diamond geezer

 Friday, January 21, 2011

Seaside postcard: Shoreham-by-Sea
Ignoring Hove (which many do), Shoreham's the first major town to the west of Brighton. I don't think I picked the best way to arrive. You can arrive by car along the A27, the South Coast's inland tarmac artery. You can arrive by train, just an hour and ten minutes on the fastest trains from Victoria. You can sail in through the mouth of the River Adur, into the long T-shaped semi-artificial harbour. You can fly in to the centennial airport, of which more later. But I walked in from Hove, up a desolate strip of industrialised beachfront. I'll learn.

Shoreham Port: Shoreham-by-Sea's most important feature isn't the sea, it's the river. The Adur flows down from West Sussex and very nearly reaches the sea, then thinks better of it. A shingle spit has grown up over the years, diverting the mouth of the river about a mile to the east, and creating a haven behind in the process. The old town's not so much Shoreham-by-Sea as Shoreham-by-Harbour, with the English Channel completely blocked from sight by two long flaps of land. On one arm people live, on the other nobody with any sense would even set up a tent. Shoreham's a freight port, for the unloading of timber, steel, aggregates and lots of other dull but necessary things. It's not a place of beauty, not unless you happen to like power stations. There's one here because 100 years ago the people of Brighton didn't want it on their doorstep, but the current incumbent has a huge belching chimney easily visible from afar. It's totally unavoidable from underneath, which made it all the more surprising to find numerous people gathered here on a Wednesday. They'd come for Carats Café Bar, which is a squat concrete hut serving coffee and fry-ups, a mile and a half by road from the nearest civilisation. But not so far for bacon-munchers on foot. A twisting path runs through the docks across two lock gates, which makes for easy access so long as the red lights aren't flashing. They flashed for me, and I had to hang around while some piddly pilot boat rose up through a lock large enough for a far bigger craft.

Shoreham Beach: Residential Shoreham's in two halves - those who live on the mainland proper, and those who live on the spit named Shoreham Beach. This isolated tongue of land used to be home to a haphazard collection of shacks named Bungalow Town, and was also where the UK film industry had its earliest home. Postwar the area was cleared for proper housing (for which read characterless flats and bungalows) assisted by a concrete footbridge across the Adur. It's ridiculously narrow, by modern standards, so if two pushchairs meet in the middle the entire community seizes up (I caused significant problems merely by stopping to take a photograph). A replacement cyclebridge is currently at the planning stage, but there's no news yet as to whether it'll have the same claustrophobic character as its predecessor. I'm told that Chris Evans lives somewhere on Shoreham Beach, so there must be an upmarket nice bit I didn't find. But I did, accidentally, stumble up a footpath to one of the most unusual streets in Britain. All 40 of the dwellings along Riverbank are houseboats. And not minor tedious houseboats, but a motley collection of large bohemian craft. There's a massive grey minesweeper at number 23, for example, with its prow sticking out into the footpath. A few doors up is an astonishing hybrid of passenger ferry and passenger coach dressed up as psychedelic artwork. The windows at the front look like yellow teardrops, and are definitely large enough for the owners to see out at annoying Londoners with cameras lingering slightly too long on the towpath. If you come for a peek, try to make it look as if you're desperately impressed, but just passing.

Shoreham Airport: The oldest licensed airfield in the UK celebrates its 100th anniversary this summer. And it's in Shoreham. It started out in 1911 as a few monoplanes on a meadow, and grew through military and eventually commercial success. Shoreham's location by the Channel was both a blessing and a curse - ideally placed for European flights, but also highly vulnerable to wartime attack. A symbol of its prosperity was the Art Deco terminal building, opened in 1936, and which still stands out across the surrounding countryside. Bold lines and smooth curves, painted creamy off-white, as an echo of the Golden Age of air travel. It's the sort of place ITV would film an episode of Poirot, and indeed have, no doubt keeping the surrounding industrial estate well out of shot. Heathrow Terminal 5 this most definitely is not. There are no commercial flights here any more, for a start. Scheduled services to Alderney ended three years ago, and to northern France more recently than that. The lifeblood of Shoreham (Brighton City) Airport today are the private flyers in small planes, nipping in from wherever then heading home again. The airfield was alive during my visit, quite possibly with millionaire pilots enjoying the good weather. There's also a helicopter school on site (with their very own "Danger low flying helicopter" roadsign, seemingly justified). Suddenly it's easy to understand why Chris Evans might live nearby - it's not the sea that attracted him to Shoreham but the air. For us mere tourists, the Airport boasts a visitor centre and museum, alas only open at weekends. The old terminal building's open for a poke around daily, as is the restaurant, but I didn't realise this at the time so failed to go inside. I'm preprogrammed to think of airport terminal buildings as threatening security-conscious places, and nothing outside gave any indication that mere spectators or gastronomes might be welcome within. You need not be so air-brained.

Shoreham Tollbridge: A short walk upriver of the airport is a gorgeous timber bridge spanning the Adur. The original's from 1782, and carried the main east/west road for a couple of centuries. A modern replacement took the traffic away, and the bridge was sympathetically refurbished for pedestrians and cyclists a few summers ago.
Shoreham town centre: 11th century church; the delightfully named Marlipins Museum (open May to October only); a cobblers called "Heel Your Soles"; totally-out-of-place arts centre; much nicer than Shoeburyness.

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