Is Arundel the best town in Britain?

An iconic, historic centerpiece like a castle or an abbey; a dramatic and scenic setting; a high street of quaint, individual shops instead of dominating chain stores and an active and varied civic life. When the Daily Telegraph commissioned a panel to find the top 50 country towns - the best places to live in Britain - these were criteria they used to compile the list. And, lo, as the anticipated results were announced, at the top of the table was Arundel, West Sussex.

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Arundel - the dell of the River Arun - but it was really built on a hill, spilling down from the commanding castle on its brow. The original castle was started in 1067 by Roger de Montgomery, the first Earl and one of William the Conqueror’s loyal lieutenants. He got a third of Sussex in exchange for building the fortress that would defend its approaches from the sea. As with so many medieval towns, it is the formidable and majestic castle that draws throngs of visitors to its center year after year. But is Arundel really the best place to live in Britain? Ah, I thought, inquiring British Heritage Travel readers might like to know.

The beautiful flower spring scenery of Arundel castle , West Sussex, United Kingdom

The beautiful flower spring scenery of Arundel castle , West Sussex, United Kingdom

Arundel is a small town, with

a stable population of about 3,000. Its pretty high street tumbles down the hill from the castle ending at the River Arun and broad wet meadows stretching beyond. There are an assortment of antique shops, restaurants, even a shop specializing in walking sticks, and the venerable Norfolk Arms Hotel with its arched entrance for stagecoaches. Kim’s Bookstore crams 25,000 second-hand and antiquarian volumes higgledy-piggledy into three narrow floors. I’ll bet they haven’t counted recently.

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At the bottom of the high street, the ruins of a Dominican priory sit beside the River Arun, next to a riverside tea garden and the Arundel Boatyard, where visitors can take cruises on the river or hire motorboats for cruising the river themselves. It might take some care; the Arun is tidal and reckoned the second fastest flowing river in England.

I munched on a warm stilton and bacon baguette with a cup of tea at the Moathouse Café while charting a plan to learn the town. Over the lintel next door was a worn but very legible inscription: “Old Harry’s nephew works here Repairs boots and shoes, is not dear. His leather is good, his work is quick, His profits small, but he gives no tick.”

Of course, the place to start is that castle. Arundel Castle still belongs to the Duke of Norfolk, senior peer of England and Earl Marshall of the kingdom. It has been lived in by that first Earl and his descendents for some 900 years. The keep is the oldest part of the castle. That’s the part where work began in 1067. The castle’s strategic location allowed it command of the River Arun valley and the southern escarpment of the Downs. From the battlements, gorgeous views stretch over the valley along the river toward Littlehampton.

Arundel Castle

Today, the keep is kept in display state, showing what life was like here around 1190. Even if you were the Earl and his family, it wouldn’t have been very comfortable. But, like every other aspect of life, the castle didn’t stay the same. By the late 1800s, the house had been almost completely rebuilt in magnificent Gothic style - one of the great architectural triumphs of Victorian England. After Windsor Castle, I’m told, it is the second largest inhabited proper castle in the land.

The Long Gallery, which leads east from the Great Hall past a variety of state rooms and bedrooms on either side, contains portraits of all the Dukes of Norfolk—from the first to the 17th.

In the state dining room, among the relics and displays is the gold and enamel rosary that Mary, Queen of Scots, carried to her execution at Fotheringhay Castle in 1587. It was bequeathed by her to Anne, Countess of Arundel. The mammoth dining table is set for dessert as it was for the visit of Queen Victoria in 1846.

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The adjacent small drawing room is called the Canaletto Room, because it has three Canalettos on the walls, with furniture retrieved from now-demolished Norfolk House in London. Elsewhere, there are Van Dykes and Gainsboroughs hanging around as well. The more informal larger drawing room next door is full of family photos and signed pictures from a variety of royal family members past and present, and various Popes.

As the senior peerage, the Norfolks, surnamed Howard, have long been the ranking Roman Catholic family in Britain. Not only is their religious devotion evident in the castle, but in Arundel’s other dominant building, the Cathedral of Our Lady and St. Philip Howard, just up the street.

The Cathedral of Arundel 

Henry, 15th Duke of Norfolk and Earl Marshall, commissioned its building in 1869, to celebrate the 1850 revival of English Catholicism. It was built of Bath stone in the French Gothic style of the 1400s. Its dedication saint, the 13th Earl of Arundel, Philip Howard, died in the Tower of London in 1595 - among the 40 martyrs of England and Wales canonized by Pope Paul VI in 1970. Though the cathedral is relatively small, seating only 500, its commanding position on the ridge overlooking the town center joins the castle in dominating the skyline, visible for miles across the southern river valley.

The nearby Church of England parish church, St. Nicholas, was actually built in the 14th century. In one of the strangest church building arrangements going, the western end of the building is the C of E church, divided by a grill and plexiglass petition, screened off behind the altar, from the Fitzalan Chapel - a consecrated place of Catholic worship and traditional burial place of the Dukes of Norfolk, which is accessible only from the walled castle grounds.

Arundel cathedral. Image: Getty

Arundel cathedral. Image: Getty

Well off the high street, long after the daytrippers had carried on, I found the King’s Arms on Tarrant Street, the locals’ local. “This is a right proper boozer,” I was assured by George Bridge, who waved me to the stool next to him. “There’s no food here. This is a place to come for a pint and a visit with your mates.” There was a sign in every window that read: “To all my customers. Due to this Government’s total disregard for freedom of choice and their kowtowing to any group they feel to be popular, this is now a non-smoking establishment.”

Many of the regulars are Arundel natives and have been frequenting the King’s Arms freehouse for years. They were all too willing to sing the town’s praises and tell stories of its long history as a port. “There used to be 42 pubs in town,” Bridge regaled, “when Arundel was a port with a custom house and sailors from around the world. The river silted up a long time ago and the ships got bigger. That’s all gone now.” As folks drifted off to dinner, so did I.

To the delight of Arundel’s residents, and undoubtedly its visitors as well, the town boasts a genuinely impressive range of restaurants and varied eating establishments. I sampled the India Gate on Mill Street, for sheek kebab, tiger prawn puri and gobi aloo. It was great. If I had wanted something more esoteric, I could have tried the ostrich tikka.

he next morning I went back to the Moathouse Cafe for the cheapest breakfast in town. After the old egg and beans, it was time for a stroll. Double columns of trees line Mill Road, an avenue that leads past a popular putting green, tennis courts and the manicured lawns of the Arundel Bowling Club to Swanbourne Lake. At the very modest lake, you can rent rowboats, take tea in the lodge or grab an ice cream to fortify you for a climb up well-used paths into the thousands of acres of castle parkland.

Around the bend lies the Arundel Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust astride the river. Peter Scott, son of Robert Falcon Scott, was one of the most important conservationists of the 20th century. Among other accomplishments, he was the founder and first chairman of the World Wildlife Fund. Scott founded the Trust in 1946, and there are now nine such Trust preserves across the UK. The wildfowl and wetland center here was opened in 1976. Red-necked geese and nenes are among the rarer inhabitants.

Back in town, at Pallant Wines and Delicatessen, I picked up a bacon, brie and salad sandwich and a cup of leek and asparagus soup to lunch in the sunshine on a park bench outside the castle gates.

At the visitor information centre, Sylvia Plath had no hesitation in sharing Arundel’s charms: “As a resident of the town what you would find is that there is a terrific sort of camaraderie between everybody and when you’ve been here a little while you find you get to know so many people. It’s like a little village, but within a town center. There are those who are very into the town history, and we have a very strong theatrical tradition. Those who live here tend to really like that sort of thing. The river and its wetlands have protected us from the sort of new housing estates built up around Pulborough.”

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Back at the King’s Arms that evening, I visited with half a dozen friendly folks, including the mayor’s Sergeant-at-Arms, Tony Taylor-Mason, a big, easy-going bloke with a full white beard. “When there are civic ceremonies, my job is to make sure that everything runs smoothly,” he laughs, “which is the same function the Earl Marshall performs - on a little smaller scale.”

Taylor-Mason is pretty handy for the job, describing himself as the “keeper” of the Town Hall. The ancient privileges of its mayor and burgesses were confirmed by Queen Elizabeth in 1586, but he explained why the building itself was rather more recent: “The town council used to meet in the old Priory, what’s now the community playhouse. But the Town Hall was built in 1936, when the Duke built it for the town so he could complete the curtain wall up along the top of the High Street.” While the stone building is certainly for function rather than fun, it has the only known working gas chandelier left in the country.

Everyone loves Arundel and is proud of it. “We live longer here than in any other part of the country, and we use the fewest resources of the National Health Service,” Taylor-Mason chimed. Though the residents of Arundel do stay in town, they worry about the next generation. “Young people starting out can’t find places in town, or they’re too expensive. So, they’re moving on to Littlehampton or Worthing.” Yes, from what I saw in the estate agents’ windows, real estate prices reflect Arundel’s desirability—380,000-450,000 pounds for a three-bedroom house.

At a brasserie called The Muse, I supped on artichoke hearts wrapped in pancetta and grilled with gruyere, and a tender bacon chop on cheddar mash with cider sauce and buttered leeks.

Whether Arundel really is the best place to live in Britain, of course, is a pretty subjective question. Everyone I talked to, however, was enthusiastic that it was indeed a great place to live. For certain, Arundel is a great place to visit, and to linger awhile. The Arundel Choral Society’s spring concert, featuring works by Handel and Elgar, was the next week, but I would not be there. Lucky residents of Arundel.