Wicked Littlehampton: surf, sand, cafes and art in West Sussex

It’s not often that Littlehampton, a small seaside town on the Sussex coast, makes the news. In the five decades since I was born there, I can count the times on the fingers of one hand: Nik Kershaw making the video for The Riddle in 1984 (oh, the teenage excitement); Anita Roddick, the town’s favourite daughter, being made a Dame in 2003; and the opening of the Thomas Heatherwick-designed East Beach cafe in 2007 (known to my family as the Rusty Tin).

This time, it’s for a poison pen letter scandal that rocked the town in the 1920s, now the basis of a major new film, Wicked Little Letters, released last Friday. Set on the streets of Littlehampton (although filmed in nearby Worthing and Arundel), the movie pits prim Olivia Colman against Jesse Buckley’s feisty Irishness in a battle to prove who is writing the letters.

Littlehampton map

A century ago, LA – as locals refer to it – was a very different place; one of a clutch of West Sussex beach resorts, along with Worthing and Bognor, that welcomed thousands of visitors in summer. Promoted as “the children’s paradise”, the town offered pleasure cruises up the River Arun, concerts on the beach green, and the broad, sandy beach itself – dotted with wheeled bathing tents that could be pulled right to the water’s edge. It stayed popular until the 1970s, when tourists started to head for the Mediterranean and the UK’s seaside boom began to fade.

But even in its gloomiest decades – the 80s, when I was at school there, and the 90s – it still retained a rakish, beachy charm. However dilapidated the town became, the beach remained glorious; a rare stretch of soft, golden sand on a mostly shingle coast. On summer days, we’d take great delight in getting to the beach before the “grockles” (day trippers) arrived, and staying long after they’d piled back into their cars, watching the sun dip over the West Beach dunes, separated from the main town beach by the wide mouth of the Arun.

The sand dunes behind the beach are a site of special scientific interest. Photograph: Alamy

Occasionally, we’d venture into the Butlins Park (now Harbour Park), for a whirl on the dodgems, or a ride on the rickety, metal framed Wild Mouse rollercoaster (not for the faint of heart). There were chips, eaten sat on breakwaters with salty fingers, illicit parties on the deck of beach huts, Saturday shopping sprees in the Indoor Market, where you could buy an entire outfit for £20, before a quick pitstop in the Wimpy next door.

I left the school – and the town – at 18, but still have close friends there and visit often, watching with pleasure as it has has slowly dusted itself off and embarked on a renaissance of sorts. The opening of the East Beach cafe was a landmark moment – some comparing it to the Guggenheim’s effect on Bilbao, albeit on a smaller scale – with Vogue calling it “England’s coolest seaside town”. Three years later, the 1,000ft Long Bench was revealed; a bench made of individual wooden slats – many bearing a personal inscription – looping and curling its way along the promenade, creating Insta-worthy seating in two long, metal-framed shelters.

Perhaps the biggest recent change has been the opening of The Beach cafe – a short walk east along the prom from the main green and car park. The brainchild of ex-windsurfing champion, Jamie Hawkins, an old brick-built shelter was replaced by a long, wood-panelled cafe and restaurant, with a roof-top bar and adjoining watersports centre, offering lessons in kite-surfing, paddleboarding and winging. “I always say I could have lived in Hawaii but I chose Littlehampton,” says Hawkins. “I grew up here and it’s great to give something back. It used to be you had to go to Worthing or Brighton for a good dinner or a night out, but those things are on offer here now.”

Insta-fabulous … the Long Bench. Photograph: Andrew Hasson/Alamy

Last summer, we went down for The Beach cafe’s Kite and Wing weekender, to watch the kiters soar up out of the sea, with slingshot flags fluttering above the sand and a surf’s-up vibe that felt straight out of Cornwall. It’s the beach that makes this small town special, although I love it best at low tide, when the water ebbs right out, leaving vast wastes of honey-hued sand, rippling out between rockpools and breakwaters. I remember the solace it gave me as a teenager, taking my small nephews and nieces to paddle, romantic sunset strolls and long, sunlit summer dips.

Away from the seafront, the town still has its problems; the high street is struggling, as are so many, but there is a palpable energy and determination in the town to keep improving what it offers. Littlehampton has won a levelling-up fund of £19.4m, to be shared with Bognor, for improvements to public spaces, with a plan for water fountains on the sea front and more barbecue areas, adding to the crazy golf and miniature railway that have been on the seafront for decades.

‘It used to be you had to go to Worthing or Brighton for a good dinner or a night out, but those things are on offer here now’ … Jamie Hawkins, owner of the Beach cafe.

“In the five years since we opened, there’s been a real sense of things moving forward,” says Kara Grenier, who owns Berry House B&B. “We’re lucky to have a lot of independent restaurants and cafes, Mewsbrook Park has won awards for its gardens and the new skateboard park is great for local kids as well as visitors.” Grenier believes the town is set for a summer boom. “Last week, I walked down to the sea with the dog and it was absolutely packed with families. When the sun’s out and the sea is sparkling, it’s a really special place.”

Stay: Berry House B&B has four double rooms from £120

Eat: 47 Mussel Row serves up locally-caught fish and seafood, with three Sussex wines on the winelist; Fred’s Fish and Chips


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