The Optimistic Walker: combining walking and retail delights

David Bathurst shares his passion for walking and explains why it might just be what we all need in these difficult times - particularly when we are in a county as beautiful as Sussex.

David Bathurst
David Bathurst

It’s very good news that non-essential retail stores have been able to reopen, subject of course to their being able to follow social distancing rules.

And it’s why this week I’m suggesting to you a type of walk that will help retail businesses as well as providing you with good exercise and a few, perhaps more than a few, history lessons: a walk discovering the delights of a small town near you.

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Across Sussex we are blessed with so many beautiful small towns. Among them, and in no particular order, I would commend to you Petworth, Midhurst, Arundel, Steyning, Cuckfield, Battle, Seaford, Bexhill, Rye and Winchelsea. They are all easily reachable by car in a day trip from anywhere in Sussex, but you may live sufficiently close to one of them to be able to get there by bicycle or maybe even on foot!

You may think that a walk in the countryside would always be preferable to walking in town, but town walking does have some significant advantages. You’re most unlikely to get lost, and even if you do, there’ll be no shortage of people able to tell you where you are; if it starts to rain, you’ve plenty of possible shelter; your shoes or boots won’t get muddy; there are plenty of places to seek refreshment; and there’ll be a high concentration of interesting historic features. Even if admittance to the interior of historic buildings is forbidden owing to the current situation, you can still admire them from outside. And what a splendid range of historic buildings is on offer: Petworth House, right in the very heart of Petworth and with the magnificent grounds of Petworth Park (now reopened) immediately adjacent; the spectacular ruins of Cowdray House at Midhurst; Arundel Castle and Cathedral; the lovely houses along Church Street, Steyning, including the old Grammar School and Norman church of St Andrew; the church of Holy Trinity and Ockenden Manor at Cuckfield; Battle Abbey and High Street including such gems as the timber-framed Almonry and Pilgrims Rest; the splendid Norman church of St Leonard in Seaford; the opulent De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill; the quaint cobbled Mermaid Street, Ypres Tower and Lamb House (the sometime home of author Henry James) in Rye, and the imposing town gates and church of St Thomas, Winchelsea. In my experience, though, it’s often the more unsung and unremarkable aspects of the streets of a small town that can spring delightful surprises, whether in the form of a lovely cottage garden, bursting with flowers and unusual plants, a vividly painted house or shop front, or a small and secluded green space, perhaps offering a bench in a shaded spot where you can enjoy listening to the bird song. You can perhaps enhance your enjoyment of the walk by having with you a guidebook or pamphlet or even the East or West Sussex volume of The Buildings Of England series, which highlights every single building of architectural or historical significance in every town. The Sussex volumes have recently been updated and although they’re not cheap, they’re beautiful books which will significantly enhance the enjoyment you get from your town walk. Who knows, you may become so enthralled by the architecture of the town you’re walking in that one day you may be leading your own guided walks around its streets.

While you’re in the town, do go into the shops and support local retailers. Money spent in the town is more likely to stay there and help the local economy. Cafes may not yet be open again but there are plenty of places where you can buy a takeaway drink and perhaps a slice of delicious locally-produced cake as well. Just observe the social distancing rules which we should all know by now. And have a great day out!

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