Good Old Sussex by the Sea – in 1912 Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem about it and, five years later, William Ward-Higgs composed an anthemic song. Sussex was all one county then; it’s two now, but the appeal that inspired verse and song remains to this day.
East Sussex has been witness to some of the most momentous events in the history of England. The coastal village of Pevensey was the landing place of William, Duke of Normandy, and his army in 1066 and, as every school child knows, William proceeded to defeat Harold near Hastings and claim the crown of England. Hastings and Battle, the town that grew up around the site of the battlefield, have museums and exhibitions on these history- changing events. The victorious Normans soon set about building castles and fortifications from which to defend their new territory, as well as religious buildings, and the area is still rich in Norman architecture.
The south coast was always an obvious target for invasion and, in the days before the Royal Navy, the confederation of Cinque Ports was established to provide a fleet of ships to defend the coast. Many Sussex towns, now some distance from the sea, were part of the confederation. The silting up of the harbours has changed the landscape of the East Sussex coast considerably in the past 1,000 years.
Nowadays, the coast is the preserve of holiday-makers, taking advantage of the generally moderate climate and the bracing sea air. The thriving resorts of Brighton and Eastbourne began life as quiet fishing villages, but developed rapidly at the beginning of the 19th century. Brighton is best known for its exotic Royal Pavilion, designed in magnificent Indian style by John Nash for the Prince Regent. Eastbourne, by contrast, was carefully planned and laid out in genteel style by William Cavendish, the 7th Duke of Devonshire, close to the chalk cliffs of Beachy Head. St Leonards and Bexhill are quieter resorts, but perhaps the most picturesque of all is Rye, with its many medieval buildings.
Away from the coast, on the high ridges of the Weald, is the largest area in southeast England that has never been put to agricultural use. Ashdown Forest was a royal hunting ground and its thriving population of deer made it a favourite sporting place. The network of tracks across the forest goes back to prehistoric times, the Romans built a road straight across it, and the rights of commoners to gather wood for fuel, cut peat and graze cattle, were well established by Norman times. Much of the woodland has been lost, but the remaining forest is protected as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Site of Special Scientific Interest. The surrounding area is characterised by small towns and villages of weatherboarded cottages, traditional hall houses and unspoilt farmsteads.
Many artists and writers of the 19th and 20th centuries chose to live here. A A Milne set the Winnie the Pooh stories in Ashdown Forest and surrounding area. Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard lived at Monk’s House, Rodmell, while her sister, Vanessa Bell, was at nearby Charleston in Selmeston. The Elms at Rottingdean was the home of Rudyard Kipling until 1902, when he moved to Burwash, and the village of Ditchling was home to several of the leading lights of the Arts and Crafts Movement.