Jane Rusbridge Author of The Devils Music and Rook

Travel Writing:

How surfers turned the tide in Wittering:

It’s taken a while, but the sleepy seaside town in Sussex with the situation comedy name is finally riding the trendy surfing wave.

(This article first appeared in the Guardian, Wed 5 Aug 2009)

 

In the 1950s, the architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner described Wittering as “a jumble of bungalows and chalets near the beach in an untidy half grown up state”, and those of us who live here will recognise some truth in his statement. Our bungalows have for many years been popular with those who holidayed here in their youth, returning in retirement to this nostalgic stretch of coast.

It’s taken a while, but there’s been a bit of sea-change. It began way back, in the 1960s, when surfers came to ride the waves from the end of Shore Road. Twenty years later, the pace was still slow on the village pavements. I was frequently caught out by early closing on Wednesday afternoons. This was the early 1980s. About the same time, windsurfers arrived on West Wittering beach and Shore-boards (now Shore Watersports) moved into the old Saab garage in Shore Road.

Another 20 years or so ticked by until, in 2004, George the Pet Shop owner’s son Nick returned from Australia and set up a surf shop in the storage shed round the back. You’d catch glimpses of gleaming surf boards between the fusty sacks of animal food – it was the only pet/surf shop in the country.

George retired a year later, and the village pulse quickened as Wittering Surf Shop emerged from the storage shed, rapidly doubled in size and, this year, won Coast Magazine’s best new business by the sea award. Now, Nick and Lizzie have just opened the Drift-In Cafe. The style is driftwood and distressed blue walls, with nautical cushions on a bench made from a wooden boat, and the staff coast breezily in and out of the adjoining surf shop. You can read the paper or flick through a book as you sample something from the wide range of coffees, smoothies and shakes. The sweet or savoury crepes are tempting, too. And, if you’re lucky, you might catch George in there for a chat.

Nick teaches beginners and pros, aged 8-78 (it’s about energy, not age, he tells me), and more and more surfers weave up and down Shore Road with boards clamped under their arms. I’ve just learnt about “wind-chop” (ask a surfer) and today it is windy; it often is here. The tide is miles out and the sea is frothed white – a good day to head west along the beach track to West Wittering to watch the wind and kite-surfers. Dog-walkers stride over the wind-dried sand, light bounces off water beneath a cloud-scuffed sky and, although it’s August, parts of the beach are deserted.

West Wittering beach is part of an Area Of Outstanding Natural Beauty encircling East Head and the adjacent creeks, inlets and tidal flats of Chichester harbour. There’s a long line of beach huts, sand dunes, marram grass and tamarisk; people knock striped windbreaks into the sand and spread tartan rugs; a cafe serves tea and ice creams. Close by is The Old House at Home, a freehouse country pub with rooms, where new tenants Ian and Celia have scrapped tired hunting-scene decor for scrubbed-pine, Bentwood chairs and neutral colours. The European-only wine list is intriguing, and they sell champagne by the glass. A novelty round here.

From The Old House, cyclists can set off on the newly completed Salterns Way, an 18km route between West Wittering and the centre of Chichester. On Saturday, we started cycling, but rain soon resulted in a diversion left, down to Dell Quay and The Crown & Anchor. New manager Sue has added weekend breakfasts and cream teas to the mainly fish menu – an excellent idea for this outdoorsy, open-all-day pub. It was packed, and the dress code was wellies (by the door) and cagoules, a cosy fug building under the smoked ceilings as we steamed by the bay window with its broad creek view: sky, water and rag-worm diggers. Outside, on better days, you hear the halyards ching and the mud’s soft-lipped sucks and pops.

Thanks to footpaths, cycle routes and boat trips, there is plenty of opportunity around the harbour to experience the isolation and wilderness of tidal inlets, creeks and rithes. The foot ferry from Itchenor Hard takes you to Bosham Hoe. You can walk round the water’s flinty edge to the Anchor Bleu (+ 44 (0)1243 573956) and sit on a sheltered, south-facing terrace with a glass of chilled wine contemplating the scoop of water where Canute proved he couldn’t turn back the tide. The sea still rules: at high tide water laps up the walls and unwary visitors find their cars swamped.

If Pevsner had been lucky enough to stay at Croftside B&B and experience Geof’s “Eggs Croftside” and Sue’s hot stone massage, he might not have been so grumpy reporting his travels in Wittering. What he also missed, down along the sea’s edge, were bungalows built around Victorian railway carriages. Recently, one or two of those with direct beach frontage have been renovated to quirky holiday lets. The Dodo and Kia-ora, both in Marine Drive, are right on the shingle’s edge with uninterrupted sea views from their south-facing terraces. Each is built around two parallel railway carriages connected by a high-ceilinged living room and there are log burners if you are chilly after a dip. The Dodo even has a bath outside as well as in; you can soak (in hot water) gazing up at the stars and then sleep under the curved, white-painted roof of a train compartment while waves rumble the shingle. Bungalow or chalet? Who cares.