Exploring... Chichester

PUBLISHED: 16:33 20 February 2008 | UPDATED: 15:01 20 February 2013

Bishop's Place Garden

Bishop's Place Garden

Ashley Bird braves the freezing winter weather to go looking for those out-of-the-way places that the tourists miss in the enchanting county town of West Sussex. But there is one thing that no one can miss - all those breathtaking views of the cat...

It's a freezing cold morning when I step off a train, cross over the station bridge and begin my exploration of Chichester. When people discuss this relatively small West Sussex city they invariably talk about two things in particular - the majestic cathedral and the highly-regarded Pallant House Gallery. Indeed the cathedral has made it into the pages of this magazine in one way or another in the last two issues. So today I've set myself a challenge - to explore the bits of Chichester that don't get as much coverage. On my way into the town centre I see a sign that gets me started - it says Roman Wall Walk and it points down an alley off South Street.

I find myself by some football pitches, and indeed walking parallel to a remnant of the city's old Roman walls, beyond which towers the cathedral - glowing in the pale morning sun. It's not been good weather for the last few days, so the pathway is muddy, but I plough ahead regardless, mindful of the fact that it is January sales time and I'd rather be exploring a less obvious route than heaving myself into the middle of the shopping masses just yet.

My pathway hits a main road opposite Chichester College of Arts, Science and Technology. I turn right, follow the wall a short distance and spot an almost hidden doorway, which leads me into Bishop's Palace Gardens. It's a lovely discovery, lovingly tended ornamental gardens which would prove the perfect place to stop and read for a while if it weren't so cold that I can hardly feel my toes. There's almost no one else around, just a couple of council gardeners working in one corner, which makes the place feel just a little eerie. Walking through towards the cathedral, the pathways lead me into an enchanting smaller walled garden, with beds that even manage to be colourful in the depths of winter.

I retrace my steps back out of the gardens and find myself at the end of West Street. Thanks to those clever Romans, Chichester is laid out clearly on a cross - North, South, East and West Streets - so it's virtually impossible to get lost for long. On West Street stands Westgate House - known to some as Wren House, possibly erroneously.

While many attribute the design of the building to Sir Christopher Wren, it may only, in fact, have been inspired by his work. The house was built in 1693 by John Edes, elder son of John Edes of Dedham and nephew of Dr Henry Edes, Canon Residentiary of Chichester. Edes died before its completion in 1696, however, and he left it to his widow, Hannah, whose initials can be seen on parts of the building. I wish I could report that it is now the home of some rich, glamorous aristocrat, but it in fact houses West Sussex County Council. Still, it's a great building.

I love the feeling you get when you walk round a corner or over the brow of a hill and something amazing opens out before you. This happens as you walk down West Street and approach Chichester Cathedral - first the bell tower appears, then the splendour of the edifice behind. Yes I know I said I wasn't going to include the cathedral - I didn't go inside this time - but you just can't ignore it as part of the cityscape. Every great view around the city centre has the spire in it somewhere and walking alongside the building is a breathtaking experience.

I'm still shivering, and now feeling the need for sustenance. Around the corner from the cathedral, on South Street, I find The Buttery. It bills itself as a traditional coffee house and tea rooms and its menu is full of the usual fayre - breakfasts, cakes, lunches and the like. Nothing unusual there. What sets it apart is the fact that this pit stop is located inside a late 12th century building called The Crypt. I step inside - it's warm and cosy (you don't expect that from a crypt), with lots of flowers and for some unknown reason toys everywhere. The playful childishness of the place even makes it on to the tables where, in order to attract the attention of the waiting staff, you must place a little wooden mouse on a hook on the top of your table's pole. Odd, but very sweet ... although not as sweet as the delicious warm scones I order, layered with jam and clotted cream. That's the best thing about cold weather, there are lots of indulgent ways to warm up!

After my refuelling, I follow my nose and stroll past the iconic Tudor Market Cross down East Street, now lively and bustling with shoppers. It's while here that I notice just how many tea rooms Chichester has. The whole place is alive with places to get a good brew - there's The Buttery, the well-known St Martin's Organic Tea Rooms (championed by theatre director Philip Franks in a Sussex Life interview in November), Shepherd's Tea Rooms, Crispin's Café, Orchard Tea Room ... the list goes on and on. Add in all the big chain coffee shops (seemingly on every shopping street of every town and city these days) and you wonder just how much caffeine the residents of Chichester gets through. I'm beginning to feel quite at home here, actually.

Down East Street I pass the old Corn Exchange, a very grand building, all Doric pillars and neo-classical glamour. It was the venue for Chichester's first 'moving picture show' in 1896 - a sign on the side tells you so - and is now home to the grandest looking Next clothes store I have ever seen..

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