A Day Out in… Chichester

Overview

Chichester enjoyed something of an annus mirabilis in 2022, with its ‘Season of Culture’ celebrating a remarkable slew of landmark birthdays for the wealth of artsy institutions and events in town: The Festival Theatre was 60, Pallant House 40, the Chichester International Film Festival 30, the Festival of Chichester 10, and the Novium Museum 10.

Rather irritatingly nicknamed ‘Chi’ by its inhabitants (to rhyme with ‘bye’) it is one of the UK’s smallest cities, recording a population of 31,693 in the 2021 census. And it’s the sunniest too, according to the Met Office, with 1,920 hours of sunshine per year. It boasts a fine Norman cathedral (hence that city status) some intact medieval walls, countless elegant Georgian townhouses and a string of sandy beaches a 15-minute drive down the road, on a good day. And all that culture!

Yet Chichester (which acts as the administrative capital of West Sussex, and has returned a Conservative MP in all but one election since 1868) recorded the lowest level of ‘life satisfaction’ in the UK, according to a 2021 Office for National Statistics report. Could this have been pessimistically skewed by its average age being so high (nearly 25% of its population being over 65)? Or simply put-downable to the daylong soundtrack from amplified buskers churning out pop songs by the medieval Market Cross at the centre of its overchainy cruciform of pedestrianised shopping streets?

Our message is: don’t be put off! Chichester may not be perfect (where is?) but it’s an architecturally sophisticated market town with enough cultural diversions to make a weekend stay seem frustratingly short.

History

2000 years in 200 words? Noviomagus Reginorum was founded by the Romans soon after their AD43 invasion of Britain: the town centre still follows their street plan and the foundations of the Roman city lie a metre beneath those of the present-day buildings. In the fifth century it became the chief city of the Kingdom of South Saxons (later Sussex) and gained a new name, possibly after the warrior-king Cissa. The cathedral was founded in 1095, after the Normans had taken control, and Chichester became a thriving medieval market town. A shelter for its marketeers (the aforementioned Market Cross) was built around 1500, and damaged by gunfire in the Civil War (Chi was staunchly Royalist). The city enjoyed a boom period in the Regency and Georgian era, when many of its beautiful townhouses were constructed for the thriving merchant class, using knapped flint or local bricks. In the 1960s the city was given a cultural boost by figures such as Dean Walter Hussey, who commissioned celebrated artists to adorn the cathedral, and Leslie Evershed-Martin, who founded the Chichester Festival Theatre, and employed Sir Laurence Olivier to become its first director. You can find out much more within the neo-Modernist walls of the city’s very unstuffy Novium Museum, opened in 2010.

Culture

The two must-sees for art lovers are the Cathedral, and Pallant House. The former isn’t a patch on the likes of Durham or York, architecturally speaking, but the art within it is stunning, from its 12th-century religious reliefs to its Marc Chagall stained-glass window. Not to forget a Cornish stone and well-Brassoed copper font by John Skelton, a colourful tapestry by John Piper, the oil painting Noli Mi Tangere by Graham Sutherland, and the 12th-century stone figures of Richard Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel and his wife Eleanor, forever holding hands, the inspiration for Larkin’s famous poem An Arundel Tomb, ending ‘what will survive of us is love’. Pallant House, founded in 1983, extended in 2006 and since 2017 directed by the excellent Simon Martin, has – thanks to several generous bequests – one of the richest collections of Modern British art in the country. As well as exhibiting a rotating selection from its vaults, the gallery also puts on regular top-level exhibitions featuring significant artists. We’d also recommend seeing what’s on at Oxmarket Contemporary, a commercial gallery with a discerning curatorial policy (one of a string of deconsecrated Chichester churches which have become arts venues), and visiting Candida Stevens Gallery, largely showing solo shows by classy contemporary artists.

Fifteen minutes’ walk from the town centre, Chichester Festival Theatre has gone through many phases in its 40 years, and is currently enjoying one of its most successful, putting on crowd-pleasing West End-style shows touring the provincials (The Lavender Hill Mob, anyone? The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel?) Alongside it, Minerva Theatre was founded in 1989 to showcase more experimental drama, and is edgier than its big sister, with stand-up, dance, jazz and talks. Finally, make sure to check the programme of the Chichester Cinema at New Park, a lovable independent single-screener with an arthouse bent (and the epicentre of the Chichester International Film Festival).

Shopping

A number of chains have closed down recently in Chichester, but that still leaves… plenty of chains. Independents-wise, we can point you to a couple of fine bookshops. Kim’s was established c1982 in Arundel, and opened a Chichester store on South Street in 2010, selling new, second-hand and antiquarian books over three storeys. But our favourite is Pallant House Gallery Bookshop, offering limited edition prints and a wide range of art books, from eye-wateringly expensive first editions to discounted bargains (look out for yellow stickers). And ROSA Magazine, of course. Is it possible to leave there empty handed? Not in our experience.

Out of town

Or on the outskirts of town, to be precise, is Fishbourne Roman Palace, thought to be the former home of wealthy nobleman Cogidubnus. You can look down from platforms at the remarkable mosaics (the Cupid-on-a-dolphin motif will stick in your head for life) and stroll round the UK’s oldest gardens, with regimented lines of topiary, fragrant lavender bushes, and a waxwork gardener, who addresses you in a comedy Joe Dolce accent. Meanwhile Goodwood, a couple of miles to the north, isn’t all about horses and vintage motor cars: there’s an extensive art collection open to the public in the country house, including a couple of fine London landscapes by Canaletto.

Eating and drinking

Is it a sign of the times that what used to be a Top Shop is now an Ivy Brasserie? The rainy Saturday evening in January we were last in town, we checked Trip Advisor, and gave it a swerve. Ended up in the much less swanky (and difficult to find) Turkish-run tapas/meze restaurant Viento Delavante, in a barrel-ceilinged basement outside the city walls, which served us a succession of reasonably priced, tasty, surprisingly abundant dishes – patatas bravas, sucuklu yumurta beef sausages, calamares fritos – and the like. Noisy, but fun, perfect for a group booking on a weekend evening. Also recommended is Masala City Indian restaurant. Lunchwise it’s difficult to look past St Martin’s, a higgledy-piggledy three-story café/restaurant who offer up an amazing Welsh rarebit. They pride themselves on using from-scratch organic ingredients, and there’s often live guitar or piano music for good measure. For a quicker in-and-out option try Lucke’s, who make scrumptious quiches, accompanied by nutty salad and tasty slaw. Booze-wise Chichester has a couple of fine craft ale/micropub joints, The Escapist (which serves an array of local keg ales, including its own) and The Hornet Alehouse, which we adjourned to when the Escapist’s covers band had finished their first song. Pint of Shake Your Bones spiced ale, from Hull? Why not? For good reason the Hornet won CAMRA’s Best Sussex pub award in 2019, and again last year.

Accommodation

The Chichester Harbour Hotel and Spa is, despite its name, bang in the city centre (on North Street) offering 37 rooms in a grand Georgian townhouse (around £140 a night) with spa facilities and a restaurant. Lower down the price scale, try the Chichester Park Hotel, a mile or so up the A285, a modern two-storey affair with a whopping 86 rooms (around £85 a night).