The history of Chichester
PUBLISHED: 11:44 07 November 2017 | UPDATED: 11:44 07 November 2017
In the latest instalment of his Secret Sussex investigations, Clive Agran heads for the West Sussex county town of Chichester – best known for its cathedral and Roman heritage. But what part did the town have to play in the D-Day landings?
Allergic to the A27, I travel to Chichester by rail. By the time my surprisingly punctual Southern rail train pulls into Brighton I have learnt that people from Chichester are called Cicestrians, that Chichester is Sussex’s only Anglican Cathedral city and that a hypothetical Roman taking the same train would have asked for a ticket to Noviomagus Reginorum whereas an Anglo-Saxon around the time of Alfred the Great would have called it Cissa-caestre.
Bitter youthful experience has taught me that teachers don’t hand out background notes for fun and that it would therefore be prudent to study the stuff Andrew Berriman has sent me in advance of our walk around Chichester. Despite having done my homework, I am nevertheless relieved that the former head of sixth form at Chichester High – colloquially known as Chi High – appears very friendly as we meet at the Market Cross and doesn’t give me a short written test before we set off slowly (he’s got a troublesome knee and I a dodgy hip) up North Street.
Our first stop is in front of the Butter Market. Designed by the famous John Nash and built in 1808, it was recently converted into a small shopping arcade. Andrew points out there is one too many red drops of blood on the coat of arms at the front of the building and that the ‘stone’ isn’t stone at all but a rather interesting ceramic material called Coade Stone. Named after Eleanor Coade, who owned the Lambeth company that manufactured the stuff, there’s lots of it in Buckingham Palace.
Just up the street is the oldest ecclesiastical building in the city: St Olave’s. Originally built before the Battle of Hastings, it’s now a Christian bookshop. Limping further along, we come to an impressive Georgian building, the Council House. “What’s the lion doing on top?” asks Andrew. I panic as my mind races back to the notes I studied on the train but draws a blank. The question, thank goodness, is rhetorical, and Andrew proceeds to offer what he believes is a plausible explanation: “The lion links to the second Duke of Richmond, who kept a lioness in his menagerie at Goodwood and, in his capacity as the ‘local lord’, contributed the lion’s share to the cost of the building.”
Evidently a very well respected figure around these parts, Andrew easily secures us admission to the ornate council chamber upstairs. With its original oil paintings of King George I and II it provides a suitably august setting for the Mayor and city council to deliberate on such vexed issues as to whether an improved bypass should go to the north or south of the city.
Off North Street is Crane Street where the second ever Body Shop (the first was in Brighton) opened. And Crane Street leads into Chapel Street which was damaged during one of three wartime bombing raids on Chichester which together resulted in 27 fatalities.
On a happier note from World War II, General Dwight D Eisenhower met with various chiefs of staff and senior RAF personnel in April, 1944 at what was previously The Ship, and is now the Harbour Hotel. He stayed there for four nights to plan the D-Day landings. Ask nicely at the reception desk and they might show you a framed seating plan for the dinner served on Ike’s final night, together with the menu that included oysters and roast beef ‘American’.
The building was already steeped in history long before Ike’s visit as Vice-Admiral Sir George Murray lived there. Born in Chichester in January 1759, Murray enjoyed a glorious naval career and became a very close friend of Admiral Nelson, who appointed him Captain of the Fleet. On learning Murray was unavailable for the Battle of Trafalgar, Nelson declined to appoint a substitute. A plaque on the building records what one of Nelson’s biographers noted: “None but Murray will do.” Murray died here on 28 February, 1819.
As well as learning a lot of history, I’m also broadening my vocabulary as Andrew introduces me to ‘galleting’. A technique in which small flint splinters are shoved into wet mortar during the construction of a building it is evident in some of the fine flint houses in downtown Chichester. Although flint is plentiful in the area, especially to the north of the city, the finest knapped (squared) flint stones came not from Bedrock but were shipped by boat in straw-filled barrels from Norfolk.
Andrew points with pride to the Chichester Festival Theatre. As well as the first-class productions, many of which transfer to the West End, he recommends the pre-show presentations that novelist Kate Mosse, who lives nearby, frequently hosts. She is one of many celebrities who live around here including Hugh Bonneville, Kate Winslet, Hugh Dennis, Major Tim Peake and Keith Richards.
We head next to the famous Roman city wall. On the way, Andrew stops by a plaque in the pavement which marks the spot where the North Gate stood until it was taken down in 1773. The last of the four gates to survive was East Gate, which had the city gaol on top of it. It hung on, so to speak, until 1783 when a new gaol was built in East Street.
Treasurer of the Chichester Walls Trust, Andrew is evidently a big fan of the walls and explains they were built by the Romans late in the third century AD to boost civic pride rather than for defensive purposes. Sadly, having been ‘recycled’ for new buildings, practically none of the original stones remain. If you’re shocked by this seemingly wanton vandalism, it might be as well to bear in mind that they were almost certainly similarly ‘borrowed’ from elsewhere, maybe from the Roman Palace at Fishbourne which, curiously, was burnt down just before the walls were built. Later on when the walls needed repair mainly flint and brick were used. Nevertheless, these are the most intact Roman walls in the south of England.
If we had wanted to look round Chichester Castle, we are about 800 years too late. Had the Normans gone to the extra expense and bother of using stone there’s a good chance it might have survived. Unfortunately it was made of wood which suffered in the salty sea air and what was left of the castle was demolished in 1221 to prevent it falling into the hands of the French. All that remains is the massive mound (motte) in Priory Park upon which it was built. It provided the Royalists with a gun platform in the Civil War siege in December 1642 while the principal purpose of this scheduled ancient monument today would appear to be as an historic hillock for children to run up and down.
Behind it is the Guildhall, which rose up about 60 years after the castle was taken down. Originally occupied by friars of the Franciscan order, the imposing building has subsequently operated as a town hall; a court room that witnessed the acquittal of William Blake and saw the notorious Hawkhurst Gang sentenced to death; a rifle range; a repository for large statues and a changing room for the adjacent cricket pitch which up until 1950 was used for Sussex county matches.
Sadly no longer around is the very tall pole upon which signals were flown. Visible from distant Goodwood House they let the Duke of Richmond know the state of the cricket match and whether or not he might shortly be required to bat. Earlier this year archaeologists uncovered the footings of two Roman town houses in Priory Park, one of which had its own hot room and bath suite.
Time is running short and so we head to the cathedral which dominates the skyline. En route we pass St Mary’s Hospital which has the distinction of being the second oldest secular building in Europe still being used for its original purpose – to provide Christian hospitality. It’s been going for 727 years. Incidentally the oldest is not in Sussex and so need not trouble us.
The magnificent cathedral provides a fitting climax to our morning’s stroll. Andrew looks up at the 227ft high spire and, somewhat surprisingly, points to a pigeon. “That wouldn’t be sitting there if the peregrine falcons were about. They must have left.”
Still here and unlikely to go anywhere are a few interesting heads carved out of stone. Her Majesty the Queen and Prince Philip are either side of the west door while King George V, Ramsay MacDonald, Stanley Baldwin and various cathedral dignitaries are around the corner, carved in 1932 above the great medieval window of the South Transept.
What an interesting lesson it’s been. I wonder what mark I’ll get for this essay.
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