The world has changed its bearings a bit since JMW Turner’s day, but the artist’s wonderful smeary 1828 painting of Chichester Canal records a scene almost unchanged in nearly two centuries.First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
Turner depicts the setting sun about to touch the western horizon, a fabulous orb providing a dreamy, lemon-yellow backlight for Chichester Cathedral’s landmark spire. A spectral schooner, black and skeletal, lies anchored on the newly-completed canal, a broad silver highway linking sea to city.
It was Turner light today, wintry and indistinct, as we set out from Chichester, seawards along the canal into the flatlands of the Selsey peninsula. We strolled slowly, at first against the tide of Selsey’s commuters jogging and cycling along the towpath towards the city, then in backwaters of post-rush-hour calm. A grey heron stood stock still among the reeds, allowing us to inch forward to within touching distance before it shook its umbrella wings open with a clap and hauled heavily off upstream.
A century has passed since the last barge brought goods to Chichester up the canal. The waterway lies quiet now, a haunt of solitary fishermen intent on their long roach poles. A sharp right-angle bend at Hunston bridge where Turner perched to make his painting, and the canal made purposefully west through low-lying pastures and ploughlands towards the convoluted shores of Chichester Harbour. This muddy, meandering inland sea has many snaking creeks and widely separated peninsulas; silting and land reclamation had choked off the channel that led to Chichester long before the canal was cut as a remedy.
Down in Chichester Marina, boats with aspirational names lay snugged down for winter: Glowing Jade, One Life, Day Dreamer, Flight of Fancy. Between the white walls of the yachts a pair of young Swallows (or Amazons) scudded round in a rubber dinghy. We turned inland, walking the muddy shore path through Salterns Copse. The name stands as a memorial to the salt-making industry that flourished here in the 18th century. The shallow salterns – manmade pools with clay bottoms – held seawater, reduced to brine by the sun, then boiled and dredged for the precious salt crystals. The high cost of coal, taxes and transport put an end to the salterns just before the opening of the Chichester Canal, which might have saved them.
Halyards chinked in the morning breeze, and black-backed gulls screeched like fishwives over their tideline pickings. A quick sandwich in the dappled river light of the dark-panelled bar in the Crown & Anchor at Dell Quay, and we followed the winding Fishbourne Channel towards the distant line of the downs, with Chichester spire pricking the low grey sky away in the east.
Start: Chichester station, Chichester PO19 8DL (OS ref SU 859043)
Finish: Fishbourne station (835050)
Getting there: Train (www.thetrainline.com; www.railcard.co.uk) to Chichester. Road: A27 from Southampton or Brighton
Walk (7 miles, easy grade, OS Explorer 120): From Chichester station head out of town along A286. In 100m, left (‘Chichester Canal’); cross canal (859041) and follow towpath for 1¼ miles to Poyntz Bridge at Hunston (865023). Follow path to road; right; in 50 m, right again along left bank of canal. In ⅔ mile keep ahead at Crosbie Bridge (854019); in another mile at Cutfield Bridge (842013), right across canal; left along road on right bank to Chichester Marina. Right here along Salterns Way footpath (835010, fingerpost), keeping marina on left to reach open water (829014). Right (fingerpost); immediately left on permissive path through Salterns Copse and on along harbour edge to Dell Quay Road. Left to Crown & Anchor PH (836028). Right along Fishbourne Channel, keeping close to shore. After nearly 1 mile cross sluice to 3-way fingerpost (841041). Left along harbour. In 300 m, take left of 2 kissing gates; cross stream; boardwalk, then left (fingerpost) along stream. In 100 m, right past pond (838045) up Mill Lane to A259 in Fishbourne. Left for 300 m; cross road, and right up Salthill Road (835047) to Fishbourne station.
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Lunch: Crown & Anchor, Dell Quay (log fires, wood-panelled bar, superb estuary views): 01243-781712; www.crownandanchorchichester.com)
More info: Chichester TIC (01243-775888);
www.ramblers.org.uk www.satmap.com www.LogMyTrip.co.uk