From proud manor houses in wooded countryside to ancient earthworks rooted in the undulating chalk hills of the South Downs, West Sussex has a range of historic sites to explore.
West Sussex harbours some of best-preserved Roman mosaics in the country at Bignor and Fishbourne, while the Ouse Valley Viaduct and Cowdray House indicate histories of ingenuity and strife.
Here are 10 of the best historic sites in West Sussex.
Originally built in the 11th century, Arundel Castle is the historic home of the Dukes of Norfolk. The first structure on the Arundel Castle site was built in the 11th century by the Normans. During the English Civil War, Arundel Castle was besieged twice – first by the Royalists who successfully captured the site and then by the Parliamentarians, in a siege lasting 18 days.
Parliament ordered the slighting of the castle after the war, which involved deliberately damaging it to reduce its value as a military stronghold. Today Arundel Castle remains a vast complex, with many original features still intact.
Cissbury Ring is an Iron Age hillfort in the south of England, enclosing 26 hectares of chalky landscape on the West Sussex’s South Downs. It was first constructed around 4000 BC. From various positions on Cissbury Ring, there are excellent views of the surrounding landscape. To the north lies the historic woodland of the Weald. To the south, 80 miles of Sussex coastline.
Cissbury Ring is easily accessible to walkers along the South Downs Way, while the most convenient parking is located in Findon, near Worthing. The multi-day walk along the South Downs is also one of History Hit’s recommended Historical Hikes in England.
Bignor Roman Villa is a large Roman villa site on the Bignor estate. Situated in West Sussex, the Villa complex hosts the remains of a 3rd century ancient Roman home, and some of the best-preserved Roman mosaics in the country.
The Villa has been owned by the Tupper family since 1811, when George Tupper accidentally stumbled upon Roman remains while he was ploughing. The site’s various rooms and mosaics have been beautifully preserved, alongside an in-house museum where visitors can view more of the artefacts that have been uncovered at the site.
Known locally as Balcombe Viaduct, the Ouse Valley Viaduct is a landmark in Sussex, southern England, and a functioning bridge which for over a century and a half has carried the London-Brighton Railway Line over the River Ouse.
The viaduct was opened on 12 July 1841 and was principally designed by John Urpeth Rastrick as well as David Mocatta, who also designed Brighton Railway Station. It’s around 450 metres long and composed of distinctive semi-circular arches and arched vaulting which generate an impressive visual effect when seen from below.
Fishbourne Roman Palace is the largest Roman residential site in Britain and provides a fascinating insight into Roman Britain. Built in 75 AD on the site of a Roman supply compound, the Place appeared soon after the Roman conquest of Britain.
Evidence suggests that in the late 3rd century Fishbourne was destroyed by a fire, leaving only the palace walls standing. Left beyond repair, it appears the site was never re-built beyond that date, with its remains lying lost and forgotten until their discovery in the 1960s.
There are many extremely well-preserved mosaics in Fishbourne Roman Palace, including the famous ‘Cupid on a Dolphin’ mosaic.
Racton Monument is a folly built on a hill in Racton, West Sussex, south of Lordington House near Funtington. It has views over Chichester Harbour and to the Isle of Wight.
Racton Monument was commissioned by the 2nd Earl of Halifax, designed either as a summerhouse or to enable him to see his ships at dock at Emsworth harbour on the Solent, 3 miles away.
The monument remains in a state of ruin and in 2020 the South Downs National Park Authority refused an application to turn it into a dwelling. It has, however, reportedly hosted illegal raves and spectral apparitions.
Cowdray House was a fortified Tudor manor house devastated by fire in the late 18th century. The 1st Viscount Cowdray commissioned a restoration project between 1909 and 1914, and today the ruins are Grade I listed due to their historical importance and beauty.
Henry VIII is known to have visited Cowdray House in 1538, 1539 and 1545, and Queen Elizabeth I visited Cowdray in 1591. The house was garrisoned by Parliamentary forces during the English Civil War.
The Trundle is an ancient hillfort in West Sussex which rewards visitors with a superb perspective of the coast as well as 360-degree views over the South Downs.
The first indication of people using the Trundle is between 4400 and 4200 BC, when the landscape of the Weald and South Downs was settled by people transitioning from seasonal hunting and gathering towards a more intensive working of the land.
Of the ancient settlements and historic sites embraced by the chalky swells of the Sussex Downs, the Trundle offers some of the most impressive views. From the top of the Trundle, visitors can gaze south towards Chichester harbour where it opens into the Solent, and beyond to the Isle of Wight.
9. Petworth House and Park
Petworth House is a late 17th-century Grade I listed country house located in West Sussex. The manor house was for centuries a home of the Percy family, Earls of Northumberland. Petworth is famous for its extensive art collection which includes works by Van Dyck, Turner and Gainsborough.
Petworth is also known for its deer park, landscaped by gardener and architect Capability Brown in the 18th century. Petworth House and Park is open seven days a week.
10. Chichester Cathedral
Chichester Cathedral was founded as a cathedral in 1075 and embraces fine architecture in both Norman and Gothic styles. It replaced the cathedral built by St Wilfrid in Selsey in 681. It contains carved reliefs from the 12th century and the tomb shared by Richard FitzAlan, 10th Earl of Arundel, and his wife Eleanor of Lancaster. It also features tapestries by John Piper and a stained-glass window by Marc Chagall.
The cathedral is located at the centre of the historic city of Chichester, beside the medieval town of Cross and close to the Novium Museum. Its spire is visible from the Trundle hillfort to the north, and it is the only medieval English cathedral which can be seen from the sea.