The Chichester Harbour AONB, a slice of Sussex where nature, beauty and history come together

Rosie Paterson takes in the all-too-often overlooked Chichester Harbour.

In an article published in Country Life in 1956, N. M. Woodall described Chichester Harbour as ‘one of the least appreciated corners of West Sussex’. The writer’s consternation was a moment of extraordinary foreshadowing: less than a decade later, in 1964, the 18,500-acre site was designated an AONB, and, although development has, thankfully, been restricted, visitors and sailors have been aplenty ever since.

However, the history of these narrow tidal inlets, saltmarshes and mudflats — there are at least nine different habitats that make up the flat landscape, at odds with the rolling South Downs immediately to the north — stretch back even further. There is evidence of human activity in the prehistoric period, but the everyday historian normally starts with the arrival of the Romans.

Tradition dictates that they landed on a beach still referred to as Roman Landing Place, under Claudius’s general Vespasian. The mud was so deep that many of their elephants were bogged down, but the soldiers persevered, undeterred. A little way inland, they built Fishbourne Palace, once the largest Roman domestic building north of the Alps.

It was properly excavated for the first time in the 1960s, and the visible remnants and reconstructed gardens remain popular today. And while the palace faces serious financial difficulties due to coronavirus, a campaign to raise the money needed to save this and other sites is off to a good start.

The harbour, Bosham. ©Getty Images

In Fishbourne itself, weeping willows line the banks of Chichester Channel and, in the town’s church, you can still make out the marks of pilgrims on their way to the shrine of St Richard of Chichester. Neighbouring Bosham, Itchenor and Dell Quay are equally idyllic — the latter dispatched two ships to fight the Spanish Armada. It wasn’t the areas only role in a conflict: during the Second World War, the harbour used simulated urban lighting to distract enemy bombers from nearby Portsmouth.

Visitors can board a restored Victorian oyster boat to see close at hand the area’s outstanding wildlife, including some 55,000 native and migratory birds, from the distinctive sounding whimbrel to four species of tern, plus 40 harbour seals and a number of rare flora species.

There are also pockets of ancient oak woodland that frame the harbour, but the trees are under threat from rising sea levels and costal erosion; 41% of the AONB is below mean high-water spring tides and can only be seen at low water Chichester Harbour.