It’s hard being different. As in, it’s difficult to stand out. Particularly when you’re dressed |in a uniform, like the one worn by British high streets. Credit to Chichester, then, for managing |to differentiate itself from the crowd.
You have to pay attention to spot the differences. Arriving in the city centre at 9am, my first impression (Waterstone’s, Russell & Bromley, Starbucks, HMV, Superdrug, Marks & Spencer, House of Fraser) was of a pleasant ubiquity. That’s perhaps because I was expecting something uniquely boutiquey: it’s known as Chic-hester now.
But, looking a little closer, I saw character poking through the shopping surface. The centre, which spreads out from the focal Market Cross (a beautiful ancient monument) along the straightforwardly named North, East, West and South Streets, has an Edinburgh Woollen Mill, a Laura Ashley and a Past
Times, all playing to the old-world atmosphere. And in among these shops, there are a number of engagingly quirky independent names, such as Marigold, Stephen Lawrence and Liberté.
I needed a proper breakfast. Manfully ignoring Caffè Nero, I became the day’s first customer at Crispins Café. The china here has swirly avocado edging and the cappuccino comes with lots of chocolate on top. There’s a sign on the wall protesting at the number of coffee shop chains around, below a blackboard citing numerous sandwich filling and cooked breakfast variations, with which Crispins is determined to beat off the upstart competition.
Dazed by the level of choice, I mumbled “full English” and knuckled down, emerging altogether better equipped to read between Chichester’s lines.
There are, in fact, lots of one-off shops selling designer kit here. I cracked the code behind the emphatically named Little London Boutique, Pushka Boutique and Mousetrap... Boutique. And once I’d cottoned on to these islands of difference, I found they were numerous enough to navigate by. In particular, I island-hopped chocolate shops: there are enough original confectioners (Montezuma’s, Hotel Chocolat and the Sweet Jar, to name a few) to satisfy the sweetest tooth.
It struck me that, just as savvy schoolchildren manage to stand out by wearing their uniform differently to the rest, so Chichester has reworked its high street with these studs of tasty uniqueness.
Apart from the shops, there’s a great cathedral to visit. Sitting close to the central crossroads, it towers above the pedestrian precincts, the city walls, the nearby Chichester Harbour, and the surrounding Sussex countryside. The history of Chichester Cathedral stretches back to AD681, when St Wilfrid brought Christianity to Sussex and established a cathedral in Selsey, south of Chichester. After 1066, the Norman policy was for cathedrals to serve large population centres rather than small communities. The groundwork for the cathedral was laid in 1076 and it was finally consecrated in 1108. In 1861, the centuries-old spire collapsed, whereupon the Victorians rebuilt it a few feet higher. Don’t miss Marc Chagall’s stained-glass window and the extensive cathedral gardens tucked around the back.
Chichester’s award-winning Pallant House Gallery is also inside the city walls – and therefore within easy walking distance. It has a terrific modern British art collection, including works by John Piper, Graham Sutherland and Henry Moore, as well as a great programme of temporary and touring exhibitions. The gallery fuses an 18th-century Queen Anne town house with a sharp-edged contemporary wing opened in 2006.
Wandering from room to room means criss-crossing from old to new and back again. You’ll work up quite an appetite doing this and the Field & Fork restaurant, in the courtyard to the rear of the gallery, is just the place to fill up. It serves imaginative, locally sourced food in a chic setting. I can vouch for the maple-glazed, slow-roasted pork belly, and carrot coleslaw.
The city is also known for the Chichester Festival Theatre, which opened in 1962 under the artistic directorship of Sir Laurence Olivier. It was the first modern theatre in this country to have an open “thrust” stage, around which the audience sits on three sides. The theatre still attracts big names: Patrick Stewart starred in Macbeth recently and Joseph Fiennes in Cyrano de Bergerac. The show I saw – 42nd Street – played to a capacity (1,200) crowd, many of whom appeared to know all the words.
The surrounding countryside ranges from the sandy beaches at Selsey and West Wittering to the rolling South Downs (part of Britain’s newest national park). I visited Goodwood House, seat of the Duke of Richmond, and the centrepiece of a 12,000-acre estate famous for its horse racing (Glorious Goodwood) and vintage motorsports (Goodwood Revival and the Festival of Speed). Celebrities flock to these events, but nothing was racing the day I went, so I enjoyed the English parkscape and countryside undisturbed by hoof-beats, revving engines, or Sharon Osbourne, who, along with Kate Moss and Keith Richards, has been spotted locally of late.
They weren’t out that evening in Chichester’s nightclubs, either. I knew that because, over a superb dinner at The Royal Oak in nearby East Lavant, with the owner, Charles Ullmann, I learnt that there aren’t any nightclubs in the centre of Chichester. This helps to keep it chic: another little difference buried beneath the surface.
* Crispins café, 46 East Street (01243 533 544)
* Chichester Cathedral, (01243 782 595; chichestercathedral.org.uk). Admission: free
* Pallant House Gallery, 9 North Pallant (01243 774 557; pallant.org.uk ). Admission: £7.50
* The Field & Fork, 9 North Pallant (01243 770 827; fieldandfork.co.uk )
* Goodwood (horse racing, motorsport: 01243 755 055; goodwood.co.uk ).
* Chichester Festival Theatre, Oaklands Park (01243 784 437; cft.org.uk )
* The Royal Oak, Pook Lane, East Lavant (01243 527 434; royaloakeastlavant.co.uk )