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Britain at its best: in the beautiful old town of Chichester, home to a ‘mini Tate’ art gallery, a striking cathedral and a Roman palace larger than the Queen’s London residence
- Rebecca Ford ventured to Chichester to explore the city and surrounding area
- The Pallant House Gallery is home to a ‘dazzling array of modern British art’
- Meanwhile, the cathedral has ‘medieval carvings and grandiose tombs’
Squeezing across a swampy field on the outskirts of Chichester, Rob Symmons bends over and plucks something from the ground, like a prospector seeing a gold nugget.
“Yes,” he nods. “It’s part of a Roman roof tile.” He wipes off some of the mud and hands it to me. “It’s probably made locally.”
History runs deep in this corner of West Sussex. Rob is the curator of Fishbourne Roman Palace, an ancient building that was itself long buried underground.
Although it’s a town, Rebecca Ford says Chichester ‘feels like a market town’
Built in the 1st century AD, it stood for about 200 years until it was abandoned after a fire and only rediscovered in 1960, when a workman was digging a trench for a new water pipe.
Excavations gradually revealed the remains of an opulent building, with mosaic floors, underfloor heating, a bathhouse and formal gardens. It was bigger than Buckingham Palace and clearly designed to impress.
Fishbourne is near the tip of one of the inlets in Chichester Harbour. This vast natural harbor, with its creeks and salt marshes, covers over 9,000 hectares and is located some distance southwest of the city.
A view of Chichester’s 16th Century Market Cross, with the Cathedral behind it
Pallant House Gallery, an elegant Queen Anne mansion, visitors will find a ‘dazzling array of modern British art’
Artwork: Chichester Cathedral is of Norman construction, with ‘medieval carvings and grandiose tombs’
A stained glass window by modernist artist Marc Chagall in Chichester Cathedral
Today it is known for its rich birdlife, a place where egrets silently slip through the reeds and call for curlews from marshy mudflats – but in AD 43 it was a safe haven for invading Roman troops. The conquerors installed Togidubnus, a supporting chieftain, as regional governor. He made sure there was no local resistance and was rewarded with this palace.
Chichester, a few miles to the east, has similar ancient origins – the Romans called it Noviomagus Reginorum ‘New Market of the Proud People’ – but this isn’t a city that felt limited by history. Far from.
Perhaps the most famous landmark is the Festival Theatre, just outside the old city walls. This modernist building is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year.
The stage breathed new life into British theater and set the tone for Chichester to become a home for contemporary art. In Pallant House Gallery, an elegant Queen Anne mansion, I find a dazzling array of modern British art.
Built for a wealthy wine merchant who reportedly liked to pop up on the roof terrace to watch distant ships carrying his cargo, the gallery feels like a mini-Tate, but quieter and less crowded.
The core collection was bequeathed by an art lover – Walter Hussey, Dean of Chichester Cathedral from 1955-1977.
Then I wander to the cathedral and find that, like the city itself, it is full of glaring juxtapositions. It is of Norman construction, with medieval carvings and grandiose tombs.
But there is also a stained glass window by modernist artist Marc Chagall, which burns crimson against the soft gray stone.
Although it is a town, Chichester feels like a market town. There is a 16th century market cross, a mishmash of medieval and Georgian architecture, but the Roman heritage is not forgotten.
In the Novium Museum I find the remains of a public bathhouse. Built around AD 69, it was discovered in the 1970s when authorities attempted to build a multi-storey car park.