Our introduction to England came when friendly little communities welcomed us into West Sussex village life amid the beautiful backdrop of the South Downs.
If you’ve read English literature, you’ve imagined yourself in an English village. Perhaps your mind’s eye places you in Kent along with Pip in Great Expectations, or as a Brontë character in Yorkshire. Maybe you think of Hawkshead or Hampshire, in a Jane Austen or Beatrix Potter kind of way. Whatever your associations, we’re betting West Sussex village life would probably not be the first location that enters your head. It certainly wasn’t ours.
The village of Ashington and several neighboring communities near South Downs National Park gave us our first taste of England. We couldn’t have been welcomed more heartily into a scenic world where legendary history is layered in and around daily living. And now, West Sussex village life is the standard we’ll use in the future when our travels have us returning to Old Brittania.
Ashington, where we came to house sit for two lovely elderly Labrador retrievers, is a quiet little community of about 1000 households. It lies off what used to be a drover’s path between the seaside city of Worthing and the market town of Horsham. The drover’s path is now the A24 carriageway (that’s a highway if you’re a Yank). In many respects, Ashington is typical of West Sussex village life, or village life in general in the United Kingdom. There’s a smallish grocer, several restaurants, an Indian curry takeaway, a pharmacy, a church dating at least from the 13th century, and a pub called the Red Lion, which is the most popular pub name in all of England.
Stereotypically, we wondered how we would suffer pub fare in Britain. Fret no more on what you’ve heard about English food! Ashington Red Lion’s menu isn’t atypical – you can choose from box-baked Camembert or deep-fried Brie, a fisherman’s platter with sloe-gin smoked salmon and shellfish, Italian antipasto boards, smoked chicken liver parfait with brioche and chutney, you get the picture. Walking to the pub served to whet the appetite.
If there was just drinking to be done, we scuttled along the bridle path adjacent to the church close (a sort of cul-de-sac) around to the Ashington Social Club. Club members had kindly waived the usual £5 membership fee for out-of-towners. This was either due to our relationship with Archie, the yellow Lab for whom we were responsible, or the fact that we’re technically homeless. Archie gets on quite nicely all by himself, it would appear. Ambling into either Pub or Social Club on solitary walkabout, he is sufficiently well-known in the village to snag a ride home when he’s had enough. Dogs are welcome just about everywhere in England and we think that’s swell.
Close by Ashington is Storrington, a slightly larger and definitely busier village at the top end of the South Downs boundary. This area is rich in history, part of a large Anglo-Saxon estate awarded by William the Conqueror to a trusted friend. But long before that, Bronze and Iron Age inhabitants made their home on a hilltop between the two. Chanctonbury Ring, the site of their fort along the Washington ridge was abandoned during the Roman invasion, and later made a temple. In 1588, beacons were sited along the Ring to warn of the coming Spanish Armada. Nowadays, it is said to be haunted.
Just outside Storrington is Parham House, an estate which is the site of the Sussex Country Fair. This is a weekend long event celebrating country life with exhibits, traditional music, vintage farm displays, shooting sports and working dog challenges.
Further afield within the South Downs proper is Arundel. With its own connection to William the Conqueror, it is dominated by Arundel Castle and St. Mary’s Cathedral. Sitting on a magnificent estate overlooking the River Arun awarded by William to his loyal associate Roger de Montgomery, the castle has been occupied for over 1000 years by the Dukes of Norfolk and their ancestors.
During the 15th through 17th centuries, Arundel was the seat of the powerful Howard family. Howards sailed and prevailed against the Spanish Armada with Sir Francis Drake, offered up their nieces Catherine and Anne Boleyn to Henry VIII in marriage, and one was even beheaded for plotting to wed Mary Queen of Scots. We were amazed to see the written order of Queen Elizabeth I saving said Howard from disembowelment in favor of more humane treatment – “off with his head!” – rather casually framed and displayed in the Duke’s library. Throughout all this drama, the family successfully kept their Catholic faith intact.
It seemed to me that Arundel was even more hustle and bustle than Storrington, although it was hard to judge its size due to the number of visitors for the castle. Some called it a village, but most called it a town. What makes a village a village, and a town a town, I wondered? Well, there’s kind of a definition, but it’s confusing:
Got that? So part of West Sussex village life is going to town to get stuff that you can’t get in your village. The closest market town to Ashington is Horsham. Located up the former drover’s road now highway, it’s a quick trip by car or bus. Have a look at what hanging out in Horsham was like for us in this video:
One of the most interesting buildings in Horsham is the former Town Hall. What is a Norman-like mini-castle doing in a West Sussex market town? This used to be the town Market House. The lower portion with arches was an open arcade where vendor stalls would be set up on market day. The upper floor was used for civic purposes. When court was in session the lower arcade would be boarded up.
By 1808, Horsham had let the building fall into disrepair and the court justices wanted it demolished. They waited four years for something to happen, and finally they threatened to leave town for Lewes, which had a nice new building. That made Horsham take notice. Enter the Duke of Norfolk (yep, the guy with the big castle at Arundel). He had bought Horsham, lock stock and barrel, for £91,000. Believing that the “Saxon” castle-like style with turrets symbolized English Liberty because it was contemporary with the Magna Carta, he decided to spend another £8,000 for a new Town Hall. During a subsequent remodel in 1888, the Duke’s castle-like facade was kept.
Sometimes you’ll be standing there looking at a building and someone will come up to you and start talking about a murderer from 70 years ago, like what happened to us in this video:
When you exit Horsham’s museum behind the Old Town Hall you’ll be on one of the prettiest streets in West Sussex, called The Causeway.
The Causeway leads you to St. Mary’s Church, which is the oldest building in Horsham. Founded in the mid-13th century on the site of a Norman church, St. Mary’s houses the effigy of Thomas, Lord de Braose, dressed in armor befitting his status as a contemporary of King Richard II. Thomas is a descendant of William de Braose, who came to England with William the Conqueror, and was given the lands around Chanctonbury Ring.
What makes a Duke a Duke, or a Squire a Squire, or a Lord a Lord, I wondered? Archie the Labrador’s human siblings had gone to school with one of the Duke of Norfolk’s sons. They related that for a Lord, the kid wasn’t all bad. Wikipedia tells us that a manorial lordship is not a noble title, but rather “a semi-extinct form of landed property.” But a lord could also be called a squire, although originally a squire was the person who carried a knight’s armor. We still don’t know how everyone gets on, except for the Duke of Norfolk. He, we were told, is next in line for the throne after all the Windsors.
St. Mary’s information tells us Thomas was the last person to live at The Manor of Chesworth in Horsham. Chesworth is where Catherine Howard (the wife of Henry VIII) spent her childhood. Chesworth is also where the Duke of Norfolk who wanted to marry Mary Queen of Scots was arrested for treason. After Elizabeth I beheaded him, she took the house, too. See how everything circles around?
All of this would have likely been very well-known to the average English villager back in the day. Nobles and landed gentry were celebrities whose comings and goings were of great interest to the common folk.
Today, West Sussex village life occurs in and around the vestiges of this history with little regard for the novelty we Americans think it has.
Note: We learned that Digger, Archie’s Labrador sibling, crossed the Rainbow Bridge shortly after our stay. Digger was a sweet old gentleman, as only a Labrador can be. We were so privileged to care for Digger and Archie, and are grateful their family had a few more precious weeks with Digger’s company. RIP
Practicalities, Tips and Information:
While public transportation is available throughout West Sussex, at times it can be a bit of a challenge, particularly if you’re going east-west. North-south routes are well-covered by train and bus. There are multiple routes for bus and coach (there is no discernible difference here, just the type of company and/or frequency of stops, from what we could tell). There are a variety of ticketing options, including family day passes which run about £15. We’d suggest you consider renting a car to get around more easily, if possible. Free buses run daily to different destinations, designed primarily for shopping and used primarily by seniors. We were pleased to be the youngest passengers on these!
There are wonderful places to stay throughout West Sussex for every budget. Our recommendations will focus on the great pubs we discovered.
The Red Lion in Ashington, London Road, RH20 3DD. Tel. (+44) 1903 892523. Sophisticated and stylish in a 16th century setting, yet still friendly and welcoming. Full restaurant and fixed price menus, 3-course Sunday roast, cocktail and wine specials. Dog friendly.
The Crown Inn in Storrington (Cootham), Pulborough Rd, RH20 4JN. Tel. (+44) 1903 742625. Countryside setting, multiple rooms. Several hundred years old with the requisite ghost of a little girl who hides beneath the cellar trap door located behind the bar. Darts, pool, cribbage and golf.
The Moon in Storrington, 13 High St, RH20 4DR. Tel. (+44) 1903 744773. Gastro pub in traditional building with contemporary elements. They’re very particular about their burgers here – obtained in a particular cut from a particular butcher, and it was one of the best we’ve had in a long time. Sunday carvery and take-away pizza round out the offerings.
The Bear in Horsham, 17 Market Square, RH12 1EU. Tel. (+44) 1403 260700. Traditional pub which used to be twice its size until a former bar owner lost half in a card game, or so they said. Friendly local atmosphere and sweet little courtyard garden seating. Hearty pub food, ales and a large stash of prosecco to guard against the shortage.
St. Mary’s Gate Inn in Arundel, London Road, BN18 9BA. Tel. (+44) 1903 883145. Classic pub in 16th century former farm building adjacent to St. Mary’s Cathedral. Open log fires, two rooms to let which housed Oliver Cromwell and his guards in the mid-1600s. Requisite ghost story of a guardsman haunting the premises. Dog friendly.