Fancy drifting past azure seascapes, soaking up vibrant art, fine wines and fragrant lavender? Voilà, no need to cross the Channel, says Tim Moore
I’m heading south, to a sun-kissed realm of vineyards and lavender, where ancient villages cling to painterly hillsides and swish marinas fringe the sparkling coast beyond. As I’ve just turned off the M25, you might think I’ve got a bit of driving left to do – perhaps as much as 800 miles, with a ferry crossing thrown in, before I hit Provence and its Mediterranean conclusion.
But just past Gatwick Airport, when the countryside rucks up into the comely green folds of Britain’s newest national park, I’m already ticking boxes. Call me bold, call me hopeful, call me recklessly deluded: I’m going to see your Year in Provence and trump it with A Weekend in Sussex.
My mission gets off to a fine start at the erstwhile residence of Tiberius Claudius Cogidubnus, familiar to a generation of visiting school parties as Fishbourne Roman Palace. Provence may be blessed with an embarrassment of amphitheatres and aqueducts, but it has nothing to match Fishbourne: bigger than Buckingham Palace, bigger indeed than any Roman residence north of the Alps. Only the vast and splendid mosaics survive, but the authentically restored formal gardens, thick with the whiff of rosemary, lend an evocative touch of the Med.
A couple of miles south and I’m even fumbling with the funny local lingo. Asking for directions to Bosham raises a weary smile: it’s ‘Bozzum’, I learn. The seafront here is supposedly where King Canute failed to hold back the tide, and some tide it is. The expansive waters of Chichester Harbour, one of the region’s many natural havens, are inching up the high street, a very becoming meander of pastel-painted fishermen’s cottages. Swap the thatched roofs for terracotta pantiles and I could be somewhere like Cassis, or Saint Tropez in 1956. There’s a pub fittingly dubbed The Anchor Bleu, where I probably ought to order a demi de Ringwood quarante-neuf, but settle instead for a half of Ringwood Fortyniner. In Sussex, as in Provence, sand is a stranger on most of the long-established beaches. The Georgians who invented the English seaside holiday – and indeed the British Victorians who transformed Cannes and Nice from careworn fishing villages into cosmopolitan super-resorts – had a curious preference for character-building, ankle-cracking shingle.
The St Tropez of Brigitte Bardot and co. is a rare exception, and its Sussex equivalents would be the Witterings, East and West. West Wittering is a long, graceful arc of soft, pale sand backed by a jolly rank of beach huts that are more expensive than they look: Richard Branson keeps a property down here. On another day – a slightly sunnier and less windy one – I might even have caught a glimpse of the locally grown budget Brigitte, Katie Price, bouncing her beach balls around in the dunes.
Unlikely that she’d ever do so in Chichester, my next stop. Here’s a place that exudes the very essence of English gentility, along with the well-turned-out self-confidence that comes with centuries of prosperity. Even the seagulls seem cowed, wandering the immaculate Georgian thoroughfares in silence, looking for something to peck at. A light but stubborn drizzle brings a shine to the flagstones and cobbles.
My bid to blur Sussex into Provence looks rather hopeless, but gets an unlikely shot in the arm at the Guildhall, by the town’s cricket pitch. Contemporary Provençal culture is defined by its avant-garde artistic heritage: van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin, Picasso. I’m surprised to discover the Guildhall’s gloomy Gothic interior given over to an unflinchingly mad exhibition of contemporary art. One installation features a mannequin’s legs sat on a smashed sewer pipe. Another is a wrought-iron garden gate that doubles up as a tandem.
Then the cathedral, the city’s stately centrepiece, reveals itself as a fellow cultural maverick. A large area of nothing in the nave’s cavernous roof has been dubbed The Space, and is soon to host a gigantic suspended hand, which – and here I’d better quote – ‘is made of a transparent “cloud” of letters that spell “together” in seven languages’. There’s even a crimson Rorschach-blot of a stained-glass window designed by Marc Chagall, who honed his swirly skills in Thirties’ Provence.
The French-ometer goes wondrously off the scale at Chichester’s Blanc Brasserie, the newest in a small chain overseen by super-chef Raymond Blanc. Cocooned in polished mahogany and brass, I savour a memorable gastronomic experience in which asparagus, poached eggs, grilled squid and the best frites known to man all play starring roles. The stolid gentlefolk of Chichester are clearly appreciative – at 6.45pm the place is heaving.
Bognor Regis ought to bring me back to the very English earth with a bump, but the sea view from my hotel, the BEST WESTERN Beachcroft Hotel, is fringed with palms and other semi-tropical reminders of a maritime climate’s balmy benefits. Outside, a pewter sky melts appealingly into the olive green English Channel. The thick, warm wind carries a hefty tang of brine. Le CÔte d’Azur may be a better bet for a topless tan, but if you want to put hair on your chest, go to Sussex.
In the morning the heavens are blue and the air fresh. It’s a copper-bottomed Provençal start to the day. I head down to Pagham Harbour, standing in for the Camargue – the bird-friendly expanse of marshland and brine lagoons that marks the river Rhone’s messy exit into the Mediterranean. You’d need 150 Pagham Harbours to fill the Camargue, but at low tide it makes a lovely pocket-sized substitute. Until it silted up in the 15th century, this was one of the busiest ports in England: today it’s just me, the shingle and a thousand shallow reedbeds. Long-beaked waders stab at the mud. If I had a deckchair, I’d be staying put for the day. Instead it’s back inland to Arundel, a winsome little town crowned by a fairytale castle and clustered with half-timbered tea rooms.
Arundel doesn’t seem to have troubled itself with the 21st century, or indeed the 20th. At any rate, nothing prepares me for the glorious eccentricities laid bare in a walled-in corner of the castle grounds. Provence is justly feted for its horticultural magnificence, vividly captured by van Gogh and so many others. But I doubt the region has anything to match the riot of colour and creativity that is The Collector Earl’s Garden. Opened by the Prince of Wales in 2008, it’s a collision of the dourly formal and the cheerfully deranged. The showpiece lawn has a maze mown into it, and there’s a pergola made of antlers. For the good of my quest, I’m treated to a show of that definitive Provençal combo, cherries and lavender. And a greenhouse full of grapes.
It’s a neat entrée to my ensuing tour of Highdown Vineyard, one of the ever-growing number in the Sussex countryside, that produce more than three million bottles of wine a year. ‘South-facing hills, well-draining flint soil, a frost-free seaside climate – this is textbook wine country,’ says Ali Englefield, casting an arm at the eight acres she owns with husband Paul. Ali should know: she’s a graduate of the viniculture school at nearby Plumpton College, an establishment whose growing reputation has even attracted students from France. Bookended by garden centres, Highdown doesn’t quite have the look of a Provençal vineyard, and its vines – just a few summers old and marshalled into elegant little trees – display none of the gnarled stumpiness of those in Bandol or Aix. But the wine can hold its head up high. The pick of the bunch for me is Bacchus, a gorgeous crisp white with distinctively native notes of gooseberry and elderflower. ‘It’s like a Sussex country lane in a bottle,’ says Paul, and he’s absolutely right. Somehow, just having all these vineyards around makes everything seem more cosmopolitan, more gastronomique, perhaps even more sunny.
Recklessly modernised in the Fifties and Sixties, some of the seaside towns round here have slightly lost their way. Eastbourne, where I’m booked into the BEST WESTERN York House Hotel, is among the happy exceptions. The promenade is still quietly doing what it’s always done: offering a view, a sea breeze and restful entertainment to courteous visitors of a certain age. My evening is leisurely and most pleasant, if defiantly non-Provençal.
My last day begins at Brighton Marina, the largest in Britain and bigger than all but a handful of the glitzy super-yacht havens that bejewel the CÔte d’Azur. It’s a blowy old morning – perfect conditions for yachting, less so for pretending to be in the south of France. Waves slam into the outward wall, sending up great curtains of spray. The masts of 1,600 yachts sway like metronomes, and rigging sings in the wind. But it all looks much better from the haven of the Seattle café where, over two café crèmes, I watch as the sun pokes through and gilds the scene into a twinkly-watered approximation of Cannes.
Buzzing on ozone and caffeine, I speed inland through the smooth undulations of the South Downs National Park. There are windmills on hilltops, and sheep nibbling pastures sprinkled with poppies. It’s a landscape crying out to be captured on a louche Frenchman’s canvas. A fitting introduction to my farewell tour of Sussex bohemia.
First it’s Charleston, the farmhouse hideaway outside Lewes where the Bloomsbury set came to paint, write, sculpt, think and outrage moral decency. Artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant pretty much set the tone when they moved here in 1916 with their children and Grant’s male lover. They and their creative cohabitees also left an extraordinary legacy, painting walls, tables and lampshades with exotic designs now restored to their whacky prime.
Then I’m off to a timelessly perfect little English village in the shadow of Ditchling Beacon: a towering green wall that is Sussex’s answer to Mont Ventoux, the ‘giant of Provence’ which strikes fear into every Tour de France rider, just as Ditchling Beacon does for those in the London-Brighton bike ride.
With its plump old church and a narrow high street where drunken old half-timbered buildings lean against Georgian townhouses, Ditchling is a study in peaceful perfection. The only suggestion that butter once melted in Ditchling’s mouth, and indeed elsewhere, are the galleries and art-supply shops. Picasso and chums were randy old goats, but they could only dream of the decadence unleashed in Ditchling by Eric Gill, the feted sculptor, typographer and controversialist.
Born in Brighton and raised in Chichester, Gill settled in Ditchling with his family in 1907. He stayed for 20 years, founding an ‘art colony’ with a vision of ‘men rich in virtue studying beautifulness, living in peace in their houses’. Gill greeted visitors wearing only a cassock that was forever falling open. When he wasn’t in the studio, he devoted himself to ‘experimental connections’ that don’t bear description in these pages, or any other. Looking back on it from the beacon’s gusty summit, I’m possessed by a curious pride in Ditchling’s double life, and an affection for the patchwork greenery all around it.
In Provence, the sky might be a little bluer, the air a little warmer, the hills a little higher and the local wine a little cheaper. But this blessed, rolling, sea-fringed county still has something on its Gallic counterpart, something I can’t quite put my finger on.
A certain je ne sais quoi.