The history of Shoreham-by-Sea
PUBLISHED: 11:39 19 December 2017 | UPDATED: 11:39 19 December 2017
Clive Agran explores Shoreham-by-Sea, which once threatened to oust Chichester as county town of West Sussex
Wandering around the lovely old streets of Shoreham-by-Sea what strikes me as curious is that Geoffrey Mead, my guide for the day, repeatedly refers to it as “New Shoreham”. Our tour began a few moments ago outside the 12th century St Mary de Haura Church, which was built by the Normans not all that long after the Battle of Hastings. Even though a fair chunk of the nave fell away as recently as the 17th century, it’s still a decent size and obviously very old.
After explaining that ‘Haura’ means ‘harbour’, Geoffrey reveals that Old Shoreham is a little further inland. Probably never a harbour, it is nevertheless well worth a visit if only to admire the even older St Nicolas Church. Here, however, we shall concentrate, initially at least, on the New Shoreham part of Shoreham-by-Sea, which must surely be one of the oldest ‘new towns’ in the country.
Shoreham moved because the adjacent River Adur is constantly shifting. In the past, longshore drift has been responsible for sliding the mouth of the river eastward along the coast. Shingle bars have sprung up, lagoons have appeared, marshland has been created and mud banks have surfaced. One such mud bank just west of New Shoreham called Scurvy Bank developed into a famous oyster bed. Less happily, property on the riverbank has been swept away in violent storms and bolstering sea defences is still a priority today.
Originally the town was laid out like a grid with parallel streets running north to south between North Street and what is now High Street. Populating a designated conservation area are pretty, 18th century, flint-fronted houses. Outside one in Church Street is a memorial plaque to Henry Roberts who sailed with Captain Cook on his second and third voyages of exploration around the South Seas and lived in number 18 from 1756 to 1796.
Geoffrey believes these streets continued over on the south side of the High Street but were lost as the river edged north. All that remains are abbreviated stumps of streets directly opposite the surviving northern streets. Severely truncated, they resemble slipways sloping towards the water. A particularly violent storm in 1703 demolished a number of properties. Until 1987 when Michael Fish’s hurricane whistled in, it held the title of the worst ever storm to strike the area. Yet another storm struck in 1705 and flattened what few buildings remained. A spate of construction followed and so quite a few shops, pubs and houses in the area date from around 1706.
Walking along High Street, Geoffrey tells me the cobblestones that were here were ripped up and a few buildings demolished, including a couple of pubs, in 1938 to permit the road to be widened. A survivor of this exercise is the famous pirate figurehead which was rescued and now adorns the front of the Crown and Anchor.
Around the back of the south side of the High Street was an area called Suter’s Yard which, up until World War II, was home to a number of little boat builders constructing small wooden coastal vessels. They could not, however, compete with steel hulls and now the only reminder of their existence is a wine bar over the road thoughtfully called Suter’s Yard.
Clearly very fond of the town and preferring to describe it as “maritime” rather than “seaside”, Geoffrey is also evidently a fan of the impressive-looking Ropetackle Arts Centre at the western end of High Street.
Built on a prime site that had been left derelict for many years, the centre boasts a top quality entertainment programme and the housing behind has helped revive the town centre.
Mind you, it would have to go some to return to the glory days of the mid-13th century when Shoreham was threatening to oust Chichester as the county town. So serious was its challenge that in 1254 the sheriff was ordered to hold the county court at Chichester and to desist from holding it alternately at Lewes and Shoreham.
Stuck in the mud on the other side of the river are about 40 houseboats that bear testimony to Shoreham’s unashamedly bohemian past. Vessels as varied as converted barges, tugs, minesweepers and motor torpedo boats are home to a rich array of colourful and creative characters. If you fit this description and fancy living here, prepare to pay somewhere in the region of £350,000 for the privilege.
These houseboats are a comparatively modern manifestation of a phenomenon that stretches back to before World War II when a variety of improvised accommodation, including converted railway carriages, sprung up on Shoreham Beach and housed what could be described as a theatrical colony. Wild parties every weekend, which Bud Flanagan and members of the Crazy Gang were said to frequent, and other bohemian behaviour outraged some but amused most.
After the outbreak of World War II, however, the military stepped in to clear all obstructions on what were regarded as strategically significant beaches and gave the residents 48 hours to move out. And so the party was over for the time being at least.
A possible explanation as to why Shoreham Beach proved so popular with showbiz folk can perhaps be found in the fort that lies near the mouth of the harbour. Built in 1854 to repel the French, it was manned right up until the end of the 19th century. In 1913, Francis Lyndhurst, grandfather of Nicholas Lyndhurst of Only Fools and Horses, spotted its potential as a suitable location for the nascent film industry. A successful theatrical set designer with a rudimentary knowledge of the new-fangled film cameras, Lyndhurst recognised that the strong natural light of the south coast together with the substantial fort walls stopping the backdrops flapping in the wind could be a winning combination. The Sunny South Film Company was born but World War I intervened and there was no longer any money around to make movies.
Curiously, the fort was used in 1957 as the location for a World War II film entitled The Battle of the V1 starring Michael Rennie and Christopher Lee.
Another local landmark that has featured in quite a few films is Shoreham Airport, which was re-christened Brighton City Airport in 2014. Just across the river Adur from the town, it is the oldest airport in the UK and the oldest purpose-built commercial airport in the world. The listed art deco terminal building is what makes it so attractive to film-makers and its credits include the Netflix sensation The Crown, several episodes of Agatha Christie’s Poirot, The Adventure of the Western Star, Death in the Clouds, Woman in Gold and The Da Vinci Code. Sadly, it is also well known as the venue of the tragic accident that occurred on 22 August 2015 when a Hawker Hunter jet fighter taking part in the annual air show crashed onto the A27 killing 11 people.
On a less sombre note, Shoreham is the setting for Tennyson’s poem Rizpah and the town features in at least two novels, George Moore’s Esther Waters and George Meredith’s Beauchamp’s Career. And in 1651 it was from Shoreham Harbour, presumably chosen as an unlikely place, that Charles II escaped abroad following defeat at the Battle of Worcester.
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