Lost Lanes: 36 Glorious Bike Rides in Southern England

If you’re already lucky enough to hold our brand new issue between in your hands, you might already be excited about the Lost Lanes book by Jack Thurston, laying out 36 scenic rides around Europe’s largest island. And crafty as we are, we convinced the author to share his Surf & Turf right here, right now. Saddle up, grab some friends and off you go!

Turf & Surf

A seaweedy Sussex adventure from Chichester to West Wittering and Bosham, across farmland, marsh and sea

Start & Finish: Chichester, West Sussex • Distance: 27 miles/44km • Ascent: 43m
Terrain: Quiet lanes and unsurfaced tracks that can get muddy after heavy rain. Easy.

The beach at West Wittering is just too far away from London for day-trippers in cars, and it lacks a railway station. This could be why it remains the most perfect dune-fringed sandy beach in southern England.

Chichester station lies to the south of the city, and while there’s plenty to see in the medieval centre, it’s possible to make a quick exit south along the Chichester Canal. Crossing the bridge at Hunston I looked back: this was almost exactly the view painted by J.M.W. Turner around 1828, when the canal was just six years old, a glittering new piece of transport technology. Turner depicts a shadowy ‘lighter’ boat on the silvery water and a silhouetted ship at anchor, which leads the eye towards the cathedral spire in the distance. Sunset casts a glow over the still evening scene. The view has changed very little since then.

From North Mundham I began a journey across one of the horticultural hotspots of southern England. This low-lying part of Sussex, hemmed in by the sea on three sides, is the Manhood Peninsula, a name derived from maenewudu, Old English for ‘common wood’. Until the enclosure acts of the 18th century, it was, as the name suggests, common land. Most of the woods are gone now too, and the land is intensively cultivated, with a few pastures for cattle. The rich soil, much of it reclaimed from the sea, and the rain shadow of the Isle of Wight to the south combine to create perfect, sunny growing conditions. Horticulture is big business, with large expanses of land under massive glasshouses and polytunnels.

The lanes are narrow and quiet and wend a wiggling route towards the coast. For some of it roads give way to tracks across farm fields, which can be muddy after heavy rain. But it was quiet, easy riding. Quite unexpectedly, rounding the corner by the Crab and Lobster Inn, the land came to an end and I was suddenly overlooking Pagham Harbour, a wide expanse of salt marsh and tidal mudflats.

Sidlesham was once a port of local importance: for many centuries there was a quay here, and a mill that ground corn on the power of the tides. In the 19th century the land was reclaimed from the sea for farming, and the harbour and mill were closed, but only a few decades later the sea breached the defences and the harbour was inundated. Pagham Harbour is now a vast wildlife reserve, a haven for waders and migrating species, the last expanse of wildness on a coastline that’s been heavily developed.

Heading west from Sidlesham I was back on tiny lanes through the plant nurseries and market gardens of Highleigh and Almodington, finally reaching East Wittering. This suburban coastal resort may lack visual charm but still boasts a bustling high street of small, independent shops, where I stopped for picnic supplies. Following the main road into West Wittering, I headed for the beach. If Sussex has a surf culture, this stretch of coast is where it’s found. The surf shack was offering board hire and lessons, but the reality is that really good waves are rare, particularly in summer. But there’s often a stiff breeze, so windsurfing, kitesurfing and paddle-boarding are just as popular here as traditional surfing, if not more so.

I continued on to East Head at the very far western end of the beach. This spit of land is a sand-dune paradise, the jewel in the crown of the Manhood Peninsula. It curves around a marshy lagoon that’s home to sea lavender and marsh samphire, which autumn had turned a startling blood red. Spiky, blue-green sea holly and pink-and-white-flowered sea bindweed thrive in the sandy soil, and tough, tufty marram grass stabilises the fine sand of the dunes. It’s a prime spot for bird-spotting, and twitchers with hefty binoculars were scanning the mudflats for the many species that either live on them or use them as a stop-off on long migratory journeys. Out at sea, small boats sailed to and fro, and I found a sheltered spot among the dunes for a picnic lunch and a snooze before retracing my tracks to West Wittering.

Heading north out of West Wittering, I briefly joined the Salterns Way cycle route along farm tracks towards West Itchenor. From here I took the foot-ferry, which also takes bikes, across the harbour to Bosham (pronounced Bozz’m). The small ferry runs in summer only, and I was the sole passenger on a brief voyage that deposited me on an empty beach, from where it was a short
but dramatic ride into Bosham.

Rounding the corner into Bosham’s wide, curving, shallow harbour, I immediately regretted dallying at East Head. The tide was coming in, and I could see that this was a particularly high one. Twice a day, the tide laps the walls of the little cottages that line Bosham’s shore, and immediately ahead of me the road leading to the village was already under almost a foot of water. I was faced with the choice of turning back and finding another route or having a go at riding on water. I took a fast run up, but at the deepest point my wheels slowed to a halt and I had no choice but to put my feet down, instantly filling my shoes with seawater.

Cursing my luck I rode into the village and found the pub, where I emptied the water out of my shoes and left them drying by the log fire while I sat out on the terrace overlooking the harbour, watching the tide rise even higher. Maybe I was in good company: according to locals, it was here that King Canute (or Cnut) theatrically demonstrated that the power of earthly kings is ‘empty and worthless’ compared with the power of God by commanding the tide to turn back.The tale may be apocryphal, and some set it in Southampton or Westminster instead. Bosham has other claims to fame: its church is featured in the Bayeux Tapestry, with King Harold praying under the stone chancel arch before setting sail for Normandy in 1064. Harold’s prayers presumably went unanswered, because he was captured by William, Duke of Normandy, who then seized the English throne two years later at the Battle of Hastings. The magnificent arch depicted in the tapestry remains the centrepiece of the church nearly 1,000 years later, and debate still rages over whether Harold is buried here rather than in Waltham Abbey as is often reported.

From Bosham I took farm lanes through fields, avoiding the much quicker but busy A259; despite attempts at a cycle path, this is not a relaxing ride. I couldn’t resist stopping in Fishbourne at Barreg Cycles, a brilliantly eccentric shop with a yard full of old machines, overseen by a talking parrot. From there I followed National Cycle Route 2 along a quiet back road, past Fishbourne Roman Palace (£), the biggest Roman home in Britain, into Chichester. What began as a simple trip to the seaside had been an all-day adventure. I could still feel the sea air in my lungs – and the sea water in my shoes – as I boarded the train home.

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The Crab and Lobster
Mill Lane, Sidlesham PO20 7NB (01243 641233)
Foodie inn overlooking Pagham Harbour, with plush rooms for overnight stays.

Splits Bakery
8–9 The Parade, East Wittering PO20 8BN (01243 672309)
Traditional bakery, with tables, serving sandwiches.

11 The Parade, East Wittering PO20 8BN (01243 672254)
Family-run tea shop.

Drift-In Surf Cafe
11 Shore Road, East Wittering PO20 8DY (01243 672292)
Bondi Beach comes to West Sussex in the form of a fun surfer’s cafe.

The Landing
Pound Road, West Wittering PO20 8AJ (01243 513757)
Coffee shop and deli serving sandwiches.

The Ship Inn
The Street, Itchenor PO20 7AH (01243 512284)
Well-placed pub when waiting for the ferry to Bosham.

Anchor Bleu
High Street, Bosham PO18 8LS (01243 573956)
Cosy harbourside pub, with the back door reinforced against high tides.

Barreg Cycles
Meadowside, Main Road, Fishbourne PO18 8AN (01243 786104)
Bike Shop

Coastal Cycles
46a Pier Road, Littlehampton BN17 5LW (01903 730089)
Bike Hire. Also offers a delivery and collection service.

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