The big idea

Sometimes it takes an outsider with a fresh perspective to make you realise how fortunate you are. When looking at the history of Chichester, we got a real feeling in some of the commentary how certain people over the years have gently knocked the city for being rather quiet and, in the words of a previous Dean even, a ‘sleepy hollow’. Well, call us eternal optimists, but it is exactly that calm and unadulterated nature that makes Chichester so special. Oh, and it’s literally surrounded by some of the most exclusive events in the English social calendar, and has pretty much everything that the well-to-do need for a serious break – it may not be the biggest city, it may not be the noisiest, but it’s certainly one of the most sophisticated.

A touch of class

Intrigued yet? Want to take a step into another world? (Unless of course this is your world, in which case bear with us for a minute.) What better place to start than with Cowdray Park Polo Club, just to the north of the city, which has been the home of British Polo for over a hundred years. The Veuve Clicquot Gold Cup is held here, one of the must-attend events of the social calendar. And then there’s the Goodwood Estate, synonymous with racing, both motor and horse, but done with the utmost style. Add to that yachting at the marina, the beautiful and thankfully untouched harbour, a brilliant jazz and real ale festival and even a Sloe Fair. If you simply want to be seen – or try your hand at surfing – pop down to West Wittering; it has one of the best Blue Flag beaches in Britain.
 
And when it comes to the arts, Chichester festival theatre can be traced back to 1959 – when none other than Sir Laurence Olivier agreed to become the theatre’s first artistic director – and you can’t say classier than that.

The unadulterated city

The parallel of all that high society and activity lies in the peaceful nature of the area. Chichester, particularly in the area around the cathedral, has kept its old charm in a way that many other cities haven’t: it really is like stepping back in time. The streets around this area are still in their original layout and it has been allowed to grow almost organically, without much interference – all adding to its unique appeal. Another consequence of this is that Chichester and the surrounding area is now home to some of the oldest churches and buildings in the country. For example, the walls around the city are untouched; and, in the nearby Roman Fishbourne Palace are the impressive remains of a 1st-century building, with a stunning collection of mosaic floors.
 
The village of Petworth, with its pretty, winding streets, is like the place that time forgot, and boasts the county’s biggest and best collection of antique shops (and talking of time, the area was also home to a certain HG Wells, the father of science fiction and ‘inventor’ of a ‘time machine’!)  For an untouched seaside resort you could head down to Selsey, recently voted the best beachcombing location in the UK, and then to the glorious and utterly unspoilt South Downs.
 
Finally, and to sum it all up rather neatly, one of Chichester’s more famous daughters?
Anita Roddick, famous for The Body Shop and its unadulterated beauty products.

The essence

Pure sophistication
 

Who it’s for/ how it can make you feel

Perfect for couples, Chichester’s a little bit sophisticated and a lot relaxed. It’s a great place for a genuine break, where you can take it easy, drink it all in and experience some truly unique and stylish events.

History

Chichester stands on the site of Noviomagus Reginorum, the original Roman fort established in AD 43 when the country was first conquered – nearby was the Roman Fishbourne Palace – and it can be argued that the city probably represented the start point for the Roman invasion of Britain.
 
Towards the end of the 5th century it fell into Anglo-Saxon hands and was renamed after King Aelle’s son Cisse (‘Cisse’ plus ‘Caester’ meaning fort). They kept the Roman road system which connected Chichester to London and the coast, and the solid walls that enclosed the town. It was made into a ‘burgh’ and became part of a stronghold of ‘burghs’ stretching across the area in case of attack. It worked as well; when the Vikings attacked in the 9th century the men of Wincheste[LMH1] r and surrounding areas went out and saw them off successfully.
 
Fast forward to the Battle of Hastings in 1066, and Chichester, among other estates in the area, was given to one Earl Roger de Montgomery as a reward for his efforts in battle. It was about this time that Chichester got its own cathedral, when the local Bishop moved his Bishopric from Selsey, on the coast, to Chichester, joining the nine other churches in the town – a rather impressive number for a population of only 2,000.
 
During the 13th century, wool was a significant export for the town, and the harbour was given Staple Port status, bestowing certain rights; at this stage Chichester Harbour was actually one of the country’s busiest and most important ports. From this, a slow but steady period of prosperity characterised the 15th century, and, as a result of trading connections, the town became increasingly cosmopolitan.
 
In the last two decades of the 16th century, needle-making was booming and the area became the largest manufacturing centre for needles in England. But the Civil War, and the friction between cathedral and town, led to the destruction of many homes and the local needle-making industry never recovered. The 17th to the 19th centuries saw a lot of rebuilding and improvements to the relatively peaceful market town; indeed, in the early 19th century it was written that Chichester had ‘seen more improvements than any other town in England – making it now one of the most desirable cities in England’.
 
Horse-racing was by then a major attraction in nearby Goodwood and the stationing during the war of the RAF and the infamous American ‘Millionaires’ added to the sophistication of the city. In the 21st century Chichester is of course popular with tourists, but still takes some of its wealth from the sea, with famous ship builders being based there.

How to experience what's different/get under the skin of

Simple: go in July. In one break you’ll be able to experience most of the big events as well as soaking up Chichester itself. So if you fancy the Veuve Clicquot Gold Cup at Cowdray Park, the Festival of Speed and Glorious Goodwood, the Real Ale and Jazz Festival, Chichester Festivities in the city itself, as well as a number of productions at the Festival Theatre, July’s the time to go.
 
However, whatever the time of year, why not start by seeing if you can snap up a bargain at some of the antique shops in the pretty little town of Petworth, or visiting nearby Petworth House, a magnificent 17th-century mansion housing the National Trust’s largest art collection in the country, with works by Turner, Van Dyck and Rembrandt.
 
After that treat head east for a few miles and you’ll find Cowdray Park, home of British Polo; before heading south to Goodwood’s famous Racecourse and Motor circuit, home to Glorious Goodwood, Glorious Revival and the brilliant Festival of Speed. Should be plenty in that little lot to whet your appetite.
 
And so onto the city of Chichester itself: why not start at the picturesque Priory Park slightly north of the centre, where the excellent Jazz and Real Ale festival is held every year? It’s bound by the north-eastern section of the city walls which surround the city, and within the wide open space are the city’s Guildhall, where the poet William Blake – who penned the hymn Jerusalem – was put on trial, and the remains of a Norman motte. From here head down St Martin’s Street, stopping at St Martin’s Square to admire St Mary’s hospital – dating from 1253 it’s unique in Britain as the only example of a still-inhabited mediaeval hospital.
 
Pop over East Street and down North Pallant and along at the end of the pretty row of houses you’ll find Pallant House Gallery. This fine building, originally built for the wine merchant Henry Peckham during the city’s golden period of prosperity, now houses one of the most significant collections of Modern British art in the country, including works by Peter Blake, Lucien Freud and Henry Moore. Next, head along West Pallant onto South Street, take a right then immediate left and head down Canons Lane until you reach the Bishops Palace Garden. Here’s there’s lovely little gardens, bounded by the city walls – a favourite locally for a spot of relaxation.
 
Then go back up South Street, towards the Tudor Market Cross, one of Chichester’s most familiar landmarks, given by one Bishop Story in 1501 to encourage local traders. There’s some good shopping in the streets around here, with boutique shops and plenty of independent stores. Now head up North Street, look up at the upper storeys of the buildings to see how unchanged the streets are; also check out the Ship Hotel, built by Admiral Murray, who fought alongside Nelson. At Crane Street take a left then head back down towards West Street. In front, you’ll see the cathedral. Founded in 1075, and described by architectural historian Pevsner as ‘the most typical English cathedral’, it also has a couple of features unique amongst cathedrals: a free-standing mediaeval bell and a double aisle. Inside you’ll find a variety of works of art over the centuries including a fine pair of Romanesque sculptures (see if you can also locate the Chichester peregrines, a pair of falcons that have been nesting in the cathedral turrets since 2001).
 
After admiring the cathedral and the laid back ambience of the city why not head off towards the coast and Chichester Harbour, stopping just outside the city at Fishbourne Roman Palace, the remains of reputedly one of the finest Roman buildings in the empire. Check out the replanted gardens in the original bedding trenches and the perfectly preserved ‘Cupid on a Dolphin’ mosaic.
 
Chichester harbour’s a natural harbour, and both an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and a Site of Special Scientific Interest, primarily due to the number of wild birds, and the relatively untouched habitat. But it’s also a haven for boating enthusiasts. And at the entrance to the harbour you’ve got the unspoilt West Wittering Beach, an excellent quality beach with a Blue Flag for water cleanliness; another example of how unspoilt the area is.
 
Finally, round off the trip by popping along the coast to Selsey. Originally this was where the Sussex Bishopric was based between AD 683 and 1075 before moving to Chichester and the cathedral there; now it’s a classic English resort. Recently voted best beachcombing beach location in the UK, you must try the Selsey crab, a local delicacy.
 
So there you have it. Glamorous locations, an elegant and cosmopolitan city and an unspoilt coastline and resorts. A pretty perfect break really.

When to visit

City pics

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