A closer look at the history of Worthing

Worthing Pier (Photo by Clive Agran)

Worthing Pier (Photo by Clive Agran) - Credit: Archant

Jane Austen was just one famous visitor to Worthing, as Clive Agran discovers

Although it is doubtless a perfectly decent restaurant, you might be surprised to learn that customers come from all over the world to visit the Pizza Express in Worthing.

And it's not because their Vegan Margherita or Fiorentina is any better than you'll find in any other Pizza Express. So what is it about this restaurant in Warwick Street right in the heart of town that's so special? Well, a 29-year-old and then unpublished Jane Austen no less stayed in what was then Stanford Cottage for several months from September 1805. Had takeaway pizzas been available then Ms Austen might have hung on even longer but as things stood she enjoyed bathing in the nearby sea and visiting the library just around the corner. Her final, and sadly unfinished, novel Sanditon is set in a Sussex seaside resort and undoubtedly draws on her time in Worthing.

Far from regretting that such a historic landmark is now serving pizza, my two escorts - Sue Belton and David Clark from the Worthing Society - are delighted that a modern use has been found that secures the building's future. "You can't mothball the town," Sue declares as we set out on the Town Centre Heritage Trail during which, she assures me, we will encounter several other impressive examples of imaginative adaptation of old buildings to modern circumstances.

But before we reach them, David reels off a list of some of Worthing's principal attractions, which include: a seven-mile beach; a five-mile promenade; "probably" the best pier in the UK; 213 listed buildings; a regular spot in the top-20 of the sunshine league; a flat terrain rendering it eminently walkable; the Downs as a backdrop and, rather bizarrely, a sea temperature in July and August that is higher than that around Cape Town! All of which, he claims, goes some way to explaining why it attracts 300,000 visitors a year who stay for at least a night and ten times that number of day trippers.

After the advert comes a bit of history. Originally a fishing and farming hamlet, Worthing took off around the late 18th century when the benefits of sea air and bathing were promoted. A royal visit never does any harm and a six-month sojourn in 1798 by Princess Amelia, the youngest of George III and Queen Charlotte's 15 children, provided a further boost.

We start our saunter by the pier and admire the lengthy promenade, which was a more modest half-mile when it first opened in 1821 but now extends all the way from Sea Lane in Ferring to Brooklands Pleasure Park. The pier is the reigning Pier of the Year, a title it has held twice. Built in 1862, it suffered the fate that befalls so many similar structures and was so severely damaged by fire that it was largely re-built in 1933 with an Art Deco southern pavilion.

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We head east along the seafront and note the striking Dome on the other side of the road. Originally a health centre and entertainment complex created by a Swiss impresario in 1911, it used to be called the Kursaal (cure hall). However, when World War I broke out, Kursaal sounded far too German and so a competition was run to find an alternative name. Four entrants came up with the rather obvious 'Dome' and picked up five shillings each as their share of the £1 prize. Today it is one of the oldest cinemas in the UK.

A little further along is a modern apartment complex named after George Warne, who knocked five houses together at the turn of the last century to create what was then the town's premier hotel. Any A-list celebrity visiting Worthing, such as Dwight D Eisenhower or Emperor Haile Selassie, stayed there. A bit of a character and a huge motor enthusiast, Warne launched the London to Worthing rally in 1902 which attracted hundreds of competitors. In what could be described as the original Grand Theft Auto, Brighton nicked the idea and David is still sore about it. The building burnt down in 1987 and has been replaced by a rather handsome apartment block. Sue approves of it, which is good enough for me.

There are more apartments in what could reasonably claim to be Worthing's most impressive building, Beach House. A magnificent Regency villa built in 1820, it was once the home of Sir Frederick Adair Roe, who was head of London's police force, the Bow Street Runners. Other eminent people lived here including Sir Rober Loder, the Conservative MP for Shoreham. Edward VII was a regular visitor in the early years of the last century and conducted dalliances here with the likes of Lillie Langtry and Lady Randolph Churchill. Sue and David eagerly point out that the building was effectively saved by Pat Baring, a pioneer conservationist and founder of what is now the Worthing Society. She intervened after Worthing Borough Council voted 23 to two in 1978 to demolish it. It was converted into flats in 1982.

A memorial stone on the beach strikes a sombre note and commemorates 11 fishermen who were volunteer lifeboat men and drowned in 1850 while on a rescue mission. Following the tragedy, £120 was raised for a proper self-righting lifeboat.

We head for the centre of town where Kenny Tutt, last year's MasterChef winner and local hero, seeks to capitalise on his celebrity status and undoubted talent at the newly opened Pitch restaurant.

Another man of undoubted talent was the great playwright Harold Pinter. When young and a student of drama, he worked at the Connaught Theatre in Worthing where his great friend Guy Vaesen became resident director in 1957. Two years later, aged 29 and having already written The Caretaker, Pinter moved into 14 Ambrose Place, a pretty house on an elegant Regency terrace. He wrote The Homecoming while living there before moving back to London in 1964. As well as being attractive, the houses in Ambrose Place are somewhat unusual in that their front gardens are on the other side of the road.

David asks me if I'm familiar with The Desert Quartet. I hazard a guess that they are a local rock group, which provokes considerable mirth. All becomes clear as we stroll along Liverpool Terrace and look up at four busts perched on plinths at the back of the Montague shopping centre. Apparently, it was a requirement of the shopping centre's planning permission that some public art be displayed. The noted sculptor Elisabeth Frink was commissioned. Legend has it that her first design included several naked figures and was rejected by a committee of four men. It has been suggested that the four heads depicting rather grumpy males were her revenge. Installed in 1989, the sculptures are now reckoned to be worth several million pounds.

Our final stop is by a commemorative paving stone outside number 13 Montague Place, which is a tribute to a previous occupant, Montague Moore. An officer in World War I, he led 120 soldiers and six fellow officers at the Battle of Ypres into an attack on an enemy dugout. When he finally took the position and 28 prisoners, he had just four men and a sergeant left. Despite continual shelling, he held on for 36 hours before eventually being forced to withdraw. Moore was awarded the VC, returned to Worthing and died here in 1966. Montague Place is named after him.



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