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The thrill of Chichester – home to a Roman palace greater than the Queen’s London residence

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Britain at its best: Contained in the exquisite ancient city of Chichester, home to a ‘mini Tate’ art gallery, eye-catching cathedral and a Roman palace greater than the Queen’s London residence

  • Rebecca Ford ventured to Chichester to explore town and surrounding area
  • The Pallant House Gallery is home to a ‘dazzling array of recent British art’ 
  • Meanwhile, the cathedral features ‘medieval carvings and grandiose tombs’

As we squelch across a soggy field on the outskirts of Chichester, Rob Symmons bends down and plucks something from the soil, like a prospector spotting a gold nugget.

‘Yes,’ he nods. ‘It’s a part of a Roman roof tile.’ He brushes off a few of the mud and hands it to me. ‘It was probably made locally.’

History lies deep on this corner of West Sussex. Rob is the curator of Fishbourne Roman Palace, an ancient constructing which itself lay long buried beneath the soil.

Even though it’s a city, Rebecca Ford says Chichester ‘looks like a market town’

In-built the first century AD, it stood for some 200 years until it was abandoned after a hearth and was rediscovered only in 1960, when a workman was digging a trench for a recent water important.

Excavations progressively revealed the stays of a lavish constructing, with mosaic floors, underfloor heating, a shower house and formal gardens. It was larger than Buckingham Palace and clearly designed to impress.

Fishbourne sits near the tip of one among Chichester harbour’s tidal inlets. This vast natural harbour, with its creeks and saltmarshes, covers greater than 9,000 acres and sits a ways to the south-west of town.

A view of Chichester's 16th-century market cross, with the cathedral behind

A view of Chichester’s Sixteenth-century market cross, with the cathedral behind

At Pallant House Gallery, an elegant Queen Anne town house, visitors will find a 'dazzling array of modern British art'

At Pallant House Gallery, a sublime Queen Anne town house, visitors will discover a ‘dazzling array of recent British art’

Work of art: Chichester Cathedral is of Norman construction, with 'medieval carvings and grandiose tombs'

Murals: Chichester Cathedral is of Norman construction, with ‘medieval carvings and grandiose tombs’

A stained-glass window by modernist artist Marc Chagall in Chichester cathedral

A stained-glass window by modernist artist Marc Chagall in Chichester cathedral

Today it’s noted for its wealthy bird life, a spot where egrets slip silently through the reeds and curlews call from oozy mudflats — but in 43 AD it was a protected port for invading Roman forces. The conquerors installed Togidubnus, a supportive tribal ruler, as regional governor. He ensured there was no local resistance, and was rewarded with this palace.

Chichester, a few miles to the east, has similarly ancient origins — the Romans named it Noviomagus Reginorum ‘Latest Market of the Proud People’ — but this is not a city that has felt restrained by history. Removed from it.

Perhaps its most famous landmark is the Festival Theatre, just outside the old city partitions. This modernist constructing celebrates its sixtieth anniversary this 12 months.

Its stage breathed recent life into British theatre, and set the scene for Chichester to turn into a house for the contemporary arts. At Pallant House Gallery, a sublime Queen Anne town house, I find a blinding array of recent British art. 

Built for a wealthy wine merchant who reputedly liked to pop onto the roof terrace to observe for distant ships bearing his cargo, the gallery looks like a mini Tate, but calmer and fewer crowded. 

Its core collection was bequeathed by an art buff — Walter Hussey, dean of Chichester Cathedral from 1955-1977.

Then I wander over to the cathedral and discover that it, just like the city itself, is filled with eye-catching juxtapositions. It’s of Norman construction, with medieval carvings and grandiose tombs.

But there’s also a stained-glass window by modernist artist Marc Chagall, which blazes crimson against the soft grey stone.

Even though it’s a city, Chichester looks like a market town. There is a Sixteenth-century market cross, a jumble of medieval and Georgian architecture, but its Roman heritage refuses to be forgotten.

Within the Novium Museum, I find the stays of a public bath-house. Built around 69 AD, it was discovered within the Seventies when the authorities were attempting to construct a multi-storey automotive park.

TRAVEL FACTS 

Fishbourne Roman Palace costs £12 for adults (sussexpast.co.uk). Chichester Festival Theatre (cft.org.uk). Chichester Cathedral is open Mon-Sat 9am-5pm; Sun noon-2pm. Chichester Harbour Hotel & Spa has double rooms from £127 (harbourhotels.co.uk). 

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