There was a new light in my wife’s eyes — a Worthing light. Could I share it?
Worthing Pier (Pier of the Year for 2019) seems to catch fire in the setting sun PICTURES © MICHAEL KERR
Posted on July 17, 2023
Two years and a month ago, mid-pandemic, my wife and I moved house, leaving suburban Surrey for seaside Sussex. For this travel writer, the move, and our recces before it, were a reminder of the danger of preconceptions
When I parachute into an unfamiliar town as a travel writer, I pause now and again in a café, restaurant or bar, watching the locals, listening in to what they’re saying while trying to figure out what, on paper, I can possibly say. Now I’m in an unfamiliar town, and I’m avoiding cafés, restaurants and bars altogether. Just 10 minutes’ walk from our new home is a bar called The Whisk(e)y Rooms, its front window and one whole wall lined with books. One of the tables behind that front window is actually a carpenter’s bench, like the one I used in woodwork class at secondary school, and it’s topped with a chessboard. A blackboard on the pavement promises
SH*TLOADS OF WHISKEY!
The whiskies, I see on the website, are from America, Scotland, India and Japan as well as from Ireland. Among the Irish is one they’ve been making since 1608, less than 10 miles from where I grew up, Bushmills, and one that’s a relative newcomer (2009), from Carlow, but has an irresistible name: Writers’ Tears. I like the look of the Whisk(e)y Rooms — at least I would in a normal year. Cosy, I’d say. But right now — only a month since pubs and restaurants reopened indoors — it looks cramped. One for later.
It’s struck me that I know less about Worthing than I did about places I visited for a few nights to write a travel piece. And yet I’m not just dropping in; I’m planting myself here. True, we’ve done the searches and surveys on the house and the area that are required by law and good sense. (In the process, we’ve discovered that the land our new home was built on was once part of a huge area owned by Michel Emmanuel Rodocanachi (1821-1901), a Greek trader and banker in London who helped raise funds for the building in the capital of St Sophia’s Cathedral. He moved to Worthing late in life, when his health failed, building a house he called Chios — after the island his parents fled to escape a massacre by Ottoman troops during the Greek War of Independence in 1822.)
My wife, Teri, Googled crime sites just to be sure we weren’t in for any nasty surprises. She’s also hooked up with local groups from Ramblers to the Bluetits “chill swimmers”. But I’ve got no contacts here yet, and I’ve read almost nothing about Worthing. I know a little from plaques up around the town. I know that Jane Austen stayed for a month and half, in a cottage that is now the premises of Pizza Express, and that Worthing provided the background for her final, unfinished novel, Sanditon.* Oscar Wilde was here, too, while writing The Importance of Being Earnest, and Harold Pinter lived in the town in the 1960s. Broadwater Cemetery, I understand, is the last resting place of two great chroniclers of the southern English countryside: Richard Jefferies and WH Hudson. But that’s about it. Worthing is a book I’ve yet to open. I’m looking forward to it.
I started going to far-flung outposts on my own as a writer in the mid-1990s. In the three or four years running up to the pandemic, while researching a piece on the other side of the world, I’d often felt homesickness more keenly than I’d had since I was a student in London. There were times when I desperately missed my wife and family. I’m not sure why the feeling was suddenly sharper, but I know that Glen Campbell, a singer who expresses yearning so forcefully, caught it perfectly in his version of Jimmy Webb’s “Postcard from Paris”:
“And so, I climbed the Eiffel Tower
And prayed at Notre Dame
But I just can’t find the romance
And I wonder why I came.
I wish you were here…”
Mid-pandemic, it was a poem rather than a song that came to mind. On the GOV.UK website, a notice warned me that “Under current COVID-19 restrictions, you must stay at home. You must not travel, including abroad, unless you have a legally permitted reason to do so.” Billy Collins’s “Consolation”, first published in 1991, could, it seemed to me, have been written for our times, and for travel writers in particular.
Another consolation was financial: if I wasn’t earning any money, I was also spending less. My bank statements are a telling Journal of a Plague Year. Just as statements pre Covid tell me that I spent US dollars at the Grand Canyon and Canadian dollars on the St Lawrence Seaway, so statements post Covid record that in 2020 there were six months when — except online — I didn’t spend British pounds anywhere in England. Between the middle of March, when Teri and I stopped for a snack at a motorway service station near Nottingham en route to our niece’s wedding in Riding Mill, Northumberland, and the end of September, when I bought a coffee through a hatch at the café in Cheam Park, Sutton, I had no reason to take my cash card from my wallet. I went for walks and runs, but I didn’t go to cafés, restaurants or shops; I didn’t board a bus or a train. It wasn’t until we started our recces in Worthing, from October 2020, that my “contactless” card saw regular service.
We’d lived for 30-plus years in semi-detached suburbia in Stoneleigh, near Epsom. Teri was winding down in her job — nursing at a school for children with special needs — and I no longer needed to be half an hour by train from London. We’d been talking for a few years of moving farther from the capital and nearer the coast, but staying within an hour-or-so’s reach of our daughters in Surrey. One possibility had been the market town of Horsham, about 30 miles south-west of London and 18 miles north-west of Brighton. Horsham is on the A24, and at the end of that road, on the edge of the sea, is Worthing. We’d had a walk round Horsham one day, and liked the feel of it, but that was as far as we’d got. Why stop here, Teri said. Why settle for living near the coast when we could live on it? In Worthing, she meant.
She was sold on Worthing. She’d moved there with her family from Birmingham at the age of nine, and lived there until she was 13. She loved her new house, her school, her town, but most of all she loved the sense of space she found on the edge of that town. She could wander a beach that seemed to go on for ever; she could pack a sandwich, hop on her bike, and disappear with her best friend into the green heaven of the South Downs. Until 2020, she’d been back to Worthing only a couple of times since her childhood, but Worthing was still in her. I could hear it in her voice when she was trying to sell the place to me. I could see a new light in her eyes when we were there. A Worthing light. I wasn’t quite so dazzled.
Initially, Worthing didn’t seem a patch on the seaside where I’d spent my childhood. I grew up surrounded by the crags and cliffs of the Causeway Coast, by glorious sandy beaches and snug little harbours. Yes, Worthing had an Art Deco pier (“UK Pier of the Year for 2019”, I’d read somewhere) and, despite the depredations of recent development, still had some fine architecture, from grand Regency terraces with bow-shaped fronts to slim cottages with boat-shaped porches. In its built environment, it was much more interesting and better cared for than Portstewart. But that beach… shingle, running east and west with barely a kink, let alone a cove, was a poor substitute for the beaches of the Causeway Coast. And the view from it…
On Portstewart Prom, I’d looked out from one wild, indented coastline to another, towards the Inishowen Peninsula, where the Atlantic eats its way into Donegal. In Worthing, I looked out across an uninterrupted ribbon of shingle to a wind farm.
In Portstewart, Jimmy Kennedy, gazing out over the bay, had written the lyrics to “Red Sails in the Sunset”, a song that’s been recorded by everyone from Gracie Fields to the Beatles. Seamus Heaney, a country boy who first saw the sea there at seven or eight, would remember later how “Courting couples rose out of the scooped dunes” on the Strand. He’d remember, too, how he’d walked the prom, gripping his Aunt Mary by the hand, past the war memorial where
“The bronze soldier hitches a bronze cape
That crumples stiffly in imagined wind.”
That memorial (which I’ve walked past countless times myself, at first hand in hand with my mother and later with Teri) meant little to the “worried pet” Heaney was in the 1940s, but it would be a source of inspiration later. In “In memoriam Francis Ledwidge”, in his 1979 collection Field Work, he sees in the bronze soldier a fellow poet: an Irish nationalist who fought for the British Army in the First World War — and was blown to bits by a stray shell in Ypres. **
Could Kennedy and Heaney have found similar inspiration in Worthing? I doubted it…
Both Teri and I had decided we didn’t want to live in Brighton. It would be useful to have London-on-Sea close by, but we didn’t need to be in the middle of it. But if Brighton was somewhere you went to live it up, what was Worthing? Before we started our recces there, I had preconceptions about it. I feared it was one of those places you went when you no longer had the energy to live it up; when you were gearing down to enter heaven’s waiting room. Worthing year-round, I thought, might be like Sidmouth, in Devon, as I’d found it in the winter of 1995.
* * *
Chairs sat stubbornly on hotel verandas. “No Vacancies” signs hung at the doors. There was even one brave soul striding along the prom in shorts. Sidmouth, in mid-November, was sticking determinedly to British Summer Time.
Summer time, that is, a few decades back. For just as hills shelter this resort in east Devon on all but its seaward side, so the council was guarding it from the worst vulgarities of progress. There were no illuminations. There were no amusement arcades. There were certainly no Big Macs. Sidmouth could manage without them, thank you. Since the latter half of the 18th century, which is roughly when the British began to see what had been treacherous coast as treasured beach, the sea and the mild climate had been attractions enough.
The town stands on a gently curving stretch of Lyme Bay between crumbling red sandstone cliffs. Fine Regency and Victorian villas line its esplanade, at the eastern end of which the brown River Sid, bubbling down from the moorlands, throws itself on the shingle. Coleridge, Browning and HG Wells, who all took the air here, would recognise the place still. So would Queen Victoria, who lived as a child in what is now the Royal Glen Hotel.
It’s this constancy that brings people back year after year. They have remained faithful because Sidmouth has; because time here seems to run slow. Arriving in mid-afternoon, I was struck by the number of staff in shops and hotels who greeted me with a cheery “Good morning”.
Sidmouth, I was told, has an international folk festival each summer, and for one week the populations swells from 15,000 to 75,000. There are dance groups from Archangelsk, drummers from Senegal. In summer, too, children dig and build castles on the sand of the west beach. In the town guide there were pictures of both exotic folkies and digging children, so this must be true. In November, however, it seemed hard to credit. All the citizens and visitors I met, all the ones who feature in my photographs of the town, were solidly British and decidedly senior. This seemed the natural order of things.
The visitors came from the Midlands and mid-Wales, from Hampshire and Gloucestershire and Dorset, lured by the promise of peace and gentility — and by the prices. “Special terms,” a sign said at the Fortfield Hotel. “£19.50 per person per night bed and continental breakfast.” A few doors above, Fortfield Place was already full.
The visitors made the most of the fresh air, if only because indoor attractions were few, the town’s main museum and its toy museum being closed for winter. I joined them in their laps of the prom, their cream teams, their browsing in the curio shops and their climbs to Connaught Gardens.
These gardens, alongside a cliff walk above the west beach, had helped win Sidmouth numerous awards: Entente Florale International twice, English National Finalist 10 times, Britain’s Floral Town four times. In summer they must be uplifting; in winter, when the only colour was a few pansies pushing red and yellow through the earth, they seemed to encourage in their visitors a sombre if grateful stock-taking: “I think we’re lucky, lucky to be living alone as we are at our age…” “I’ve had a very good life. I think that the bad bits are outweighed by the good bits…” The mood, perhaps, was influenced by the plaques fixed to the benches: “In Loving Memory of William J. Lunnon, MC”; “In Loving Memory of M.A. Workman”; “In Memory of Mum and Dad”…
There was less introspection in the pubs. While eating my steak-and-kidney pie in the Old Ship, I heard praise of British cars (“I’m a Rover Man — been driving them for 45 years”) and condemnation of what the BBC had done to Jane Orrsten, who spent a holiday in Sidmouth in 1801. I eavesdropped as a Maggie Smith lookalike reported on a shock she had had while window-shopping: “I thought: that’s a nice wig. I’m going to wear a wig one of these days. And d’you know, it moved. It was a dog.”
Pubs were fine for lunch, but Maggie and her kind did not frequent them in the evenings, heading instead to the Methodist Church and a concert by the Exeter Police Choir, or the Conservative Club and a speech by Bernard Ingham, Margaret Thatcher’s former press secretary, or to one of the numerous bridge clubs. They did not keep late hours. Having returned to my hotel at 11.30 after visiting friends in nearby Ottery St Mary, I found myself locked out. The porter was at first suspicious and then apologetic: “I’m sorry, sir. I didn’t realise you were out. No one said.” In Sidmouth, service was exceptionally civil.
After dark the pubs were the province of a younger, but very much minority, crowd. On the night of an England v Switzerland football match, The Marine on the esplanade, walls adorned with rackets and bats, was doing its best to ape an American sports bar. But there were no more than 20 watching its two big screens. A hero, held shoulder-high, looked down from a photo: Bobby Moore, 1966.
If Sidmouth’s visitors were early to bed, they were not early to rise. At breakfast in my hotel at 8.30 I had only three or four companions. It was 10 or 11 o’clock before the promenading began in earnest. “What brings you here?” I asked relays of buttoned-up couples. “It’s a change, it’s a rest, isn’t it?… People are so friendly… We did come in summer once, but it was too hot, too crowded. And it’s cheaper at this time… We’d love to move here.”
Many of them do. I met the car-park inspector as he strolled along the beach, snug in padded waistcoat, doing his winter duty of checking the lifebelts. He said he had spent most of his life in the Midlands car factories. “There I was in the smoke and the dirt — and now I’m here, and getting paid for it. I’m in dreamland.”
As I stood by a railing listening to the gravelly voice of the sea — surge, scour; surge, scour — a woman in plaid came towards me, walking a Jack Russell. She told me she had lived in the town all her life. “It’s lovely any time, summer or winter. I love it dearly.” Then, turning back to the railings, she gestured at the water: “Is it coming in or going out? I can never tell.”
Sidmouth lives at the sea, not by it. Only one family, the Bagwells, still made a living from fishing, launching little 25-footers daily, summer or winter, from an inlet at the eastern end of the esplanade. Stan Bagwell, a broad-shouldered man nearing 60 with rust in his grey beard, presided over things at start and finish, launching the boats and later serving the catch at the counter, helped by his wife and daughter.
I watched him and two other fishermen struggle to put a boat in the water. Having winched it down the slope, they put their back to it, trying to catch a wave, trying to drive the bilge clear of the shingle. There were two attempts, and much huffing and puffing, before the boat bobbed free. “And that,” Stan said, fighting for breath, “is why there’s only one family left.”
The two fishermen, John Gosling and Dennis Hutchins, headed towards the horizon about 10am. They were back around 3.15pm, having set their nets but with nothing to show for their efforts other than four bags of whelks. In a good week, they told me, they could earn £400; in a bad one they wouldn’t cover the cost of bait and diesel.
Most Sidmouthians have an easier time of it. The Sid Vale Association, the conservation body whose blue plaques adorn many properties, is named after a geographical feature, but Sid could easily be the archetypal male resident: prosperous, well-mannered, a touch stuffy and self-satisfied. The last trait seemed to be exemplified in the district council chairman: Ted Pinney, OBE, had congratulated himself on the construction of the town’s coastal defences by putting his name on a plaque on one of the biggest rocks.
Visitors, too, lend themselves readily to caricature. On the prom I watched with a local British Legion secretary, who himself must have been in his late sixties, as a tall man with straight back and bristling moustache took his constitutional. It was the British Legion secretary who voiced the cliché: “Looks,” he said, “like an old colonel going past.”
I did see a couple of young canoeists, lying between their craft on the beach. They pointedly turned their heads away as I approached, so I left them alone. They seemed to have arrived by accident, washed up with the rest of the jetsam.
Another time, I spotted some surfers in the water and determined to talk to them when they came out. Returning 10 minutes later I found them gone, like trespassers who knew they’d been spotted. Sidmouth in winter, they seemed to be acknowledging, did not belong to them.
* * *
I love the melancholy feel of seaside places out of season, and I liked Sidmouth, but on the basis of my experience in November 1995, when I was 37, I wouldn’t have wanted to live there. Worthing, I feared, was similarly senior, a paradise only for the pensioned-off. I was now 63, but I didn’t feel ready to join them.
So what changed my mind?
The house we found was a big factor. A house we liked as soon as we saw its stained-glass front door; a house we loved as soon as we stepped over the threshold. Built in the 1920s, it had been serving six decades later as two flats. We bought it from a man who had not only returned it to a single dwelling but remade it, combining gorgeous cornices in the high-ceilinged rooms with 21st-century mod cons.
The house is five minutes’ walk from the prom, where, I noticed early on, there were more people pushing baby buggies than Zimmer frames; and zipping past them were runners and cyclists half my age. The surfers off the beach, too, were far from silver. Worthing seemed younger than I expected, an observation confirmed by a pictorial notice at the East Beach that records developments up to 2013, and so must have been erected during or after that year:
“In 1971 the National Census stated that Worthing had the oldest population in the country. The demographics have changed considerably since then as Worthing’s reputation and popularity are recognised by young people who appreciate its growth and regeneration.”
Worthing’s centre, in common with that of most other towns, has suffered not only from the move to online shopping but from the restrictions prompted by Covid. Lots of shops are shuttered or plastered with “To Let” signs, and Debenhams — a name disappearing from high streets everywhere — closed its department store a month before we moved in. But there are still plenty of small businesses, and evidence of talent as well as trade. Converted bathing chalets along the East Beach are home to artists’ studios, work’s on sale in half a dozen independent galleries, and a shelter on the prom is not just a place to pause on your constitutional but a showcase for everything from photography to poetry (though it does smell as though it’s recently seen service as a cannabis factory).
Yes, Worthing lacks the cliffs and coves of the Causeway Coast, but it has a lot more trees than Portstewart, and two municipal gardens and a park to the east end of town. And the town’s between the sea and the South Downs. Only three days after moving in, we gave ourselves a break from unpacking and sorting and went for an 11-mile walk with the local Ramblers group, up from Storrington to the Iron Age hill forts of Chanctonbury Ring and Cissbury Ring, and back again. It was partly in sunshine, partly in drizzle, and wholly a tonic.
Worthing feels farther from London, too, than the maps would suggest. Though it’s only an hour or so farther from the big smoke than Stoneleigh, I’ve been struck in its shops and restaurants (or, rather, while sitting outside its restaurants) by how much more time the staff seem to have to chat. And those restaurants are better than I expected, offering everything from Thai street food (authentic and delicious) to the dishes of a 2018 Masterchef winner (pencilled in for a celebration when we’re settled).
From our front door, we can walk to shops as well as restaurants. We can walk to a cinema, too, when we feel brave enough to sit inside it. It’s only now that I’m back living by the sea, for the first time since I was a teenager, that I’ve realised how much I’ve been missing it. Masefield had it right:
” …the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied.”
The breeze coming off the water lifts me as much as it does the wind-surfers and kite-surfers — though it makes running a bit tougher. Going out with the breeze behind me, and returning with it against me, is like running on two different days.
The wind farm is growing on me too. There are times when the play of light and cloud makes it seem as if the turbines are rising not just from the water but from their own island. There are times, too, when mist hides them completely. But I don’t want them gone. How could I have grumbled about a wind farm’s spoiling the view out to sea? How — when I’ve given up flying for work because of the depth of my carbon footprint?
* Sanditon was recently adapted into an ITV series — but that was filmed near Bristol.
* * It wasn’t until 2013, when Heaney was interviewed by Intelligent Life magazine (since renamed 1843), an offshoot of The Economist, about his personal “seven wonders of the world”, that I learned of his love for Portstewart Strand. I’d read, and connected with, and re-read poems of his and somehow missed the one about Ledwidge. In one poem, indeed, he seemed to be writing about my boyhood as much as his own. In “Clearances”, a sonnet sequence written in memory of his mother, he tells how he peeled spuds with her (“Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives — / Never closer the whole rest of our lives.”) and stretched sheets that had just come off the clothes line (“The fabric like a sail in a crosswind,/ They made a dried-out undulating thwack”). I had done the same with my mother, who, like Heaney, had grown up in rural County Derry. I remember, the first time I read that poem, thinking that I would find some comfort in Heaney’s words if anything ever happened to my mother. When she died, though, I couldn’t bear to read “Clearances”. It was a few years before I could see in the words a celebration of her life rather than a reminder of her death.
The pier, and a glimpse, through its railings, of the turbines of Rampion Wind Farm. It generates about 1,400 gigawatt hours of power every year – enough for almost 350,000 homes
Below you can find links to a selection of my own feature articles.