Royal Sussex: A county fit for a Queen  

The queen smiling in photograph taken around 1 June 1953

The Queen, just before her coronation on 2 June 1953, has always loved Sussex - Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

In Her Majesty’s Platinum Jubilee year we take a special look at some of the Queen’s many visits to Sussex and the people who were privileged to meet her 

WORDS: Jeannine Williamson 

Meeting the Queen can be overwhelming no matter how much you’ve practised your curtsies but Yana feared her encounter with the British monarch during a visit to the Canine Partners Sussex headquarters in Heyshott, Midhurst, would land her in the dog house.   

For the black Labrador, who had been specially trained to deliver a posy of purple flowers to Her Majesty during the 2017 walkabout, let go before reaching the royal recipient.  

Luckily, the animal-loving Queen is renowned for her fondness of dogs and quickly put the four-legged subject at ease. 

'Who will forget the dog which had been specially trained to deliver her bouquet to Her Majesty losing her nerve at the last moment and dropping it?’ recalls Susan Pyper, Her Majesty’s Lord-Lieutenant of West Sussex. ‘It has to be said that the Queen’s smile was broader than anyone else’s.’  

Queen's visit to Chichester Festival Theatre in West Sussex.

Visiting Chichester Festival Theatre in November 2017 - Credit: Pete Jones

The organisation trains assistance dogs to help people with physical disabilities and the Queen unveiled a plaque to commemorate a total of 750 human and canine partnerships since it was founded in 1990. 

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'She was lovely,’ smiles advanced training manager Vicky Martin. ‘She met each of the dogs and saw how they can do tasks such as retrieving key and walking aids, unload washing machines and help people get dressed. At the end of the visit, we gave her some blankets and toys for her Corgis.’ 

It was one of many memorable moments spent in Sussex which have variously seen the Queen unveil a ground-breaking telescope under cloudy skies, brew beer, be steered clear of a stage door deemed inappropriate for a regal entrance and meet a line-up of ‘old gaffers’ -  the latter being traditional rigged sailing vessels as opposed to local men of a certain age. 

The Queen is certainly no stranger to the county. She first visited just before her third birthday in 1929 to see her grandfather King George V and was photographed making sandcastles on Bognor beach. At the time the king was convalescing there, and the town was subsequently bestowed with the royal title Regis later that year.  

After her accession to the throne in 1953, one of the Queen’s first official engagements in Sussex was a visit to Glyndebourne in 1956 where she saw Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. Sir George Christie, whose father John founded the quintessential rural opera house, wrote in the book Glyndebourne: A Visual History that he recommended that the Queen see the same opera when she visited again in 1984, to which she replied: ‘Is that the piece in which someone loses a pin?’ Instead she saw Arabella by Richard Strauss. 

In 1958, there was a visit to the pioneering ‘new town’ of Crawley which was billed as an exciting development in urban planning. The engagement resulted in an extraordinary photo of the Tilling and Savage families looking over a wall at the solitary Queen walking a few feet below. 

Eric and Kitty Hammond welcome Her Majesty to their home in Crawley in 1958

Eric and Kitty Hammond welcome Her Majesty to their home in Crawley in 1958 - Credit: Crawley Museums

Resident Margaret Graham later moved next door to Eric and Kitty Hammond who were photographed welcoming the Queen to their house in Lady Margaret Road. ‘I was 10 at the time and a pupil at St Margaret’s Primary School,’ she says. ‘We didn’t have the day off school, we would have loved that, but as we were on the chosen route to Kitty and Eric’s house, so we had the honour of welcoming the Queen to our town in person.  

Children waved Union Jack flags and lined the streets when Queen Elizabeth visited Crawley in 1958

Children waved Union Jack flags and lined the streets when Queen Elizabeth visited Crawley in 1958 - Credit: Crawley Museums

‘I remember we were well rehearsed in our role of standing near the edge of the pavement, but not too near, and waving our little Union Jack flags as the cavalcade passed by. We took it very seriously and wore our summer uniform of checked cotton dresses. The open-topped limousine gleamed in the sunshine, and we glimpsed our Queen in her summery outfit smiling and waving graciously at us.  

‘Years later Eric told me how the royal party complimented him and Kitty on their spanking new furniture. Apparently, Eric told the Duke of Edinburgh “It’s not ours, mate. We couldn’t afford it - they’re taking it all away again tomorrow.” Eric was very down to earth.’ 

The Queen makes a flying visit to Gatwick Airport in 1958

The Queen makes a flying visit to Gatwick Airport in 1958 - Credit: Gatwork Airport

On the same day the Queen visited another ground-breaking Sussex project when she opened Gatwick Airport in its modern form. As the world’s first airport to have a direct rail link, the £7.8 million scheme saw Gatwick combine air, road and rail travel in a single unit. She returned in 1988 to open the North Terminal, which in turn saw the original main terminal renamed the South. 

In 1962, the Queen went to Brighton College, an event captured through the eyes of different generations in a special issue of the college magazine The Brightonian. ‘This is undoubtedly the most important occasion in the history of the College, and it was appropriate that the school was made especially attractive for this event,’ writes the editor in his introduction. ‘The front quad was resplendent with beds of geraniums lining the drive and many other plants were placed in strategic positions.’ 

‘She was three minutes late,’ remarks a six-year-old pupil with an eye for detail. ‘She pulled a piece of rope and the flag came down, under the flag there was a stone with writing on it. Mummy took a photo of the Queen shaking Daddy’s hand. There were two men who had shining swords and the swords were touching the ground.’ A fifth former comments on the ‘spontaneous outburst of cheering’ that followed the Queen’s unexpected announcement of an extra school holiday for the pupils. It’s also noted that when Prince Philip, who had recently suffered a polo fall, was asked if he’d like to bowl the boys on the cricket field he replied ‘good heavens no, I can scarcely stand up.’ 

The Queen has made an impression at many other local educational establishments over the years. In 1964 she opened the library at the University of Sussex, returning in 2013 to unveil The Keep, the £19 million home for the university’s special collection’s archive which includes sketches for his Just So Stories by Sussex author Rudyard Kipling.  

All smiles at University of Sussex's student's union in 1964

All smiles at University of Sussex's student's union in 1964 - Credit: University of Sussex

Two years later she returned to the coast to visit Eastbourne College on the eve of its 100th centenary year and inspected members of the Combined Cadet Force, which remains one of the largest in the South East. A novel highlight was a demonstration of a hovercraft built by pupils.  

The Queen arrives in Eastbourne 

The Queen arrives in Eastbourne - Credit: Terry Connolly Eastbourne Herald

‘The Queen and Duke of Edinburgh admired an art display and lesson followed by a science exhibition in which the Duke showed particular interest in marine ecology and chemistry,’ says Katie Gent, college campaign and marketing lead who researched the events of the day. ‘The couple enjoyed some singing by the school choir who sang De Animals A-Comin, complete with farmyard noises which amused the Queen and Duke. 

‘In a letter from Buckingham Palace to the school following the visit, courtier Edward Ford wrote, “the Queen was impressed by the smartness of the Guard of Honour and by the various dramatic, artistic and scientific activities, all of which seemed to be carried out with skill and enthusiasm.” 

The Duke of Edinburgh’s infamous sense of humour came to the fore at Worthing’s Durrington High School in 1999. ‘I remember the buzz of excitement in the entrance hall as we were introduced to the royal pair and Prince Philip’s cheeky asides to various people in the line-up as he went by,’ says retired senior assistant headteacher Peter Woods. ‘Staff kept trying to keep Prince Philip to the required route and schedule and failing. The whole atmosphere of the day was quite surreal and magical and they took an interest both in what they saw and with the pupils.’ 

The Duke also raised smiles during the 2006 visit to Thomas Bennett Community College in Crawley. ‘One of my tasks was to deliver a Year 7 thinking skills lesson in front of Her Majesty,’ says Carole Lawless from the humanities department. ‘We had to keep secret the exact identity of the VIP who was going to visit up until the week before so you can imagine how excited the students were when they found out we were preparing for a royal visit. 

‘My lesson in front of the Queen went without a hitch and as she left the room they gave her a round of applause. I believe they were all pinching themselves because they could really believe what they had been part of. However, the last laugh went to the Duke who, just after the Queen left, suddenly arrived into our room and shouted: “Teacher can they all read?” I responded by shouting out: “Yes they can”. I think several of the students thought he was going to ask them to read to him but as quickly as he arrived, he left and the students had yet another memory to add to what was a wonderful day they will remember for the rest of their lives.’  

While organisers always hope the sun will shine on royal occasions, the sky at night can also play its part. Back in 1967 the Queen came to the Royal Greenwich Observatory, when it was based at Herstmonceux. Her task was to inaugurate the giant Sir Isaac Newton Telescope, the largest in England at the time and one of the biggest in the world. Astronomers hoped she would see Saturn but rain obscured the view. It came as no surprise to many stargazers when the telescope was dismantled in 1979 and moved beneath clearer skies on the Canary Island of La Palma.  

Charities have often been at the forefront of the Queen’s official duties and in 1971 she became the first reigning monarch to visit Haywards Heath when she opened the international headquarters of the Royal Commonwealth Society for the Blind. Founded in 1950 as the British Empire Society for the Blind, the international charity was given royal status by the Queen in 1957 and is now called Sightsavers. 

A huge crowd gathered when the Queen visited Sightsavers in 1957

A huge crowd gathered when the Queen visited Sightsavers in 1957 - Credit: Sighsavers

Maritime matters brought the royal couple back to Brighton in 1979.  ‘It’s a date imprinted in my memory,’ smiles Kay Dymock who worked at Brighton Marina from 1978 to 1982 and organised the official opening. ‘Six months preparation for a 40 minute whizz round. Whilst the marina’s boating infrastructure was complete, the land was an extensive gravel car park, aka a building site.  Consequently, we had to import colour and life. Beautiful old gaffers were moored along the main spine road, the local Royal Naval Reserve did a parade along the outer harbour.  Rodean, the local school that sits on the cliffs above the marina, sent some girls in good voice. Our collective memory is of pacing out the tour in minute detail in the cold and finally the Duke saying: “Hurry up we will miss the races”.  Brighton Racecourse was the next stop.’ 

Well-known for her life-long passion for horses, the Duke’s concern was unfounded and the royal party made it the racecourse in time for the off. ‘She stayed for one race, the Portslade Stakes, a race which her filly Alesia had won in 1958,’ says senior commercial executive Judy Welsh. ‘I was working at the racecourse in 2007 when she made her second visit to the racecourse with Prince Phillip and they hosted a lunch for local dignitaries in Silks Restaurant.’ 

Horses have also been a constant at the South of England Show, the flagship event of the South of England Agricultural Society. The Queen has been patron of the society since her first visit to the show in 1974 when she was driven around the arena in a horse-drawn carriage. This tradition was revived during her visit in her Golden Jubilee year, 2002, when she also came face to face with a huge prizewinning bull.  

Shows of a different kind have taken centre stage during the Queen’s visits to Sussex. In 1962 she attended the opening season at Chichester Festival Theatre, Britain’s first modern thrust stage theatre with a stage extending into the audience on three sides. She revisited the theatre again in 1964 and 2017, the latter providing a personal highlight for Lord-Lieutenant Mrs Pyper.   

‘I have been fortunate to meet the Queen several times, at Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle and St James’s Palace, but the highlight was her visit to the county for a day in 2017,’ she says. ‘A huge amount of effort was put into all aspects of the day. It never ceases to amaze me how many people are involved in days like this.  

‘From Canine Partners, the Queen travelled to Chichester Festival Theatre where crowds of people were waiting in the bitterly cold weather for her arrival. Everyone was in a tremendously good mood and there was a sense of excitement as her car arrived. Union Jacks were waved and a loud cheer went up. After chatting with several groups in the foyer she watched a performance by Chichester Youth Theatre and excerpts from the recent production of Fiddler on the Roof. Lunch was served in the Minerva Theatre restaurant and Dame Patricia Routledge performed a moving recitation. We were all sorry when the afternoon came to an end and the Queen left, still smiling. Everyone involved was uplifted and on a high. It had been a memorable day for all of us and one that I will always treasure.’   

 Another visit to Brighton in 2007 marked the 200th anniversary of the Theatre Royal, where the original plans for the Queen’s entrance had to be hastily rearranged. ‘We had a visit from people at the palace beforehand,’ explains stage door keeper Bill Tinsley. ‘They took one look at the door and thought it was a bit grimy and said: “We don’t think Her Majesty will be coming through this entrance”. So in the end they went through the front door. 

‘A new road was being laid outside and it hadn’t been finished and there were piles of slabs stacked up around the corner out of sight. The guys had to work through the night to get it ready. The Queen renamed the royal box the Queen Elizabeth II box and then watched a special concert including a performance by students of Brighton and Hove Music and Performing Arts. The theatre wasn’t open to the public and the management said we could stand at the back of the royal circle to get a better view and it was beautiful.’ 


The Queen was ushered through the front door of the Theatre Royal in Brighton in 2007 as the stage door was deemed too dirty - Credit: Supplied

One person well versed with voice projection is former Burgess Hill town crier Neil Batsford. He was on hand to raise a cheer in 1999 when the Queen opened the town’s £13.5 million Triangle Leisure Centre which was one of the biggest in the South East at the time.  

‘Two or three weeks before the event the suits come down to check it all out and I said I wanted to do a cry, a very short one that I had limited to just a minute, but there wasn’t a minute to spare,’ Neil says. ‘So I said I was going to do three cheers instead and that got the nod. After I did it, I stood back and the Queen went to one or two people for flowers and talked to them and then she walked past me and said “and you’re the town crier”. I gave a very gracious bow and said “yes Ma’am” and off she went. It was a significant day to remember.’ 

On her last visit to the county in 2013 it is fitting that Her Majesty helped make a drink fit for a Queen. The day included a tour and lunch at Harvey’s Brewery in Lewes, the oldest independent brewery in Sussex.  

‘In 1953 my father Anthony first brewed our Elizabethan Ale for the Queen’s coronation,’ says head brewer and joint managing director Miles Jenner. ‘In those days every brewer would brew a beer for the coronation. But my father went away from coronation ale and did Elizabethan Ale because he took on board that we were entering a new Elizabethan era. 

‘The label was done by a local artist and it was a great success. So he thought why not leave it in production and we have brewed it ever since and kept the same format. For her visit in 2013 I thought it would be appropriate to start the brew on that day and 60 years after my father had brewed the same beer for her coronation.’ 

The Queen pressed the button to begin the mashing process where crushed malt is mixed with spring water to commence the brewing process for the award-winning strong barley wine that is reminiscent of the October ales brewed during the 16th century when Elizabeth 1 was on the throne. 

Over the special four-day bank holiday in June the residents of Sussex will undoubtedly be raising their own glasses to join the nation in commemorating the first-ever British monarch to celebrate a Platinum Jubilee - many hundreds of them with personal and treasured memories of the day they saw their Queen. 

On her Majesty’s special service  

High flying Sussex partnership 

Crawley-based aviation services group Air Partner has been picked as the preferred private jet partner for the Platinum Jubilee Pageant on June 5. Originally founded as a school for military pilots converting to civilian flying, Air Partner’s private jet and charter business has flown high-profile clients around the globe for the last 60 years. Although the company cannot comment on whether it has flown the Queen in the past, it was the first aviation company to be awarded a Royal Warrant in 2004 that has twice been renewed. 

Bubbly from West Sussex 

The fruits of the county will feature in toasts to the Queen’s 70-year reign with an official English sparkling wine made exclusively from hand-picked grapes from vineyards in West Sussex and Kent. The Royal Collection Trust’s £39 English Sparkling Wine Platinum Jubilee Release 2022 is a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.