Thursday 2 October 2014

In the Teeth of the Hurricane!

A short break on the south coast.

We have long-standing friends who regularly take their annual summer holiday at the same village on the south coast each year along with varied numbers of their grown-up children and other members of the extended family, and this summer they suggested that we join them there for a day or two. I had never seen this particular bit of the coast, Bracklesham Bay, and took them up enthusiastically on their offer. Looking at the map the obvious place to stay would be Chichester and we could trip out to see them as much as was mutually convenient, there being a decent bus service to and from the coastal villages, and the city itself is somewhere we had visited only once very briefly, so there would also be much to see there. To fit in with our friends and with my wife's work commitments we would have to travel after the Sunday morning services and return at some time on the Tuesday of the week our friends were in residence, so I made the necessary arrangements and set about booking the train tickets.

It does not take as long as you might think to get to and from Chichester! I looked first of all at booking through tickets from Stamford, quite prepared as usual to have to break it down into affordable sections, but the ticket price was as good as we were likely to manage. First Class all the way, with our new Two Together Railcard bringing the cost into the affordable category. The tickets covered all the journey including Underground from Kings Cross to Victoria in London and the connections were all generous enough to be easy to make without needless waiting around. I had never travelled by Southern to the south coast before and the new experience was something to look forward to. What was not so exciting was the weather forecast: after a smashing summer the south of England was being attacked by the remnants of the Hurricane Bertha and wind and rain remained in the forecast until the day we left.

So we packed for varied weather, and after a light lunch made our way to Stamford station and took our seats in the tiny First Class section as far as Peterborough. We waited in the sunshine at the new platform 3 at Peterborough, where southbound East Coast trains can stop without leaving the fast track, and joined the rather more substantial First Class coach M as is our habit. We always try to get single seats opposite one another at a small table rather than side-by-side with strangers sitting opposite, and the East Coast on-line booking facility allows us to choose seats from among those still available so we generally get what we want. Catering south of Peterborough is minimal, especially so on Sundays, but we did enjoy the coffee and biscuits provided. Arrival at Kings Cross was a little early, and we were very soon on our way by Underground, Victoria Line, to Victoria for our connection to Chichester. The automatic gates on the Underground were not fond of our tickets, but Transport for London always have staff available to help and we were let through quickly at both ends with no trouble.

The platform for the train for Chichester, a semi-fast to Portsmouth Harbour, was not yet indicated on the departure boards at Victoria, although the train was shown. The Southern world is very different from anything we've been used to: once the train was announced we had to be careful to join the right coaches! It was the first eight coaches at the front of the platform (and, of course, you're counting from the back …), and of those only the first four go to Portsmouth via Chichester, then rest being detached en-route for Littlehampton. Easy enough, though, and plenty of announcements were made, including on board the train, to make sure that we were all in the right part of the train. The FirstClass section looked absolutely identical to the Standard Class: the same type of seats, the same density of seating, the same lighting and luggage space. Only the signs and the presence of white covers on the headrests showed it as First. Still, it was peaceful enough and, the train leaving on time, we had a very enjoyable ride. Our train took a rather longer route than some, almost due south down through East Croydon and Gatwick Airport towards Brighton and then turn abruptly west (within sight of Brighton station) to follow the coast towards Portsmouth. It was a fascinating journey and I watched out of the window all the way. A highlight was passing Arundel at a distance and seeing the castle and cathedral presiding over the town. Although it was a bit breezy there was no rain and things were beginning to look up weather-wise.

Chichester has a simple two-platform station with full facilities and a frequent service of trains to places all along the south coast and to London. It is on the south side of the city centre and I had booked a room at Trents, a small hotel (inn, really) between the station and the shops, a short walk away. The bar served as the hotel reception and we were soon checked-in and taken to our room overlooking the street. The sun pours in through the window during the day (which at that time of the year its still was) but with the curtains drawn and the window ajar it was not too hot, and the hotel provided and electric fan, too. Curiously the refrigerator for the supplied spring water and fresh milk was in the built-in wardrobe which (a) took up clothes space and (b) made it very hot in the wardrobe! The room was decorated with motor-racing pictures, Chichester being the home of the Goodwood circuit and both car and horse racing were a bit of a theme.

And so, off for a stroll around the city centre and to find dinner, and we settled for the very pleasant Côte Brasserie just along the street and then after dinner met our friends in our hotel bar and planned our day with them at their holiday bungalow the following day. We would not need the bus service, they would pick us up by car after our breakfast. Trents breakfast menu was very comprehensive and full and the food excellent, setting us up for the whole day on both mornings, and we could choose anything within the price of our bed & breakfast booking, made through as usual.

The day at the coast was as interesting for the wind as anything! People were in the sea even though it was a little cold by normal summer standards and the waves were huge: good for surfing but not so good for swimming, and paddling was out of the question! 

Our friends' bungalow was right by the beach, with a gate from the garden straight onto the shingle. It was one of the original holiday bungalows built from two disused railway carriages (as bedrooms) with a living space between them and had much more character than more recent or heavily rebuilt ones. 

We stayed long enough to see the moon with the hurricane-driven clouds rushing past it, and then were driven back to our hotel and to bed.

Some of the conversation had been about how we would spend our last day, taking advice from friends who knew the area well, and we decided to visit Fishbourne, where the foundations and floors of a Roman palace had been discovered in the mid-twentieth century. Looking at tourism information, bus and train timetables using the brilliant free wifi at Trents, we decided to take the shortest main-line train ride we'd ever had, the mile or so from Chichester to Fishbourne, so that we could check out and take our luggage with us, the Roman Palace site having lockers for our cases. By now the weather had improved markedly and the day there was sunny and warm. The archeological site is a short walk from the station and there is much to interpret the remains to the non-specialist visitor like us: much of the assumed history and design of the buildings is necessarily conjecture, but firmly based upon evidence from elsewhere and forensic-style evidence on site, and a good third of the original palace site is inaccessible under roads and houses built before its existence was known. Seeing medieval ploughshare scars on Roman mosaic paving brings home just how long these ruins lay undiscovered!

Back to Chichester for lunch at a pub and then to the station for our booked train home! The return journey was at a busy time on a weekday, unlike the Sunday afternoon trip down, and our train took the more direct route through Horsham across to Gatwick Airport rather than the coastal route by which we had come. Lovely Sussex scenery until the approach to London. Crowds boarded our train at East Croydon but by then we were almost in London. Again our tickets were valid on the Underground across London and we were soon at Kings Cross awaiting our East Coast train for Peterborough, with tea and cake (and gin and tonic), and the connection home to Stamford.

All the photos of this trip, including several of the Roman Palace site, can be seen on Flickr, at

It seems to me that short breaks like this are a lot easier to do than we often think. It was only when we were invited to go that I looked up the travel details and found out just how simple a trip it would be – London, even when changing stations by Underground, is not the barrier we often make of it in our minds. The countryside in Sussex is well worth seeing and is so enjoyable when not driving and looking out for the back of the vehicle in front. The south coast is nearer than I had allowed myself to imagine, and we have already booked the hotel for a return next year when we shall explore more of the city itself (like the Cathedral, for example) and perhaps some other places in the local area. I'd recommend it to anyone, and if you want Brighton itself, then it is not even necessary to cross London by Underground because many trains for there leave from St Pancras, just across the road from Kings Cross – not quicker, but even simpler.

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