The ultimate guide to Sussex

Kerry Spencer 27 May 2022

Sussex offers swathes of bucolic countryside, charming seaside towns and some of the best vineyards in the UK. Plan your Sussex getaway with our ultimate guide

Where to stay in Sussex

The Star

Rest your head at The Star, a dog-friendly, 15th-century abode in the charming village of Alfriston, on the edge of South Downs National Park. The brainchild of mother and daughter team Olga and Alex Polizzi (Olga’s father Charles Forte owned the Forte hotel empire), the Grade II-listed hotel reopened in 2021 following a sparkling head-to-toe renovation.

Bedrooms are beautifully styled with a mix of contemporary furniture and locally-sourced antiques, finished with English wallpapers and fabrics by Richard Smith. With a pared-back Elizabethan design, the restaurant—led by Tim Kensett, formerly of The River Café—offers a clever feast of Sussex’s finest produce at lunch and dinner.

Enjoy local beers by an open fire and oak beams at The Inn, the hotel’s bar. There’s a stylish library for leisurely reading and a sun-dappled internal courtyard that’s perfect for afternoon nibbles or a pre-dinner drink.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Plump for a junior suite, with its own private terrace, or The Heritage Suite in the oldest part of the hotel, featuring beautiful oriel windows looking out over the High Street and a freestanding bath and a fireplace. 

What to explore in Sussex

Monk’s House

Put your National Trust membership to good use with a visit to Virginia and husband Leonard Woolf's 16th-century Sussex sanctuary, Monk’s House. Purchased by the couple in 1919, Virginia wrote many of her most celebrated works at the house, including the essay, A Room of One's Own. The couple also hosted many of their famous Bloomsbury set soirees at the house. 

Admire the weatherboarded cottage’s beautiful antiques, seemingly untouched since 1969, when Leonard died. Wander the garden’s extravagant flower and vegetable patches with beautiful pops of seasonal colours. There’s Virginia’s writing lodge, an orchard, extensive lawns and a pond to discover.

Beachy Head

Beachy Head

Venture to Beachy Head and you’ll be greeted by one of the most iconic coastal stretches in all of Britain. Hulking chalky cliffs with their razor-sharp edges dart in and out of the glistening Channel, punctuated by the stripey Victorian lighthouse.

Enjoy a breezy walk along the designated coastal path, which offers superb views of Eastbourne and the English Channel from 530 feet above the water. Spring through autumn are the best times to visit. Look out for the Beachy Head Marathon, which takes place every October. There’s a pay and display car park, a pub, toilet facilities and, during summer, the welcome sight of an ice-cream van. 

The Long Man of Wilmington

On the grassy chalkland of Windover Hill—six miles north-northwest of Eastbourne—a 235-foot figure known as the Long Man has bewitched passing seaside-goers and ramblers for centuries. Archaeological researchers believe The Long Man of Wilmington actually dates to around the 16th century. Stories have swirled about who the man is and why the outline was created, though no one quite knows for sure. 

If you’re feeling active, hike from The Long Man of Wilmington to East Sussex’s other chalk-carved figure, the Litlington White Horse. The route is four miles, cutting through the village of Litlington in the picturesque Cuckmere Valley. Enjoy a tea break at Litlington Tea Gardens before crossing Cuckmere River and onto the Litlington White Horse. 

Charleston

The gloriously raffish home and gardens of Vanessa Bell (Virginia Woolf’s sister) and Duncan Grant, Charleston has long been a destination that celebrates artistic talents. The painters Vanessa and Duncan would gather the Bloomsbury Group at Charleston to discuss the arts, literature and society during the first half of the 20th century. 

The house is a visual feast of Vanessa and Duncan’s art and ideas, with every inch of the house coated in their work. Admire the pair’s brushstrokes in works displayed around the property, including a portrait of Lytton Strachey by Grant and The Pond at Charleston by Bell. Take a peek inside Bell’s attic studio, usually off-limits to visitors, to explore the Langlands & Bell: Ideas of Utopia installation.

Outside, stroll the walled garden’s blushing flower beds. The garden, overlooked by Bell’s attic studio, was designed to be painted, and that’s exactly what happens at regular alfresco workshops led by Sussex-based artist Julian Le Bas. Entry to Charleston is by timed ticket and pre-booking is essential.

Lewes 

This handsome Sussex town is just the right size to explore in a day, though do consider staying overnight to make good use of the local restaurants, pubs and wine bars. Start by picking up supplies at Flint Owl Bakery, filled with portly loaves of sourdough and deliciously sweet cakes and pastries, on Lewes’ High Street. 

Lewes is one of the best places to shop in Sussex with a delightful mix of independent, antique and high street brands. Stop by Closet & Botts Homestore on the High Street for everything from dinner candles to linen dresses. Lewes Flea Market on Market Street is a must-visit for passed-down treasures. Cross the River Ouse to browse May's Antiques and Cliffe Gallery Antiques on Cliffe High Street. Pick up a gift at the Fifteenth Century Bookshop, specialising in rare and collectible children’s books, housed in a beamed-Tudor building on the High Street. 

"Do consider staying overnight to make good use of the local restaurants, pubs and wine bars"

If you’re visiting during summer, pack your bathers for a visit to Pells Pool, the oldest known freshwater lido in the UK. You’ll need to pre-book a session. On a rainy day, take in an indie film at Depot, an arthouse cinema and cafe next to Lewes train station. Hungry for some local history? Muse over Anne of Cleves House—the home of Henry VIII's fourth wife—with its higgledy-piggledy patchwork of Tudor architecture. 

The seaside

From Camber Sands’ rolling dunes and the historic town of Rye to nostalgic seaside fun in Eastbourne, Hastings, Brighton and Bognor Regis, a day on the coast is a mood-lifting and soul-restoring experience. 

Camber Sands

A mix of sand and pebble beaches line this section of the southeast’s waterfront, along with period promenades, arcades and plenty of places to eat and drink. In Eastbourne, wander to the edge of the dazzling Victoria pleasure pier and snag a ‘99 as you gaze out over the Channel. 

Head for the modern galleries, vegan cafes and independent stores of Brighton. Brighton Palace Pier has a family-friendly amusement park and plenty of options to sit down with vinegar-soaked fish and chips. For one of the best beaches in the southeast, spend a few hours with your soles firmly tucked into the sand of West Wittering Beach near Chichester. Just remember to pre-book beach parking with West Wittering Beach Car Park if you’re driving. 

Don’t Miss Nathan Coley's Tentative Words Change Everything exhibition

Take in Nathan Coley’s outdoor exhibition, Tentative Words Change Everything, an evocative six-piece art trail around Lewes District. 

The Charleston Trust has commissioned a brand-new piece, I Don’t Have Another Land, illuminated by light bulbs in the grounds. The other pieces are displayed at St Mary’s Church, Glynde; Junction Road Car Park, Eastbourne; Rathfinny Estate, Alfriston; Brack Mount, Lewes and West Beach Promenade, Newhaven, through 29 August, 2022. 

Where to eat in Sussex 

Tasting Room Restaurant at Rathfinny Estate, Alfriston

Open for lunch and dinner from Wednesday to Sunday, the Tasting Room Restaurant combines breathtaking South Downs views with exquisite seasonal fare. Head chef Chris Bailey has crafted an uncomplicated menu that focuses on the ingredients of the given season, with some luxury touches. 

Feast upon tasty hasselback Jersey Royals with caviar; ox heart tomato stuffed with English cheese and turbot roasted on the bone, served with brown butter and mussel sauce. Opt for the wine pairing menu to sample a selection of Rathfinny’s glorious wines.  

Gravetye Manor, East Grinstead

Sussex’s go-to destination for a Michelin-starred menu is Gravetye Manor’s Dining Room, just 27 miles from central London in East Grinstead. This upmarket restaurant has its own walled kitchen garden, where the chefs pick some of the region’s very best organic vegetables, fruits and herbs. 

"If you’re a fan of cheese, you’ll want to save room for a round of artisan Sussex cheeses"

The Dining Room’s menu is seriously indulgent. Think plates of plump Orkney scallops with girolle, kohlrabi and elderflower; native lobster, spiced carrot and bisque followed by spring chicken, fresh pea, pickled morel and black truffle. If you’re a fan of cheese, you’ll want to save room for a round of artisan Sussex cheeses. There’s more, with an outstanding bergamot soufflé served with mint ice cream. 

The Cat Inn, East Grinstead

For a casual supper, the 16th-century Cat Inn is the perfect spot. Just down the road from Gravetye Manor, the dog-friendly Cat Inn is refreshingly simple, all low-timber beams adorned with old tankards. An all-season pub, sit by the inglenook fireplace over a pint of local ale in winter. In summer there’s an outdoor terrace where you can sip on a gin and tonic, or whatever takes your fancy.

Book for Sunday lunch when Orchard Farm pork belly and chicken with a caramelised bread sauce with all the trimmings are among the options. Vegan and vegetarian options are available, too. 

Where to drink in Sussex

Vineyard in Sussex

Imbibing in Sussex is best done at the two counties’ glut of leafy vineyards. Hidden Spring, Rathfinny, Ridgeview, Albourne and Nyetimber estates are just a small selection of our favourite Sussex wineries  to visit and sip on locally-produced wines. 

Southeast England’s chalky soil and mild climate allows winemakers in the region to produce some truly outstanding sparkling and still wines. The vineyards are getting fancy, too, with modern tasting rooms, exhibitions and friendly, guided tours and tastings. 

At Bolney Wine Estate near Haywards Heath, you could follow a tour with a delicious lunch at Eighteen Acre restaurant, overlooking the vineyard. At Rathfinny in Alfriston, you could book a picnic in the vineyard, dine at the gourmet restaurant and stay overnight in the Flint Barns. 

Pick up a bottle or case of your favourite wines at the cellar door. 

Places to relax in Sussex

The Spa at South Lodge

The Spa at South Lodge isn’t just the best spa in Sussex, it’s one of the best in the country. That’s in part due to its three pools—one indoor, one hydrotherapy outdoor and a wild swimming pool. 

This soul-soothing space—all 44,000 square feet of it—has a luxurious thermal suite, treatment rooms, plus the Ridgeview Beauty Bar and Botanica, a Mediterranean-inspired restaurant. There’s a sun deck around the outdoor pools, too, which is a lovely space to bathe on a sun lounger in warmer weather. 

Visit the thermal suite’s infused sauna, marble-lined salt steam, Jasmine herbal steam room and bucket shower and indulge in a luxurious Omorovicza facial or a healing bamboo massage. 

Glyndebourne

In the heart of the Sussex countryside, not far from Lewes, Glyndebourne is an extraordinary opera house that has hosted a fabulous annual summer festival between May and August since 1934. Founded by aristocrat John Christie, if you enjoy the sound of corks popping as much as hearing the overtures and interludes of opera, you’ll love Glyndebourne.

Arrive early and mingle with other guests in the landscaped gardens. Many take their own decadent picnics, unfurling a full feast complete with tables and chairs. If you’re less organised, you could purchase a picnic spread and deck chairs from the venue. Performances feature a 90-minute interval to give you the chance to enjoy more of the scenery and fizz before returning to your velvety seat. Plan to go dressed in a black-tie outfit—Glyndebourne-goers go all-out. 

What to read during your trip

Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, of course. Also look to Snake River Press and the publisher’s off-beat publications, from Sussex Wildlife by David Mortimer to Salacious Sussex by Viv Croot. 

Practical guides Good Food & Drink in Sussex and An Eccentric Tour of Sussex by Peter Bridgewater make for handy travel companions, too. 

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