Dozing quietly on the soft underbelly of Britain is the county of West Sussex. There are some modern nondescript conurbations in the north west of the county on the London to Brighton spine that divides it from East Sussex, but the county town of this peaceful area is Chichester in the south west, a cathedral city of Roman origin that retains its function as a market town for the surrounding villages and farmland.
The Downland Museum
Travelling north from Chichester on the A286 towards Midhurst, the road soon rises gently into the foothills of the South Downs1. After passing the small village of West Dean and the walls of West Dean College, you see sloping up from the road on the right an extraordinary collection of ancient buildings. This is the Downland Museum, a place where old buildings and their neighbours from around the county have been brought to live out their dotage among their peers. It is a meadow of peace, where buildings are restored and rebuilt, nurtured and repaired, and are then mercilessly exposed to public view. If time permits, and should you have any interest in how life was lived in the past, a diversionary visit to the museum is recommended. Although the mixing of periods is a little confusing, and there is little in the way of 'entertainment' - the museum is about the buildings and not the inhabitants - there is much here to make you think that life might be better if it were simpler. Immediately after the museum, turn right up a country lane, just as the main road turns left into the village of Singleton. In these villages, and increasingly so if you stay on the road to Midhurst, you will see many Sussex flint cottages, some with the mustard-coloured doors and windows that signify ownership by the polo-centred Cowdrey Estate.
The lane rises, with woodland and West Dean College walls to your right and mini-vistas of rolling Downs to your left. Quite soon you'll find yourself with a view of Goodwood Racecourse. Horse races are held here regularly, and have been since 1802. The most important meeting is at the end of July/early August, known as Glorious Goodwood, a title that could not be more apt on a bright sunny summer's day. If you catch such a day, with cotton wool clouds scudding in a blue sky, the sight of the green track with its spectacular grandstand and associated buildings, sat isolated and splendid atop the Downs, is one you will never forget.
On very few days of the year, the sky is the colour of the cornflowers that, along with red poppies, once peppered the wheat and barley fields in summertime... not so very many pre-weedkiller years ago. There is even a Cornflower Day held locally, celebrated during Chichester's annual fair in early July. Cornflowers are distributed among the people by the girls of the town clutching armfuls of them. Sadly, they are now imported, and probably cultivated.
A Short Climb
As you come up the lane, with the racecourse spread out below on your left, you soon approach the main grandstand. Before you do so, on the right, there is a spectator's enclosure. Park in front of it and take a muddy track up through the woods on the far side. The track stays close to the enclosure fence and can be a little strenuous. Suddenly the beech woods end, and you see a steepish hill in front of you and the beginning of a spectacular view to your left.
The enclosure fence ends and you are left with a short upward trek. Ignore the views if you can, avoid the rabbit holes, and clamber up, down and up over the remains of the iron age ramparts that ring the top of the hill. Ahead you will see a small concrete pillar, erected by the Ordnance Survey as a mapping aid, marking the highest point. As you reach it, atop this hill, called 'The Trundle'2 for no discernible reason, allow yourself, at last, to take in the views. The coastal plain stretches out below you, a real-life map. To the south is Chichester, the cathedral spire an obvious landmark, and beyond it the inverted 'V' coastline, at the peak of which is Selsey Bill. Down to your left, in leafless winter, you might glimpse stately Goodwood House and the car racing circuit. Further east, in the distance, is a smudge that is Brighton. To the west, Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight are clearly visible on a bright day. Between Chichester and Portsmouth are the many inlets of Chichester, Langstone and Portsmouth Harbours, visited by Romans, Saxons and Vikings and protected from Napoleon only by the untested forts clearly visible in the Solent. Turning around to face north, you have the racecourse and the rolling South Downs, with the North Downs of Surrey rising in the distance. Now is the time to select a picnic site and unpack the hamper you have laboured to bring this far (you didn't forget the hamper, did you?). You are only some 677 feet high, but you feel well and truly on top of the world.
This is England, and the weather is changeable. Up here you are very exposed and, facing south-west, there is nothing between you and the Caribbean save the often stormy Atlantic. Here there are hail showers in June, and biting winds in July. Here the clouds come down in spring and autumn to cover this once fortified and populated hill-top with fog. A night trip in such a fog might be blood-chillingly spooky3, but also, even in gentle Sussex, dangerous.