diamond geezer

 Monday, November 05, 2018

Today's post is about Chichester Harbour, a large natural feature at the west end of West Sussex whose shoreline remains almost entirely undeveloped. Four long fingers of water stretch up from the Channel, like a huge claw has pressed down into the land and allowed it to flood. I visited either side of low tide, so experienced a thin navigable channel bordered by acres of sand and mudflats, and would have seen a very different topped-up environment at high tide. Here's a map of the places I walked between. And yes, this really is called the Manhood Peninsula.

Bosham (pronounced Bozzum) is the largest harbourside town, if you can call a population of 3000 large. It has a long history, inhabited by Romans, Saxons and Vikings, attracted by waterside accessibility. Legend has it that King Canute tried to hold back the waves here (although several other places claim the same), and that his daughter died in the millstream. Far better documented is the visit of Harold Godwinson in 1064, just before he set sail to France for his fateful meeting with the William the Pre-Conqueror. Bosham's church has the honour of appearing in the Bayeux Tapestry, indeed Holy Trinity is probably the only church in the country with a comet stitched into its altar cloth.

Bosham today benefits from a quiet waterside setting, very much a place for wealthy sailingfolk who value having a main road and a commutable station nearby. This means brasseries rather than takeaways, and an art gallery rather than a corner shop, although there is a Co-Op half a mile up the lane. The small meadow by the quayside is National Trust-owned, and the place for a pint is the low-beamed interior of The Anchor Bleu. But what sets Bosham apart is the road round the back of the pub, between a long row of houses and the main channel, which floods twice a day. It looks the ideal place to park at low tide, but the gentle seaweedy gradient is deceptive - leave a car here too long and the harbour'll rise up and wet your wheels.

A short causeway crosses the inlet, as a temporary shortcut for those who live on the far bank, and remains somewhat damp underfoot as the tide drains away. Heading south? The public footpath which hugs the shoreline also disappears beneath the water at high tide, forcing diversion along a country lane, but I got to stride along the edge of the saltmarsh negotiating tree roots, crunchy shells and occasional sludge. After about a mile a scrappy causeway leads off at right angles towards the water's edge, with separate forks appropriate for low, medium and high tide. There's been a foot-ferry here since the 17th century and, despite feeling like it links the middles of nowhere, a tiny boat still shuttles across the Chichester Channel to this day.

The Itchenor Ferry is weekends only in November, but runs daily in the summer. I had wondered how you'd summon it across but thankfully the ferryman was already over, deep in conversation with a bloke with a dog. I felt a little cheated that the crossing would be so short, what with the water level being low, but we got up a decent speed weaving between moored yachts and Brexit-friendly boats. The dog proved extremely keen to play with the tennis ball its owner had brought, and proved adept at playing catch in the cramped arena of the boat's deck. Once initially engaged it then enjoyed poking its ball-stuffed jaws into the lap of another seated passenger, begging for further throws, and I was relieved we reached the far jetty before my groin was similarly tested.

West Itchenor is a stringy hamlet, a short street of decreasingly historic cottages with a pub at the top, and is dominated by its Sailing Club. The ISC has a long history of waterborne recreation and competition, with membership fees of £500 a year, and encourages visiting yachtspersons to drop in and enjoy the facilities. The main footpath graciously crosses its boatyard, then proceeds along the shoreline for the best part of three miles towards the mouth of Chichester Harbour. This is a fine tide-independent stroll, with views across a flat bird-rich foreshore towards the RAF base on the island opposite, occasionally interrupted by thick thorny hedgerows.

The settlement at the far end is West Wittering, a peculiar outpost of detached hideaways and bungalows, with more than its fair share of private roads. Some of the odder houses look to be channelling naff architecture from the 1930s, or Southfork ranch, and even the Norman parish church suffers from a disappointingly Victorian internal makeover. Local decorum survives thanks to residents buying up the half mile strip of farmland between the village and the sea in 1952 to prevent the emergence of a huge Butlins holiday camp, preserving a green buffer between their houses and the beach. And what a beach...

The south coast is not over-blessed with sandy beaches, but West Wittering's is outstanding. Its broad golden sweep runs for a couple of miles along the slightest curve of Bracklesham Bay, and at low tide its breadth cannot be under-emphasised. Most of the photos I attempted turned out as half sky, half sand, with a tiny strip of detail inbetween. In summer the beach huts are unlocked, the lifeguards are poised, and the queues of daytrippers piling onto the approach roads can be appalling. Not this weekend. Instead gusty winds meant the kitesurfers were out in force, with separate offshore clusters at both West and East Wittering, zipping through the waves beneath arcing coloured canopies.

At the tip of the peninsula, where Chichester Harbour escapes to the sea, is one of those amazing coastal features your geography teacher once taught you about. East Head is a sand and shingle spit, its shape inexorably in flux, with a well-established warren of dunes at its heart and a swirl of soft sand around the edge. It's connected to the mainland only by a narrow link called the Hinge, which was breached by storms in 2004 and is now more carefully defended using pebbles and groynes. It is a magical place.

One sandy loop around the perimeter of the spit is optimal for taking a dog for a decent walk, or tiring out small children, so long as water levels have dropped sufficiently to allow access. Visitors stream in from the West Wittering car park, hounds or offspring in tow, and set about a complete circuit in one direction or the other. A vast additional acreage of sand is exposed at low tide, rippled afresh, allowing an extended promenade in the general direction of Hayling Island and back. It was exhilarating to walk the sandblown periphery, but also to explore the tranquillity of the central dunes, on this unique temporary headland leased from the sea. I should come again at high tide for an entirely different experience. [5 photos]

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