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Live in the sunshine, swim the sea, drink the wild air
Buy this photo » Kite surfing in Littlehampton – Picture by Simon Dack
Every summer, the pebbles of Brighton beach disappear under the glistening bodies of hordes of tourists descending on Sussex’s most popular seaside town.
It has attracted the great and the good to its seafront since the 1740s, when Dr Richard Russell recommended swimming in the sea and drinking pints of seawater for medicinal purposes.
It led to the development of Brighton and later Hove as a beach resort, as well as Bognor Regis, Littlehampton, Worthing and Shoreham.
While the beaches at these towns are popular with residents and tourists alike, those who prefer to sunbathe or explore in a quieter cove far from the madding crowd are spoilt for choice.
It’s just a question of unlocking the secrets of Sussex’s hidden beaches along the county’s 138-mile coastline.
Stretching between Camber Sands in the east to Chichester harbour in the west is a coastal cornucopia of chalk cliffs and salt marshes – and a treasure trove of beautiful beaches.
While much of Sussex’s coast has been tamed by man-made concrete barriers, the fingers of land that form Chichester harbour, a geological feature of the last Ice Age, are a natural meeting of land and sea. This “hand”scape has significantly altered since Roman times, with the sand bar at the head of the harbour now lying across the entrance.
It is joined to the mainland by a narrow strip of land called the “hinge”, last breached by the sea as recently as 2004.
The harbour’s wetlands are a haven for wildlife, and the beaches that trace the edges of the land are stunningly beautiful.
There are shell-white sands at East Head Spit, a natural sand dune on the eastern side of the harbour and a Site Of Special Scientific Interest, housing colonies of unusual flora and fauna.
The shimmering blue sea attracts sailors throughout the summer, with many heading to the eastern side of the harbour and the beaches of West Wittering and East Wittering.
West Wittering Beach, which is owned by the West Wittering Estate, is a natural and unspoilt sandy beach that regularly receives the Blue Flag award for the cleanliness of the water.
At low tide, shallow lagoons on the sandy flats invite exploration as they twinkle in the sunshine, while the acres of grassland behind the beach are a haven for wildlife and birds.
The wide beach at East Wittering, a short distance from West Wittering, is sandy at low tide, and the frequently windy conditions are perfect for sailors. Surfers head for nearby Bracklesham Bay, a sandy bay with the headland Selsey Bill forming its easternmost point, with sweeping views over the English Channel to the Isle of Wight, with the Nab Tower lighthouse and the Spinnaker Tower at Portsmouth both visible from it.
The harbour towns and villages of Chidham, Bosham, Apuldram, Birdham, West Ichenor, Prinsted – where the actor Hugh Grant lives – and Langstone are pretty lovely too.
Wild Swimming, Daniel Start’s best-selling guide book exploring the world’s outdoor swimming places, recommends Pilsey Island, a bird sanctuary off Chichester harbour, which has a sandy beach with rock pools at low tide. He also mentions wild Cuckmere Haven in East Sussex, a series of floodplains leading to a beach where Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group bathed, and where centuries earlier smugglers would bring their stolen booty ashore. The beach has wonderful views of Beachy Head and there is a path beneath the cliffs leading straight to Beachy Head.
Below the Seven Sisters cliffs is the beautiful and tranquil enclosed pebble beach of Birling Gap, reached by wooden staircases from the cliffs.
The coastline around Cuckmere Haven and nearby Rye is dominated by 50 hectares of saltmarsh, a landscape designated a Site Of Special Interest. Rye harbour has rare vegetated shingle, a great ridge of shingle deposited during the last Ice Age, and today it is rich with wildlife.
Facing Rye Bay is Winchelsea beach, a long flat beach perfect for sunbathing and playing because it is sandy at low tide and shingle at high tide.
The bay is flanked by two popular points: to the east is Camber Sands, famous for having the only sand dunes in East Sussex, and the nearby sandy Jury’s Gap beach, favoured by wind and kite surfers. To the west is Fairlight Cove, near Hastings, a sandy beach below the Fairlight Cliffs rich in fossil finds including reptile remains, sharks’ teeth and crocodile teeth.
There are uninterrupted views over the English Channel from Norman’s Bay, a secluded sand and shingle beach near Cooden Beach in Bexhill. It’s just a stone’s throw from Pevensey Bay, the site of the Norman Invasion of 1066 and today a good location for sailing.
Between Newhaven and Brighton Marina are seven miles of unbroken cliffs, but close to Peacehaven is the little Hope Cove, a paradise of rocky lagoons. And at Ovingdean and Rottingdean there is access to the shore, at Ovingdean through a tunnel under the coast road. Low tides reveal tantalising rock pools on the rocky shore at Rottingdean.
On the other side of Brighton, in West Sussex, there is a picturesque sandy beach at Lancing where pretty houses face the sea along the length of the beach, which attracts many kite surfers. So does Goring beach, which is just along from the main Worthing beach. It’s pebbled with sand at low tide, and backed by a ribbon of greenery, which is an ideal place for kite surfers to set up. With its beach huts, it’s a pretty backdrop to watching fishing boats launch too.
Close to Littlehampton, with its long sandy beach and quirkily designed East Beach Cafe, are the Climping sand dunes, a vegetated shingle beach with sensitive and important wildlife, including the Marram Grass. Dogs off leads and horse-riding are discouraged on this Site Of Special Scientific Interest as they can easily destroy the vegetation.
West Wittering Beach, West Wittering, Chichester.
Call 01243 514143 or visit www.westwitteringbeach.co.uk .