Selsey: The jewel of Manhood

[This updates in June 2017 a piece which first appeared in late 2013.]
All my life, like my father and grandmother before me I have known and loved Selsey, in West Sussex. It is the town at the tip of the Manhood peninsula south of Chichester, and famous for the Bill (its beak pointed at the sea). It has for years had Bunn’s, Europe’s biggest caravan park and now – abutting that – there is a brand new instant wetland, also Europe’s largest of the kind. It is, in fact, a-buzz with change and far livelier than previously. Recently, I have taken to day-dreaming about Selsey’s future.

Selsey is, after all, an amazing place. It is held in great affection by many of its 12,000 residents and 12,000 summer vistors (lots of them perennials). However, something about its being the end of the road, and unspectacular, has made it a bit self-doubting. It is a lesser Surbiton (which I have also known and loved), but a Surbiton-sur-Mer, and less middle class. Perhaps it is inevitable, but many of the recent changes in the place have been variously mourned, overlooked or mocked by residents and vistors alike. The new livelieness, indeed, is seldom celebrated. Selsey doesn’t do self-congratulation, and that’s better than a place which does nothing but. So below appears my assessment of Selsey’s present and my dream for a quirky – perhaps peculiar – seaside spot sometime quite soon. First, then, a quick portrait of the situation now.

Selsey in 2017

Selsey RNLI lifeboat and lifeboat station, in June 2017, prior to demolition and removal

This is a West Sussex seaside resort, dormitory, light industrial centre and fishing village – a town, really – perched at the tip of the low-lying Manhood peninsula, stuck into the English Channel with the Isle of Wight and the Solent to its west and Bognor away across a bay to the east. (This last inspired the composer Eric Coates to write By the Sleepy Lagoon, the Desert Island Discs theme tune.) This is a go-ahead place. Its lifeboat station has been an icon, but will soon disappear, as the needs of modern lifeboats render it redundant. In its place, Selsey gets a new, glamorous lifeboat centre and craft. There is lots of new housing, and a brand new Asda. After a devastating fire, Selsey’s Academy is being rebuilt. Towards Chichester, a 19th Century Carmelit convent is being reborn as Chichester Free School.

Classless Selsey is eight miles south of classy Chichester. There’s one road to the place, and sometimes it feels as though it’s a long schlepp between the seaside town and civilisation. The B2145 links Selsey and a string of villages with Chichester, and  thence via the A27 with the wider world (Southampton and points west; Brighton and points east). It has for years seemed a rather sclerotic artery. Above all, its narrowness means that it is hopeless for the modern age, when cycles, mobility scooters, pedestrians and even horses all need separation from traffic. A solution has been proposed for a new “green route”, and if it happens it may be a big part of the dream I have for the Manhood. (See below.)

Selsey’s former Pontin’s holiday camp – Broadreeds – is now one of several new housing developments amongst the town’s many 1960s and 1970s bungalows and its scatter of thatched and flint cottages. It has a High Street which is well shy of spectacular but is much more lively than it was a decade or so ago. It has the sea, and at low tide, expanses of sand. It has good seaside car parks.

There’s great sea swimming, in places quite dramatic. There’s great sea fishing and diving. There are professional fishermen and they seem to be in no sort of charm contest with the rest of the town and its visitors. More friendly are the many locals who fish from smart bright plastic sit-on kayaks, many of them Perceptions, made in the USA and, I believe, East Sussex.

There’s seaside greenery, some of it preserved as wild-flower meadow, and at the Pagham and the new Medmerry wetland reserves – where the sea rushes in over marshlands – the wild habitats are both large and special. On the town’s several recreation grounds, Selsey’s dogs are pretty numerous, polite, gregarious and mostly well scooped-after.

The Bill is overflown regularly by Spitfires from Goodwood’s very moody specialist flying school, in something of the way it was during WW2, when nearby Tangmere was an active and important aerodrome (but without the occasional German bombs the town endured then). Chinooks from Odium use the Bill as a turning-point on imaginary sorties.

To the west of the town there’s Europe’s biggest static caravan and chalet park: its summer population doubles the town’s year-round numbers to around 24,000. Selsey depends on this vital influx of people who seem mostly to be very large and tattooed. Like many residents, many of these vistors are in love with big SUVs and pickups. Like many an Asian city, host in their case to back-packers, Selsey might complain that the majority of its visitors do not spend much. Still, anything like warm weather boosts trade in Selsey’s crop of High Street cafes and for its events, often centring on the RNLI lifeboat station.

There aren’t many middle class voices in Selsey and there never have been. But there are some elegant houses of every century and the multitude of bungalows (my parents’ was one such) are spread like polite flotsam left by a gentle tide over Selsey’s low-lying acres. They are almost all beautifully tended. It’s famously a place for retired people, but that belies the valuable influx of families to new houses, and the resulting youthfulness of many Selsey-ites. These two demographics meet on the Link 51 buses which run with astonishing frequency between Selsey and Chichester, and offer a clean, friendly, smart service with free WiFi.

This autumn, the not notably successful, but recently improving, Selsey Academy was burnt down. It may be overly romantic to think so, but one imagines the new regime and the prospect of completely new infrastructure may be just the fillip the place needs. Almost as dramatically, the Chichester Free School is expanding into a converted former Carmelite convent at Hunston, which is firmly on the Manhood Peninsula.  The young of the area will soon be spoiled for choice.

Along the shingle beach east of the town, you could almost be in the Hamptons, and sort of submerged under or merged with the clapboard houses there are vestiges of the railway carriages which once made Selsey and Pagham (the town’s near neighbour) positively BoHo in summer and which feature in Dennis Hardy and Colin Ward’s evocative, charmingly anarchist, Arcadia for All. Much of this territory makes it into the style magazines.

There’s a proper High Street with two Co-ops; two good butchers (one of them in tune with TV-inspired cookery); a properly comprehensive hardware store; two good vegetable and fruit sellers. The Indian, Chinese, kebab and tapas restaurants could hold their heads up anywhere. There are plenty of cafes, though none are especially stylish. We will come back to that.

There’s some classy industry: OceanAir make blinds and shutters for the world’s superyachts; there is a top-notch classic vehicle restoration garage; Bunn’s caravan site is a bold venture (see below); Selsey’s care home industry boasts serious professionalism; and inland, there is Nature’s Way, one of the country’s leading salad-growers and packers.

The beach sees many ad hoc, polite small parties of youngish East Europeans, workers on the fields of salad crops which are the main agricultural product of the peninsula. Some East European families have settled in the town, and some have started businesses. There are zillions of retired people, some of them almost exotically potty, and not all of those on day-release from the many care homes the town hosts with some pride. Some of these homes are staffed by an invigorating variety of men and women from all over the world. Several are trail-blazers of proficient but humane care.

The average Selsey-ite – permanent or temporary – is white and, I suspect, UKIP-ish. (The town is one of the party’s electoral success stories, its new seat in the West  Sussex County Council being a marginal gain from the Tories.) But the average is not the total, or assertive.

There is a thread of slightly more hippy, RP types. R C Sherriff lived and wrote here, and some of his characters – socially-mobile, lower-middle class and upper working class as they were, perhaps especially in A Fortnight in September, set in south London and Bognor – might have become Selsey-ites as the generations passed. As mentioned before, Eric Coates wrote Sleepy Lagoon whilst looking across the bay towards Bognor: never less than lovely, the view is sometimes glamorously sparkling and sometimes properly bleak.

Selsey is tolerably well-off for luminaries. As well as Coates and Sherriff, Sir Patrick Moore liked its clear skies, and so – presumably – did the many movements who camped out under canvas before WW2, such as the Scouts and the youth wing of the British Union of Fascists. For years the town’s MP was Chichester’s blessed and diligent Tory MP Andrew Tyrie, scourge of bankers and only as NIMBY and populist as a democrat must be. From May 2017, it will be Gillian Killigan,  the very model of the young, ex-working class, graduate, entrepreneur Tory woman.

All told, and this is the important bit, Selsey doesn’t much mind what you do, and if you were to come unstuck (if you fell, wandered, had a heart or a panic attack, for instance) I can’t imagine a better place to get scooped-up in. Every other person is a care nurse on a fag break or walking his or her dog. Or an ambulance driver chilling out with a coffee and a sea-view and the engine ticking over for warmth. Plenty of people have the care of a geriatric parent; or of an adult Downs Syndrome child indoors, or walking with them along the front.

Indeed, I suspect Selsey has more Big Society than many a spot of twice its size and four times its pretensions. Cancer sufferers, carers, the mentally-feeble, the poor, actors, singers, painters, photographers, boat-modellers and plenty more have their thriving groups.

Selsey doesn’t much brag about anything, and certainly not its amazing natural surroundings.  The sheer creativity of the new wetland will be noticed and yet not trumpeted, any more than was the courage and initiative of the Bunn family in investing £16m to build their own neighbouring sea defences when the authorities decided they could no longer protect the wider seafront and had EU funding to make a new wetland.

Selsey’s future, 2017-onwards
So what could one recommend to a place so lacking in self-consciousness but already so rich in qualities? Thinking commercially, first: what might a Mary Portas say, as she wondered about the goods and services and facilities a progressive might hope for here?

It will only be a matter of time before Selsey High Streets discovers what it is to have a large supermarket at its door. It is far busier and more upbeat than it used to be, and amongst the surprises – one might think – is cafe with an off-licence and a fridge retailing Polish sausages and sauerkraut.

So far, only the cool butcher’s could really hold its head up anywhere classy. The trick to getting customers is, I suppose, to understand one’s demographic. East Wittering has Drift-in, its surfer-style café, and it is very good indeed. It has its yummy mummies and its smart old people and its fit and bright Londoner youngsters: but would such a place work in Selsey, yet? I do wonder, but I hope one of the existing cafes drifts in that direction. I admit I can’t see a Hemingways here yet, and can only just imagine such a venue in Chichester, so it’s easy to describe the mountain to be climbed. Still, I imagine such a place being useful to the cyclists, divers and birders who are being, and will increasingly be, drawn to the town. And it would be a paradise to the young brain-boxes I will talk about below.

There is one brave fish retailer, down by the professional fishermens’ winches and sheds. Could the town attract the kind of entrepreneurship epitomised by Pete Miles, the Poole fisherman who runs a restaurant, Storm, which serves his own catch? And why doesn’t the Selsey fishing industry play to its unique status (as I believe it to be) as the only fleet moored, winter and summer, on the open sea?

Since I don’t have the money, nous, courage or expertise to start Selsey’s artisinal retail revolution, I shan’t risk proposing stuff only others could deliver.

I think there is one thing the town needs and which could be achieved quickly: an overt, out-and-out intellectual dimension, and one which brings young and old together. On one level this might be a sort of pre-University rev-up station for A Level students. It is interesting that seaside towns are noted for their educational deficiencies. (In 2013 The Office for National Statistics looked at the difficulties encountered by coastal “destination” towns, with which Selsey shares some characteristics; and so did the Centre for Social Justice’s Turning the Tide. The new Academy might be that nexus for Selsey. The Chichester Free School seems determined to make itself a place of aspiration of all ages.

It may be that the downward peer-pressure which is at work on the current generation of young as perhaps on no other before it, is accentuated in a coastal redoubt, where the urban pull and sophisticated upward drift of a large town is lost or diluted. Anyway, if working class Newcastle could spawn its Literary and Philosophical Society in the 19th Century, I don’t see why Selsey and plenty of other places couldn’t develop a club or series of events which are proud to assert that they are educational, and cultural in a challenging way.

Conclusion – and the new “Manhood Greenway”

I think the Manhood Peninsula’s big selling point is that is a place apart – separate, different, a bit peculiar. I like the idea that as a place for visiting and resident divers, walkers, cyclists, bird-watchers, fishermen, kayakers and swimmers it is marked as being for all tastes and budgets, without snobberies, and a welcome respite from the rest of the A27 corridor of thrusting, increasingly suburban, even chic excitements. It is already a place which almost without effort accommodates a doubling of its population with a summer world of people who are not trippers, or tourists, but near-residents, often of long-standing.

The Manhood Peninsula can be the place where “coastal blight” is addressed by a vibrant recreational, business and student life. We have seen that its Academy and Free School are matched by go-ahead firms, and its approach to being a seaside resort can be transformed by its redefinition of the kinds of activity on offer. So with luck Bunn’s, the RSPB and Selsey town, and the vast majority of the residents, especially the young, could get behind the idea of quite a large, special, area which understands its coast and countryside.

One important way of framing this is to sell the Manhood is a bastion of modernity and Modernism. It is not an old-fashioned place, and it doesn’t disdain development. It has had an honourable (and in one instance a controversial) role in the social mobility of the old working and lower middle classs: it has always been a destination in which the bohemian, the conventional and the aspirational fulfilled their dreams and ideals. Its new Asda is overlooked by a classic Modernist house, and there are of plenty of others in the area, to match the thatched cottages, the Georgian houses, the railway carriage shacks, and the tide of bungalows.

In keeping with all this, a team of locals has proposed a new “greenway” – I’ll call it (they don’t) the Manhood Greenway – which would link Selsey with the main villages and schools between the sea and Chichester. Its big selling point is that it will be traffic-free and that much of its route will be in the countryside. It is imagined as being smooth, dry, flat; it will be lit in modern, clever untintrusive ways. The plan is that commuters, students, nature-lovers, tourists – or people just seeking fresh air and big skies – will use it. Only muscle-power will be allowed, except for the disabled and infirm. It will, not coincidentally, be a corridor for wildlife as much as for people. I see it as being the green thread which binds the Manhood’s huge modern promise with its geography.



Danny Kelly
Well thought out and very well put. Heres to 2014
Andrew Thorne
A fair and reasonable account of a lovely, friendly seaside town with much potential.
Betty Elzea
In my research for a biography of the Victorian artist Frederick Sandys (1829-1904), I find that his friend Charles Augustus Howell (c.1840-1890) rented (?) a house named 'Old Danner' at Selsey or Selsey Bill in the 1880s. Does Old Danner still exist to your knowledge? Sandys and his small son Hugh, and the artist Whistler, visited Howell and his family at Old Danner. Furthermore, Sandys's two daughters Winifred and Gertrude holidayed at Selsey in the summer of 1910. I have photos of them there, standing, and sitting in a wicker chair on a pebbly beach (?), in front of the verandah of probably a boarding house.

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Publication date

24 November 2013