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Archaeology and history

Image: ©West Sussex County Council Library Service

Pagham Harbour is more than just a nature reserve, with a rich history dating back to the Saxons there's plenty to discover.

Pagham was first used as a Harbour by the Saxons under the name ‘Uedringmutha’ and by the Middle Ages it was a busy port known as Wythering or New Haven.

The earliest mill found at Sidlesham was dated to 1275 with the last being built in 1755. This last tidal mill was reputed to have been one of the finest in the country with three great water wheels and eight pairs of millstones. All that remains of this fine mill is a rectangle of grass and low brick walls to mark the site of the mill and the pond opposite is the remains of what would have been the much larger mill pond.

In 1876, following the Pagham Harbour Reclamation Act, the harbour entrance was sealed up providing 700 acres of agricultural land. The rich alluvial mud proved excellent for grazing cattle and growing barley and corn but it was a constant battle to keep the sea at bay. Eventually, after a huge storm had raged for four days, the sea defences broke through at Church Norton and flooded 2000 acres of farmland in less than an hour. Since then the harbour has changed little and remained a tidal inlet but there are still hedges stretching out into the harbour which are remnants of the reclamation and at low tides you can still make out some of the old drainage ditches.

The Selsey Tram which ran between Chichester and Selsey from 1897 to 1935 runs through the reserve and alongside the harbours edge between Ferry Channel and Sidlesham. This is one of our main walking routes along the embankment and still goes by the name of the ‘Tramway’ Originally steam locomotives were used and later supplemented by petrol rail-buses. In its heyday over 22,000 passengers used it per annum. Unfortunately due to often breaking down, the nature of rickety rails and the laid-back style of service it was teased with a number of nicknames including ‘The Sidlesham Snail’ and ‘The Bumpety Bump’.

At Church Norton there is the surviving earthwork mound and ditch, remains of an 11th Century Norman ringwork castle, inside which the remains of stone buildings have been located. Traces of possible Iron Age occupation were found during excavations along with Neolithic scrapers and other worked flints.

Also at Church Norton is St Wilfred’s Chapel. The 13th building was formerly the chancel of the much larger St Peter’s Church. It is located on or near the site of the first Cathedral of Sussex which was established by St Wilfred when he lived there for six years from AD 681.

Up until the end of the eighteenth century, Selsey was on an island cut-off from the mainland. At low tide it was possible to cross the channel by a ford known as the ‘Wadeway’ but at high tide it was necessary to cross by ferry-boat. This is how Ferry Channel and Ferry Pond came to get their names. In 1672 the toll was ‘man and horse 2 pence, foot passengers half a penny.’ The ferryman was paid 4 bushels of barley per year by the community for his services. The ‘Wadeway’ was improved from time to time and the present raised causeway which carries the road was eventually built in 1932.

There are also numerous stories of smuggling and of the harbour being used as a practice firing range for aircraft during WW2.