As we enter another week of lockdown, I am yearning for new experiences far away from the sights and sounds of my current home. I can only ponder over my movements weeks ago when travelling was an easy venture. Fortunately, I embarked on a long trip southwards to West Sussex just before the nationwide lockdown to visit my friend Alice, a fellow buildings enthusiast and passionate rambler. My trip was flavoured with the county’s very best offerings: from timber framed shopping arcades to views of the glorious South Downs and their picturesque market towns. One of the highlights from the trip was my morning in Worthing, a blissful seaside resort town west of Brighton. Originating as a small fishing town, Worthing grew, following a series of royal visits in the late eighteenth century, into a land of leisure, recreation, and convalescence. The town continued to thrive into the twentieth century, absorbing many surrounding villages and is now home to Britain’s oldest population enjoying retired life on sea. From the comfort of your own homes, I hope to guide you around the quirks, crannies and interesting details this small but quirky town has to offer, and hope that you will plan a trip in the future!
Rather than starting my tour with a cinematic approach onto a palm-lined sea front, the first leg of our journey is through the winding belt of Worthing’s interwar suburban housing. The semis, cul-de-sacs and regiments of bay windows are a familiar site to many of us, spreading beyond peripheries of most towns and cities. We habitually give these houses little attention and their architectural value has long been misunderstood by homeowners and architectural enthusiasts alike. While the character of interwar housing can seem clone-like and perhaps even mass-produced, I can’t help but think as we curve around the estate in Alice’s car that these buildings have such a pleasing rhythm with their repeated shapes, soft palette, and child-drawn proportions. Worthing’s suburban houses are particularly charming and bear resemblance to Hansel and Gretel houses. The colour schemes of oranges and whites, with textures from bricks and tiles bring to mind iced biscuits. I particularly adore the Battenberg-style brick wall with its fairy-tale castellations enclosing the front gardens at Orchard Avenue. In these houses, a lot of emphasis is placed on large doorways emerging at the end of garden paths that seem reach out and invite you inside. The bay windows of the Worthing houses seem grow out of the brickwork surrounds, and I imagine sitting inside and watching the light stream into the room as the windows bridge the gap between the home and the outside world. The panels of stained glass depicting sunbursts, flowers, and diamonds are also an exquisite Art Deco feature of many houses we see, capturing the colourful spirit of an innovative decade.
The historicist features of Worthing’s suburban houses allude to the traditions and crafts of historic buildings within the county of West Sussex. The houses play with local medievalisms – 21 Selden Road grabs my attention, with its wooden squares on the rendered walls creating mock-timber framing. The fervent orange brick courses across the house and on the head of the porch remind me of medieval hung tiles, a tradition of medieval Sussex to protect dwellings from weather. The knapped flits of garden walls also have a quality of ancientness, their fossilised forms surrounding the house like archaeological remains. The naivety, playfulness, and vernacular style of these suburban houses are a pleasure to see!
As we walk onwards, I can tell we are a short distance from the sea front; I can smell its saltiness and hear the hooting of seagulls. We stumble down a rather unassuming road where a fascinating non-conformist church can be seen: the former Bedford Row Methodist chapel built in 1839, which is now a pub function room. Its epically proportioned frontier is strangely flat but has austerity and grandeur. It is a shame that it faces such a sad looking car park. While the large pediment, entablature and rusticated plinth are classically derived, the sloping windows in the pylon form are handpicked from Ancient Egyptian temple architecture. It is fascinating that such an experimental Oriental style would be used for a Christian place of worship. The features perhaps follow the fashion for Oriental architecture at sea side resorts in a picturesque context and for exotic appeal, as seen nearby at The Royal Pavilion in Brighton, finished sixteen years earlier. Whilst the chapel is rather restrained and subtle in its use of Egyptian motif compared to other architectural experiments of the time, it remains a fascinating relic to Regency Egyptomania!
At the end of Bedford Row we reach the sea front. It is breezy and the silvery shade of the sky is starting to promise a shower. However, it is still not believably a February morning as light rays bursts through the grey veneer and illuminate the row of coastal buildings and briny sea meandering below. The promenade is a postcard perfect scene and delivers the usual seaside furnishings: decorated street lamps, covered viewing platforms, and iron benches. A large octagonal dome reigns over the blocks of Victorian terraces. We have arrived at The Dome cinema (1910), a monument to Edwardian leisure and one of the earliest surviving cinemas in the country. I stare at it from across the road. It is a hard building to pin down. I love how the dome appears to grow upwards, the sliced windows between the upper and lower building are on the verge of expanding. The simple geometry of the dome and the windows around the drum resemble the architecture of Renaissance Italy, the tiny balustrade and white stuccoed dressing capturing the essence of a Mediterranean vernacular. Standing in the entrance of the cinema, the simple Italian elegance of this building vanishes and it becomes a place of Edwardian luxury. We stand on a terrazzo floor in a space lined with bottle-green tiles, plaster ceiling, and dark wooden panelling. Lead lined stained glass panels illuminate the foyer with sumptuous ruby coloured lettering. Take a look at this rare survival of a ticket box -I love the way it umbrellas at the ceiling opening like a flower and how the frame of the fan windows are reflected on the glass. I will have to leave this dreamy interior now. As we turn to go, Alice notices a sign with fun facts about The Dome: apparently Shrek 2 was the first film to premier after the cinema was refurbished from a bingo-hall in the 2000s – brilliant!
We fondly leave The Dome and head towards the sea for an obligatory pier walk. Worthing pier is not the conventional Victoriana cast iron structure I had expected. Like many great piers, Worthing’s simple deck pier burnt down in 1933. Today, a neo-Baroque arcade leads to an extremely sleek streamline modern pavilion. The wind is ferocious now and I think we can confirm rain or storminess of some sort may be brewing. As we move down the pier, braving its stormy micro-climate, I feel as though I could be on the deck of an ocean liner. The amusement building ahead is an amalgamation of flat and curved shapes capturing the essence of speed and movement at the heart of the streamline modern style. Even the clock tower is triangulated as if to brace from the winds on an open sea. The small rounded structure at the end of the pier is my favourite. The two-storey curved structure is lined with original crittall windows for panoramic ocean views and, at the head of the pier, it resembles a captain’s office as if the pier itself is about to set sail, (and it may have done if the weather was any windier)!
On our way to the town centre we pass by the royal arcade, a wonderful relic of 1920s commercialism constructed with vast quantities of faience tiles. Stepping into the arcade is like an optical illusion, with repeated shop units meandering around the bends of the arcade, and a rather spine-like roof of glass and faience panels giving the illusion of infinite shops ahead. As a fan of all things arcade, I could go on… but it is great to see another well preserved historic arcade, and one filled with small businesses, well-kept fabric, and beautiful letting at each end!
We emerge onto a main shopping square and ahead is a wavy set of Regency terraces (1839) beside the Liverpool Garden Square. These magnificent six-story town houses ripple alongside the road and have all the flavour of the Regency period. Their wild cylindrical bays are far more dissolute and overindulgent than the signature John Nash style terrace seen in London. The terraces have all the usual architectural fripperies of elegant iron balconies, panelled doors and tiled paths. As they were built 1839, I would argue they mark the dawn of the Victorian architectural eccentricities that would follow. Whilst trying to imagine the terraces during a glittering social scene at Worthing in the early nineteenth century, I am immediately struck by what they are facing…and more importantly what is facing them.
I meet the eyes of four bronze heads of the Desert Quartet, one of Elizabeth Frink’s sculptural civic masterpieces from 1989. The giant heads surmount four giant bronze plinths. They are considerably more sombre than Frink’s goggled heads (France, 1967-70) which disappear behind brash gold glasses. For me, they produce the sublime aura I associate with some forms ancient sculpture, such as the blocky and colossal nature of Egyptian funerary sculpture. As a set, the four heads are less confrontational, as they are all looking in a very slightly different direction from one another. They also appear fragile, their truncated necks look as if they could slip from the plinths at any moment. Frink certainly captures the synthesis of fragility and the power of mankind here, a theme that runs through much of her sculptural repertoire. The sculptures stand on the portico of the Montague shopping complex which opened in the mid-1980s. The relationship between the regency terraces, Worthing’s strange post-modern shopping centre, and the four bronze heads is one I am still pondering, but have you seen this Italianate motif before? The Dome is prolific in Worthing!
The time is ticking and we will soon have to leave the sea and stately charm of this small town for the next part of my Sussex grand tour (an afternoon at Petworth House)! Before hitting the road, we return to the Vintage themed tea room in the Dome for loose leaf teas and a slab of carrot cake to share. Whilst driving besides the sea, the coastal landscape changes into swathes of woodland and grassy slopes. It was such a wonderful morning and there is no doubt unfinished rambling here for post-lockdown days!