England’s Channel Coast and the Downs

Using Brighton England as our base, we spent some time exploring England’s Channel Coast and the Downs.

The Downs

The Downs is a beautiful fertile valley, lined with farms that are separated by hedges and trees between two long chalk-based hills–one on the south and one on the north of the valley. Running for perhaps 30 miles through Surrey, Sussex and Kent, the valley rolls out in all its beauty from vista points along each of the hills. We visited two areas:

  • Harding Downs, is a public, National Trust trail that runs seven miles along the western end of the southern crest. It offers wonderful views of tranquil farms, each different shades of green and yellow (depending on the crop and its state of maturity) and each separated from its neighbor by hedgerows and trees. Some of the fields are growing crops, others grass for the grazing of sheep that dot their fields far below.

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  • Devil’s Dyke is towards the eastern part of the Downs. This is a steep hill that plunges into a valley on two sides of the crest. The Dyke itself is a sharp “V”-like rift that rises on the other side: The other, which is more lovely, overlooks the same type of farms as in Harding Downs. The top of the Devil’s Dyke, however, had something else. It was packed with paragliders and a few hang gliders waiting for strong thermals to lift them off the ground and even higher above the valley floor and carry them for long rides over the beautiful landscape. We spoke with one paraglider who had recently completed a 1.5 hour flight, during which he caught thermal after thermal to repeatedly soar up and glide down over the valley. Sounds like an incredible way to spend a day.

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Channel Coastal Towns

We also visited a number of the prettier towns, both west and east of Brighton. We visited two primary towns to the West, each a few kilometers from the coast.

Steyning is a lovely old down that was originally a major port town (according to a old Domesday Book survey, it was then the third largest city in southern England). But the bay silted up and left the town landlocked. It remains a small but lovely town whose oldest buildings (primarily those along High and Church Streets) are often built from a combination of limestone, brick and cobbles of flint rocks that were dug from the nearby hills.

The flint rocks, which are often cracked to expose a bluish, almost translucent material, are combined in cement to create walls that have been standing for several centuries. For example, a 15th-century Checkers Inn, so named for its checkered walls, has tiles of different materials and colors combined into a checkerboard pattern. While the walls have since been painted to help preserve them, much of the charm of the old inn remains in its quaint rooms, its beamed ceiling and in its old, flint-cobbled barn, which is now used a garage.

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The oldest building in town is its 13th-century church, fronted by its graveyards and its own checkered walls consisting of patterns of flint cobles.

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The town has dozens of other atmospheric buildings, many of which are in the Tudor style. Many consist of flint cobles separated by lines of bricks, some of which are half-timber construction with plaster. At least one combines these with a beautiful and well maintained thatched roof. Meanwhile, a local history museum examines the 1,000 year history of the town, from the Saxon foundations that have been excavated, through the WWII bombing raids to the current occupations that are supported in the town.

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Arundel, another town, has a very different history and a character. This older and larger town was founded in 1067 by the Earl of Arundel, a baron to whom William the Conqueror granted one-third of Sussex for his loyal service and a commitment to build a fortress to protect the region from attack. The Norman-style castle, which was extensively renovated in more of a Gothic style in the late 19th century remains one of the largest and longest occupied country houses in England—and it is still occupied by the Earl’s descendants. Although we didn’t tour the castle and its gardens, we did explore the lovely town over which it lords. The pretty downtown with its half-timber buildings, its Norman-style Town Hall, its Gothic Cathedral and St, Nicholas Church.

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After an exploration of the town we had lunch at the Arundel Inn, where the understaffed restaurant struggled to satisfy its customers. The service was extraordinarily slow and the food adequate. Roasted foie gras with cherry gell and brioche was moderately overcooked. Marinated crayfish with avocado puree and Bloody Mary sauce was okay, except that the chef was far too generous with the sauce which tasted like a basic, uninteresting bottled chili sauce.

Eastbourne is another beach resort city. The buildings near the shore in the central part of the city consist largely of nicely maintained Victorian-era hotels and guest houses. As you move out from the center along the coast, these building are replaced by smaller, less attractive brick hotels and flats.

Our primary interest in Eastbourne, however, was not the city itself, but the coastline just west of city that is home to some of the Channel Coast’s most beautiful coastline—the sheer, 100+-meter chalk white cliffs known as the Seven Sisters and the tallest of the cliffs, the neighboring, lighthouse-topped Beachy Head. Since we had to skip our planned stop in Dover, the Seven Sisters and Beachy Point served as very credible, albeit less well-known substitutes.

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Hastings, or at least the town of Battle that is seven miles from the city of Hasting, was the site of the 1066 battle of the same name. This battle, as immortalized in the Bayeux Tapestries that we visited during last year’s trip to Normandy, marked the last successful invasion of England. We did not visit the one remaining memorial of the famous battle (an Abbey that William the Conqueror had built to commemorate his victory). Instead, we remained on the coast until we arrived at Shingle Beach, the home of a fishing village that is hundreds of years old. Back in the early Victorian era, the fisherman built dozens of “net shops”. These are roughly three-story wooden buildings that were (and many still are) used to hang fishing nets. While some of these structures have been repurposed as tourist shops, most of these and the fishing shanties behind them are still used for their original purpose. This is evidenced by the dozens of fishing boats, hundreds of plastic bags holding nets, ropes and other fishing gear and yards filled with rusting equipment. Some of the net shops and shanties, meanwhile, contain fresh fish shops. We stopped at one (RX Fisheries) to share a dozen oysters and a slab of hot-smoked salmon.

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Rye is a 12th-century fortified port town that almost stalled in time when its large and prosperous harbor silted up and resulted in marooning the town being two miles from the sea. The town now contains a gate and castle that date from the 13th and 14th centuries and winding, charming cobblestone streets that are lined with brick, stone and half-timber buildings that date from the 15th through 17th centuries. The tower of St. Mary’s church meanwhile, contains the oldest working clock in the country. The clock’s long pendulum, which hangs well down into the church, has been swinging since 1561.

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Canterbury contains reconstructed remnants of its ancient walls, towers and one gate, has been the home of England’s Christian church since at least the 6th century, when St. Augustine settled in the city to convert the then Saxon population to Christianity. The city now contains the oldest church in the country (St. Martins in which St. Augustine worshiped) and one of the country’s largest cathedrals.

Canterbury Cathedral was first built on the ruins of an Anglo-Saxon cathedral by a Norman Archbishop in 1070. It was continually expanded over the centuries, with each addition containing architectural elements that were popular at the time. The building took on particular religious significance in 1170, when Thomas Becket (St. Thomas of Canterbury) was murdered in the cathedral. Beckett’s shrine quickly became a pilgrimage destination until King Henry VIII had it destroyed in 1538. The King would have been particularly galled by the fact that his and his wife’s tomb now lies only a few feet from a continually burning candle that marks the site of Beckett’s shrine. The King and the memory of Becket are joined by the tomb of the Black Prince (the son of Edward III) whose effigy is clad in armor. Hundreds of additional tombs are located in the Cathedral, beneath its floors and it its crypt.

Cantebury Cathedral - Black PrinceDSC06249St Thomas of Canterbury Shrine location

The city center also contains a number of other 300- to 500-year old buildings including the 500-year old tower of the Church of Saint Mary. While the church itself was built in 1165, the tower is the only part of the structure that remains.

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