the town’s biggest draw.
Badly bombed during World War II, DOVER’s town centre and seafront just don’t have what it takes to induce many travellers to linger. Dover Castle is still by far the most interesting of the port’s attractions, and you also shouldn’t miss a walk along the legendary White Cliffs, which dominate the town and have long been a source of inspiration for lovers, travellers and soldiers sailing off to war.
There are some superb walks along Dover’s cliffs: to reach Shakespeare Cliff, catch bus #D2A from Worthington Street towards Aycliff; alternatively, there’s a steep two-and-a-half-mile climb from North Military Road, off York Street, taking you by the Western Heights, a series of defensive battlements built into the cliff in the nineteenth century.
Like so many of the southeast’s seaside resorts, EASTBOURNE was kick-started into life in the 1840s, when the Brighton, Lewes and Hastings Rail Company built a branch line from Lewes to the sea. Nowadays Eastbourne has a solid reputation as a retirement town by the sea, and though the relocated state-of-the-art Towner Gallery has introduced a welcome splash of modernity, the town’s charms remain for the most part sedate and old-fashioned. The focus of the elegant seafront is the pier, one of the grandest on the south coast, jutting out from its long promenade. The real draw, however, is the stunning coastal scenery of the nearby South Downs, just a short walk away.
The fifteenth and newest member of Britain’s national park family, the South Downs National Park came into being in 2010. Covering over six hundred square miles, it stretches for seventy miles from eastern Hampshire through the hills of West Sussex to the white chalk cliffs of East Sussex. The park is located in one of the most densely populated parts of the country, and in contrast to other “wilder” national parks, it contains a high proportion of farmland – about 85 percent of the park.
There are visitor centres in East Sussex at the Seven Sisters County Park and at Beachy Head, and in Hampshire at the Queen Elizabeth County Park. The South Downs National Park Authority website is another useful source of information about the area.
One of the best ways to explore the park is to strike off into the countryside on the South Downs Way, which rises and dips over one hundred miles along the chalk uplands between the city of Winchester and the spectacular cliffs at Beachy Head, and offers the southeast’s finest walks. If undertaken in its entirety, the bridle path is best traversed from west to east, taking advantage of the prevailing wind, Eastbourne’s better transport services and accommodation, and the psychological appeal of ending at the sea. Steyning, the halfway point, marks a transition between predominantly wooded sections and more exposed chalk uplands.
The OS Landranger maps #198 and #199 cover the eastern end of the route; you’ll need #185 and #197 as well to cover the lot. A guidebook is advised, and several are available, the best being by Kev Reynolds (written for following the route in either direction; published by Cicerone Press).
Once an influential Cinque Port, HASTINGS is a curious mixture of unpretentious fishing port, tatty seaside resort and bohemian retreat popular with artists. The town is best known, however, for the eponymous battle which took place nearby; in 1066, William, Duke of Normandy, landed at Pevensey Bay, a few miles west of town, and made Hastings his base, before his forces met Harold’s army at nearby Battle.
The town of BATTLE, six miles inland from Hastings, occupies the site of the most famous land battle in British history. Here, on October 14, 1066, the invading Normans swarmed up the hillside from Senlac Moor and overcame the Anglo-Saxon army of King Harold, who is thought to have been killed not by an arrow through the eye – a myth resulting from the misinterpretation of the Bayeux Tapestry – but by a workaday clubbing about the head. Before the battle took place, William vowed that, should he win the engagement, he would build a religious foundation on the very spot of Harold’s slaying to atone for the bloodshed, and, true to his word, Battle Abbey was built four years later and subsequently occupied by a fraternity of Benedictines.
The magnificent structure of Battle Abbey, though partially destroyed in the Dissolution and much rebuilt and revised over the centuries, still dominates the town. You can wander through the ruins of the abbey to the spot where Harold was killed – the site of the high altar of William’s abbey, now marked by a memorial stone – while a visitor centre holds an interactive exhibition and an auditorium showing a dramatic re-enactment of the battle using film and computer simulations.
LEWES, the county town of East Sussex, straddles the River Ouse as it carves a gap through the South Downs on its final stretch to the sea. Though there’s been some rebuilding, the core of Lewes remains remarkably good-looking: replete with crooked older dwellings, narrow lanes – or “twittens” – and Georgian houses. With numerous traces of its long history still visible, some of England’s most appealing chalkland on its doorstep and the Bloomsbury Group’s country home at Charleston close by, Lewes is a worthwhile stopover on any tour of the southeast – and an easy one, with good rail connections with London and along the coast.
Founded in 1934, Glyndebourne, three miles east of Lewes, off the A27, is Britain’s only unsubsidized opera house, and the Glyndebourne season an indispensable part of the high-society calendar. It’s undeniably exclusive – and expensive – but the musical values are the highest in the country, using young talent rather than expensive star names, and taking the sort of risks Covent Garden wouldn’t dream of. An award-winning theatre (seating 1200) has broadened this exclusive venue to a wider audience, and there are tickets available at reduced prices for dress rehearsals or for standing-room-only.
Each November 5, while the rest of Britain lights small domestic bonfires or attends municipal firework displays to commemorate the 1605 foiling of a Catholic plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament, Lewes puts on a more dramatic show, whose origins lie in the deaths of the Lewes Martyrs, the seventeen Protestants burned here in 1556 at the height of Mary Tudor’s militant revival of Catholicism. By the end of the eighteenth century, Lewes’s Bonfire Boys had become notorious for the boisterousness of their anti-Catholic demonstrations, in which they set off fireworks indiscriminately and dragged rolling tar barrels through the streets – a tradition still practised today, although with a little more caution. In 1845 events came to a head when the incorrigible pyromaniacs of Lewes had to be read the Riot Act, instigating a night of violence between the police and Bonfire Boys. Lewes’s first bonfire societies were established soon afterwards to instil some discipline into the proceedings, and in the early twentieth century they were persuaded to move their street fires to the town’s perimeters.
Today’s tightly knit bonfire societies spend much of the year organizing the Bonfire Night shenanigans, when their members dress up in traditional costumes and parade through the town carrying flaming torches, before marching off onto the Downs for their society’s big fire. At each of the fires, effigies of Guy Fawkes and the pope are burned alongside contemporary, but equally reviled, figures – chancellors of the exchequer and prime ministers are popular choices.
In Roman times, what is now the southernmost part of Kent was submerged beneath the English Channel. The lowering of the sea levels in the Middle Ages and later reclamation created a forty-square-mile area of shingle and marshland, the Romney and Denge marshes, which today is populated mainly by sheep and has an eerie, forlorn appearance.
You can take in the marshes on the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway, a fifteen-inch-gauge line which runs between Dungeness and the ancient town of Hythe on the marsh’s western edge.
Ten miles northeast of Hastings, perched on a hill overlooking the Romney Marshes, the pretty, ancient town of RYE was added as a “limb” to the original Cinque Ports, but was subsequently marooned two miles inland by the retreat of the sea and the silting-up of the River Rother. It is now one of the most visited places in East Sussex – half-timbered, skew-roofed and quintessentially English, but also very commercialized.
Rye’s most picturesque street – and the most photographed – is the sloping cobbled Mermaid Street, the town’s main thoroughfare in the sixteenth century. At the top of Mermaid Street, just around the corner in West Street, lies Lamb House (mid-March to mid-Oct Tues & Sat 2–6pm; NT; £4.30; t 01580 762334), home of the authors Henry James and (subsequently) E.F. Benson.
Just a few cobbled yards away is the peaceful oasis of Church Square, where St Mary’s Church boasts the oldest functioning pendulum clock in the country; the ascent of the church tower offers fine views over the clay-tiled roofs.
One of the best-preserved medieval towns in the country, SANDWICH is best known nowadays for giving rise to England’s favourite culinary contribution when, in 1762, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich, passionately absorbed in a game of cards, ate his meat between two bits of bread for a quick snack. Today it’s a sleepy, picturesque town, with some fine half-timbered buildings and a lovely location on the willow-lined banks of the River Stour. It also boasts one of England’s best golf courses, the Royal St George Golf Course, just outside town. A frequent venue of the British Open tournament, it is open to all-comers on weekdays.
In 1278 Edward I formalized the unofficial confederation of defensive coastal settlements – Dover, Hythe, Sandwich, New Romney and Hastings – as the Cinque Ports (pronounced “sink”, despite its French origin). In return for providing England with maritime support, chiefly in the transportation of troops and supplies during times of war, the five ports were granted trading privileges and other liberties. Later, Rye, Winchelsea and a few other “limb” ports on the southeast coast were added to the confederation. The ports’ privileges were revoked in 1685; their maritime services had become increasingly unnecessary after Henry VIII had founded a professional navy and, due to a shifting coastline, several of the ports’ harbours had silted up anyway, leaving some of them several miles inland. Nowadays, only Dover is still a major working port.