Days out in West Sussex
West Sussex is a county full of activities, attractions, and plenty to discover. With its three major towns of Crawley, Horsham, and Worthing, together with its county town and only city of Chichester, West Sussex offers some of the best in English culture, history, and heritage.
Starting with a visit to Chichester, there are some ‘must-see’ things to do. After a walk around the compact city centre, checking out its vibrant mix of independent boutiques, shops, and coffee shops, be sure to take the 1.5-mile circular walk around the historic city walls. And don’t miss the chance to explore over 900 years of history and architecture in the magnificent Chichester Cathedral.
Just outside the city centre, the Fishbourne Roman Palace is the largest Roman home in Britain – don’t miss the villa floor with the largest collection of mosaics in the UK, alongside building remains and the once formal gardens. There’s also the Tangmere Military Aviation Museum, which has a magnificent collection of planes from over 70 years of service.
More Roman history can be seen at Bignor Roman Villa – an open-air museum with a fully-restored villa including original artefacts and mosaics set in beautiful countryside. A few miles down the road, take a visit to the 900-year-old Arundel Castle where you can explore its gripping history inside and its magnificent gardens and views overlooking the surrounding countryside.
Further afield, Southern Pursuits on the outskirts of Crawley offers the ultimate in outdoor, adrenaline-fuelled, and fun activities for adults. Take your pick from axe throwing, quad biking, archery, off-road karting, and more. Not far away in Tilgate Park, the Go Ape! centre lets you have your own treetop adventure with zip lines, high ropes, and segway routes.
For more traditional exercise, take one of the many walking or cycling trails through Devil’s Dyke, near Shoreham-by-Sea – a stunning, natural v-shaped valley that’s 100m deep in the South Downs Way. Or for something a little more bracing, take a trip to the beach to visit all 296m of the historic Worthing Pier.
Topography, geology, and climate
As a predominantly rural county, West Sussex is largely made up of the South Downs National Park. But its long coastline and Jurassic and Cretaceous bedrock mean it features a diverse mix of land qualities and soil types.
The top of the county, from Crawley to the foot of the South Downs, has mildly acidic, base-rich clay and loam soils. There are also large pockets of both highly and mild acidic sand and loam soils in the west, and loam and clay soils in the east. Towards the coast, shallow loam, lime-rich soils run west to east over the chalk and limestone beneath, while the coastline consists of slightly acid, loam soils.
The West Sussex weather is milder overall, much like neighbouring southern counties. With warmer temperatures near the coast during the winter averaging around 3ºC (37ºF), Summer temperatures peak at an average of 20ºC (68ºF). Annual rainfall varies between coastal and inland locations, but the long term average is around 785mm (30”) across the county.
West Sussex’s parks and gardens
To complement the beautiful rolling landscape that covers most of West Sussex, there are plenty of notable gardens to explore and enjoy as well. With a blend of formal and informal styles both gardeners and horticulturalists will relish, they also offer a relaxed, family day out for everyone.
- West Sussex North and West
Just south-east of Horsham, Leonardslee Lakes and Gardens is a truly spectacular sight. Set in 240-acres of woodland, the Grade I listed garden reflects the best of every season. From amazing bursts of colour from the rhododendron, azaleas, magnolias, and camellias, to the ornamental rock garden, and walks in the parkland, lawns, and forests. Look out for the deer and wallabies that live there too.
National Trust property, Nymans, in Handcross near Crawley has a medieval-styled, partly ruined, house, together with over 30-acres of gardens that include the Wall Garden with significant and exotic plant collections from around the world. The main estate and surrounding gardens are also an elegant blend of formal and informal sections with flower meadows, wild areas, and woodland.
18th-century Petworth House in the heart of the South Downs is perhaps most famous for its expansive 700-acres of parkland. Designed and landscaped by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, the wider estate includes a serpentine lake, and oak, horse chestnut, larch, and lime trees. There’s also a series of formal gardens including the Cloister garden with stunning Japanese wisteria, and magnificent Magnolia garden with surrounding Yew hedges.
The beautifully restored West Dean Gardens near Chichester is another ‘must-see’ garden. Featuring Victorian glasshouses with collections of exotic plants and fruits, a walled kitchen garden, spring gardens, and its own arboretum, there’s plenty of year-round interest on display. Don’t miss the impressive 300ft Edwardian pergola designed by Howard Peto which boasts magnolia, clematis, honeysuckle, and roses.
- West Sussex South and East
On the east border, Borde Hill Gardens, near Haywards Heath, is a heritage garden set in 200-acres of parkland. These formal garden ‘rooms’, including the Azalea ring and Italian garden, come together to provide beautiful surroundings to the Tudor mansion. Covering 17-acres, the gardens provide amazing seasonal colour, including rhododendrons, camellias, and magnolias that have thrived here for over 100 years.
Also near Haywards Heath is Wakehurst, a wild botanic garden of over 500-acres. Part of the Kew Gardens group, Wakehurst features a diverse range of tree and plant collections from around the world across ornamental gardens, woodland, pinetums, wetlands – and its own 150-acre nature reserve teeming with local plants and wildlife – and the huge Millenium seed bank.
The Sussex Prairie Garden near Henfield is 8-acres of beautiful herbaceous perennials, surrounded by mature oaks and stunning views. Providing layers of texture and tonal colour throughout the year, you’ll see a range of ornamental grasses alongside thalictrum, persicaria, kniphofia and many more, all planted in a naturalistic style.
Highdown Gardens near Goring-by-Sea is an internationally-renowned chalk garden and a real hidden gem. With over 100 years of history, there’s plenty to explore including paths lined with cherry trees, the magnificent tree and shrub garden, rose garden, and herbaceous garden. Depending on the season, you’ll also see wonderful displays of crocus, daffodils, hellebores, peonies, Japanese anemone, and crinum.