By March 2021, the grip of the Winter Coronavirus lockdown was beginning to free up. I was looking to break out some trips to the seaside again. I picked this coastline partly because earlier visits hadn’t done West Sussex much justice. And also because the area is relatively easy to do as a day trip.
Bognor was to be the jumping-off point, because I had never been there at all. My most recent visit to the stretch of coast had been Littlehampton further east. The only redeeming feature of that dull little town on a day in 2015 was a reasonable plate of grub at Osca’s Fish and Chips and a wonderful sky full of brooding thunderclouds heading over to France.
Being back on the coast trail for the first time since the previous November gave me a preposterous sense of giddy freedom. The 97 days of Covid-19 restrictions from December to April had felt merciless. Apart from a brief trip in to London for my first Covid jab in February I had not left Berkhamsted since an early-December work trip. Too long. Too much.
Back on a substantial train journey for the first time in ages, I rediscovered the many opportunities for people watching. And listening. Even, or perhaps especially, on a sparsely populated non-peak service, still quiet after lockdown restrictions.
A youngish bloke over the aisle from me pulled down his mask to reveal a wispy beard and answered the phone jangling out a tinny Percy Sledge ‘When A Man Loves A Woman’.
“Oh, hi. Hi Mike. Yeah, I wanted to catch you, man. Thanks for calling. Yeah, yeah I’m good thanks. I was gonna give you a shout actually. Yeah, no worries. Well, sort of. Look, I can’t give you the key… I’ve locked myself out, yeah, and well, with the key on the inside. No, the key’s on the inside. [pause]
Well, it doesn’t matter how it happened, does it? It just did. Well, I don’t know how I did it. No, I’m on a train now, heading back to my folks. I had to leave earlier than planned. [pause…shifting position in his seat]
OK, Mike, look it doesn’t need to spoil your day, man. Just keep a level head yeah? It doesn’t need to be a big deal, yeah? There’s no need to get worked up man, just take it easy. No, no man, doin’ your nut on me ain’t gonna help… [click].
The young man shrugged, put his phone down and returned to his Terry Pratchett novel. He didn’t even glance over at me, let alone try to make apologetic conversation. I imagined an apoplectic Mike and his expensive morning with a socially distanced locksmith.
My morning turned out to be better than Mike’s, but if I’m honest, not one entirely out of the top drawer. Is this the moment to quote King George V and his rumoured ‘Bugger Bognor’ remark? Allegedly uttered when invited there to aid his health. Probably nonsense.
Although maybe not. The place was a charmless hole with identikit shopping streets of anonymous architecture and functional fittings. Pretty busy though: bad-tempered queues for the barbers; outside café tables filled with shouty adults; pedestrianised zone zipping with scooters and bikes; Greggs bags and Costa cups blowing across the municipal zig-zag paving. Maybe I wasn’t ready for all this yet.
I burst out of the shopping streets onto the front like a free diver screaming for air. My mood didn’t improve much. There was further scooter and skateboard-dodging on the wide prom, which was also festering with small groups of aggressive sounding young adults and family groups. The atmosphere was intimidating and oppressive. I’m not usually susceptible to this stuff, but I don’t think I was imagining it. For instance, I walked passed a bloke blaring angry rap music out of a speaker hooked up to his phone. He was occupying a bench-hut to himself, spitting on the floor randomly and definitely girding his neck as I shuffled by so that I could see his ugly tattoo flex across his throat.
Bognor has a poor excuse for a pier. It is truncated and empty. Metal building-site railings marked the end of the current stub at a point where an older segment used to protrude further into the sea. The railings had some padlocks attached to them in a pale imitation of Pont des Arts in Paris. Except these cheap locks were from Wilko and had rusted in the sea air to give the dispiriting scene an even more forlorn, tragic air.
On the bright side (ha!) many of the hotels and restaurants were getting a lick of paint and spruce up before the anticipated reopening on 17 May. But I couldn't find an open loo for ages. A corona-consequence for day trippers.
Sussex was once not just a unified and ancient county, but also an Anglo-Saxon kingdom. However, dipping back in to my junior geological companion, it seems there has always been significant differences between the Eastern and Western halves and a sense, rather dismissively, that Sussex in its entirety was something of an ‘awkward’ shape. Marshy areas were dominant in the east, making it susceptible to flooding, whilst fertile agricultural lands were to be found on the coastal plain out west, where I currently found myself.
Maybe the architects of the infamous review that led to wholesale, nationwide local government reform in 1972 had been reading the same geology book. The old kingdom was split asunder at a line running roughly north-ish from the coast at Shoreham-by-Sea. Two new counties of East and West Sussex were born. This is the same review that re-organised the nation’s administrative boundaries and at a stroke abolished the Yorkshire Ridings, saw Leicestershire swallow Rutland and ushered in countless other administrative assaults, such as the creation of Greater London and a slew of new boroughs that consigned the historic county of Middlesex to the history books.
This technocratic interlude is not merely an excuse to mention my early career in the Local Government Boundary Commission… though whilst I’m here, I have to say it was the best job I ever had. This was an agency of the old leviathan Department of Environment and Transport. Personnel, as HR directorates were called back in the murky 80’s, rang me discuss where in the dusty corridors of Whitehall I’d be placed. ‘Geography degree is it? Lines on maps appeal do they? We’ve got the very place for you!” I was told in Yoda-like tones.
No, the real point of the legislative diversion is to emphasise that on the ground, right there in Buggered Bognor, as oppose to red lines on black and white maps, this division made some sort of sense. That’s not always the case with boundary-making. (It’s probably an overstretch of the aims of this seaside blog to whistle up the massacre-inducing partition of India and the bloody carving up of Africa as evidence of crap mapping. But there you go.)
Having written a couple of episodes about East Sussex, the differences with its western sister county were clear. From Shoreham, the coastal location of the dissection, lurching along the coast, the casual traveller is encumbered by an almost unbroken chain of low-level development. Suburbia-on-Sea. The stable geography that we’ve been learning about is part of the reason. Developers love building towns and estates on an easy coastal plains. Planners and engineers like to build cheap railways, trunk roads and motorways without physical obstructions. All that is easier to do here than in much of its eastern neighbour.
Shoreham spills into Lancing and then gives way imperceptibly to Worthing which falls upon Goring and Angmering, before Littlehampton takes up the baton. The coastal megalopolis has a brief respite around the green oasis of Atherington, before another dispiriting collection of towns runs from Middleton through to my gloomy afternoon on the edge of Bognor.
Harsh maybe. I took a long look around me as the prom from Bognor ran out onto the beach and gave way to wealthy Aldwick. The houses were bigger. Detached. Set back from the shingle. Safe behind fences and security gates that obscured their view of the sea. Interwoven with narrow, high-sided paths plastered with signs identifying them as for ‘resident access only’.
There was no public path in front of these sprawling gaffs. Just the shingle beach, punctuated by the odd concrete slipway giving boat-access to their double garages. I could have really made use of a path. The shingle was hard going. Then I saw bloke on a bike straining away, stood up on the pedals and going even more slowly than me. I began to cheer up. Things could always be worse, I reasoned. He soon gave up, turned back and headed inland through one of the little snickets between the mansions. I hoped he was a resident.
Apart from the shingle-cyclist and the occasional dog walker, the beach was quiet. Residents of the big houses were not venturing out that day and I had their front garden to myself. Maybe a bit of peace was in order after Bognor’s onslaught on the senses. Messing up my equilibrium. The slate grey sky began to break open and the whole vista became more pleasant under a bit of Spring sunshine. The sea took on a curious aqua-green hue under the weak sunlight.
I took advantage of a bench sited on the crest of a shingle ridge, placed there I assumed by the house behind me. I deliberately paused. Stopped myself from hustling through to Pagham and the next link in my public transport chain. My thighs hurt from high-stepping through stones that sank, shifted and rolled under my soles, swallowing every footstep like a heavyweight ball pit. From my perch, I paid a bit more attention to the beach rather than simply cursing it.
The insidious gravel and schist was broken up by tufts of grass, sometimes dense enough to provide carpets of softer underfoot walking conditions. Knots of sea kale abounded in the briny air and would be flowering in a few weeks. Here and there solitary or pairs of daffs and clumps of grape hyacinth struck bright notes – probably escapees from the gardens at the back of the beach. As, no doubt, were the tulip stems, currently fighting their way through the weight of micro-masonry ready to display their wares shortly.
Sea kale is a member of the cabbage family, and I read later that it used to be harvested and eaten to such an extent that it nearly disappeared altogether. Its greatest threat now in some places is the construction of sea defences, which replace its natural loose shingle habitat with solid walls and banks No danger of that in my current environment.
There were also nesting birds around. There is an RSPB project to help re-establish little terns. That’s their name. I’m not being all cutesy.
The pause had worked. I did the same again a mile or so further up the beach. I just needed to remember why I was out there. Enjoy the moments and stop bellyaching about my straining calfs. And Bognor.
Onwards to Pagham. An appealing spot and my day had improved significantly. Managed by the County Council, Pagham Nature Reserve is a vast expanse of protected salt marsh, mudflats, lagoons, reed beds and a bit more shingle beach. The habitats attract waders, wildfowls and migrants birds. Who in turn attract walkers, birders and naturalists. The place was busy. I collapsed on a bench overlooking Pagham lagoon and fell into easy conversation with some dog walkers. ‘You’ve walked from Bognor? It’s hard on that bloody shingle isn’t it?’ There spoke the voice of experience.
After tea and flapjack in the café of the holiday park that twisted around the shore of the lagoon, I caught the bus up to Chichester and had an hour or so pootling around that fine cathedral town before home.
I was reminded that the last time I had been here, a good few years before, I was in a Vauxhall Zafira packed to its very ceiling lights with camping equipment. Mrs A, the girls - about 10 and 12 years of age at the time - and I were heading to the West Sussex coast for our one and only (so far!) family weekend under canvas.
Sat in a traffic jam from 10 miles north of Chichester until 5 miles beyond, Mrs A who had taken some persuasion to join this jaunt in the first place, could be forgiven for thinking her instincts were right. Theoretical benefits of camping, like the simplicity of nature and stress free days, seemed to gain little traction in her reasoning compared with the practical issues of shared shower blocks, uncomfortable beds and bugs for company. ‘The kids will love it’, I airily declared. In the end, the strong chance of fine weather and the opportunity to rendezvous at the camp site with some good friends had just about sealed the deal. That and the half-case of Saint Emilion sloshing about in the boot.
The logic of the venture unravelled further as we arrived hot, bothered and late at the West Wittering campsite, and scrambled to erect the borrowed tent. Tempers became as frayed as the taping on our tired sleeping bags, with Nick and Den watching the show from their camping chairs, plonk in hand. Their two kids and both ours were instantly absent without leave, having discovered the campsite playground.
Darkness was on the march, metaphorically and physically, by the time we fired up the barbie. A reasonable litreage of alcohol had also been consumed. This might account for the flawed thinking that saw us place the disposable barbie tray on top of the blanket ‘so that we didn’t scorch the grass’. Cue much hilarity next morning as we threw the foil tray away to reveal a perfectly rectangular hole burnt through the centre of our previously lovely National Trust plastic-backed tartan blanket. Revealing properly scorched grass underneath.
By the end of the day there were scorched bodies too. The weather, as promised, was awesome. Breakfast was slow, but enjoyable in the morning August rays. Sausages and bacon hissed in pans over two labouring camping stoves. And then Den realised I’d forgotten to pack teabags. We had earlier divided up the fetching of provisions between our two parties. Teabags were definitely on my list the day before. Definitely not in the food box the day after. I’ve known Den a long time. She had put up with a lot of drunken, ridiculous behaviour from Nick and I over the years. But I’d never seen her so cross as in that moment. ‘I always have a cup of tea first thing. I can’t function without a cup of tea. You said you’d bring them you loser!’ I shot off to the shop over by reception with unseemly haste, and as an atheist I prayed to any God that would have me that there would be a few scraggy tea bags for sale. Returning like Bodyline Captain Douglas Jardine with The Ashes, I waved a box of Tetley’s in Den’s general direction and put the kettle on the burner.
Unlike the deep stones and pebbles that made up the seaside from Selsey Bill east in front of those sprawling coastal developments I was dissing earlier, this stretch at the Witterings was yellow-white, firm, comfortable sand. Absolutely gorgeous. If Sussex is a kingdom of two halves then West Sussex is a county of two beaches. We lobbed a foam torpedo around in the sea and flung a frisbee around in the surf for what seemed like most of the day. Fish and chips for tea, wine by the camp fire and moisturiser on singed bodies. The perfect summer’s day.
Though it was perhaps less of a perfect night: sunburn-chafing, sweaty and noisy – mainly Nick tinkling into a yellow bucket by his tent flap every 30 minutes. I could start to see some of Mrs A’s reservations about camping after all.