A- Z of England: C for Chichester.

A – Z of United Kingdom: C – for Chichester

Chichester has to be one of the oldest cities in the UK, no doubt my research will prove me wrong but the information I have so far says it predates recorded history.. Now that’s old! All the little flint tools I pictured on my first A – Z were found in the Chichester area so there must be some truth in it.

I lived in three of the outlying areas surrounding Chichester for several years, only one of the villages was a large place. I say that because Rowland’s Castle has shops and a more regular bus route and a train station whereas Compton and Stoughton had very little apart from a Church and a pub. Well Compton had a village shop and a Playgroup that my children went to. I loved the rural life and I still miss it every day.

However, Chichester as the city to go to for shopping and transport is a remarkable place with a bonus – evidence everywhere of its historic past. In fact the whole city tells a tale in its architecture. Just on the outskirts of Chichester is Fishbourne, I know little of the village apart from the wonderful Roman Palace, complete with skeleton. The Palace was discovered by accident in 1960  during the digging of a trench for water pipes and it has since been completely excavated. The mosaics on display are some of the oldest in Britain and has some the only ones ever to be seen anywhere. Fishbourne Roman Palace has also become a source of hands on history for schools and visitors alike when the museum puts on several Roman based workshops throughout the year.

And I was going to talk about Chichester, I should have kept Fishbourne for ‘F’ in my A – Z. Chichester is an ancient Market City and there are many examples of the history of both the City and surrounding areas. In the year 895, Danish invaders landed at Chichester and there is a wonderful story of the forest surrounding Kingley Vale – now a nature conservation area. It is said that the Yew forest, the oldest living thing in Britain, is haunted and that each of the trees represents a fallen warrior.

I was lucky enough to live below Bow Hill in the shadow of the forest and the atmosphere is amazing. I remember taking a group of my teenage daughter’s friends up the hill to the forest for a Halloween party and not one of them would enter the forest because of its spookiness. It is almost impossible to find the same tree twice and we were sure they did actually come to life and move during the night. The cottage here is where we lived and you can see a very tiny part of the yew forest in the background.  Below to the left, again the forest in the background on a winter’s day where the forest seems to have crept much closer to the house.

In 1091 the building of Chichester Cathedral began and in 1353 Chichester was one of three towns to be granted the status of a ‘Staple Port’ and the wool trade was the most important export. Fulling mills along the river Lavant and weavers and dyers in the town  along with needlemakes and a tannery were all part of the wool and leather industry. There were markets and fairs during the middle ages and to this day the City hold a ‘Sloe Fair’ in Northgate Fields, a right that was granted by the Bishop Ralph de Luffa in 1108. The original so named, so they say, because of a sloe tree growing in the middle of the field.

The Merchant’s Guilds owned underground vaults and catacombs where perishable goods were kept. The vaults are still in existence and it should be possible in theory to walk from the public house at the top of North Street underground all the way to the Cathedral. The town also had a mint which would indicate its wealth and the market status would have helped boost the coffers.

Chichester was developed as a market town because of its situation near both the downs – livestock and farming- and the sea – export and import. Today there is still a market in Chichester, very different from times past when its prime commodity would have been livestock. Another indication of the wealth of the Bishops of the time is right in the centre of Chichester. In 1501, Bishop storey had Chichester Market Cross built for the smaller market trader to stay out of the wet as they sold goods like eggs and butter. As a market town the livestock would have been herded from neighbouring farms and towns, like Petersfield,  into Chichester and penned up along North and East streets and when full, occasionally along West Street too. However the beast market proved to make the streets into the Chichester shops impassable. Imagine mud roads and all those cattle and pigs! So the better dressed were advised to avoid Chichester. The streets were paved for the first time in 1578  after an Act of Parliament. Eventually the market was moved to, yes, you’ve guessed it, the Cattle Market. This Cattle Market closed in 1990 but retained the name and is the main car park today.

Buildings like Pallant House, 1712, The Butter Market, 1808, and The Corn Exchange Market, 1833, are still there as an example of the architecture from their respective years of being built. Places like the present day Dolphin and Anchor pub and the Nat West Bank ( The Swan) were once a coach inns ( Coach ran Chichester to Charing Cross – departure 6 am, arrival by 4pm, 4 inside seats at 18shillings and outside 10 shillings). Stories of hauntings are rife in these places. Waterstone’s the bookstore, opposite the Cathedral, has a wonderful feel as you enter inside and walk on the old flagstone floors and there are many shops and places to visit where you can get in touch with history, really long time ago stuff, in Chichester.

The notorious and vicious Hawkhurst gang operated in Chichester where smuggling of silk, lace, jewellery, spices, coffee and tea were rife and I have included a link to blog on them at the end. A walk round the town also holds a key to the trades that were prominent from the middle ages and forward. The Crooked ‘S’  was once The Shambles, a row of slaughter houses from where the offal was slung into the street – mm nice!-  Little London where merchants from London stopped while on their business, Parchment Street, Leatherbottle Lane, Clay Lane, Tannery Close, Needlemakers Street all give an idea of what might have been there in their time.

In the 18th Century Chichester had a good share of craftsmen who had their own workshops and apprentices: Carpenters, bricklayers and glaziers, saddlers, taylors, cobblers and shoemakers, coopers, wheelwrights and blacksmiths. Other services were brewers, bakers, grocers, gunsmiths and clay pipe makers. I wonder how many of those were in the above mentioned street names. By the end of the century I imagine the Needlemakers might have been sad to leave their shops when the industry died out. At least their memory is preserved in the street name.

The market town/city of Chichester is still a thriving place and there is far too much history for me to write about here but I hope I have given a feel of the City and just a small amount of its history. It is a must to visit but you will need a long holiday to find out and explore everywhere including the surrounding villages who were just as much a part of it all. Then of course there are other places nearby to visit like the Trundle ( East Lavant)where there is evidence of, amongst other things,  an iron age fort and a chapel before the reformation; The Weald and Downland Museum where many of the original timber framed buildings from Chichester, having been carefully removed, were rebuilt into a village. Brilliant for hands on, back to the past, activity days. The Devils Humps in Kingley Vale – burial mounds and barrows and from where you can see down to the harbour.  In fact almost every village surrounding Chichester has a story and something else to see and learn about. I do recommend a google search and some exploring, Chichester is another town where anyone interested in social history will not be disappointed.









5 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Another place that I have to confess that I have never visited. Nice post, good story nicely told! D for a city where I lived for a long time perhaps?

  2. 2

    wordangell said,

    Thanks for popping by and your lovely comment, Andrew, I am still looking for a ‘D’ where did you live, maybe I can take a look.. M

  3. 3

    barb19 said,

    I loved this post because I spent a week in Chichester many years ago and fell in love with the place; I love it’s old buildings. It was good to read about it and refresh my memory with your photos.
    The cottage you lived in is absolutely gorgeous, beautiful gardens!
    Great post!

  4. 4

    wordangell said,

    So glad you enjoyed the read Barb, I miss not living there but it was lovely for me to revisit with my writing. There is so much more to Chichester that I don’t know about yet… maybe another visit for me sometime soon. M

  5. 5

    ken green said,

    The Merchant’s Guilds owned underground vaults and catacombs where perishable goods were kept. The vaults are still in existence and it should be possible in theory to walk from the public house at the top of North Street underground all the way to the Cathedral

    Sadly an urban myth, they never existed and do not, many places had cellars which were connected to the privies awaiting the night soil man
    but no tunnels
    Ken Green

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