Bognor Regis ought to bring me back to 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 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 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. 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-corner of the castle grounds. Provence is justly feted for its horticultural magnificence but I doubt the region has anything to match the riot of colour and creativity that is The Collector Earl’s Garden. 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 tress – 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.
My last day begins at Brighton Marina, the largest in Britain and bigger than all but a handful of glitzy super-yacht havens that bejewel the Côte d’Azur. It’s a blowy old morning – 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 Seatlle 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 cohabiters 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 gree 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.
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.