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Changing Times | Bersted’s present hides its hidden history

According to the 1807 guide named, ‘The Origin & description of Bognor or Hothamton and an account of some adjacent villages’, South Berstead (note the spelling) is: “A village to the north of Bognor, at the distance of about a mile.


“Two ways conduct to it; one is a pathway that crosses the fields in a direct line from the Post office; the other is the high road that passes by the Crescent, but pedestrians would prefer the latter.”


The description continues, “Berstead was a well-known village, and in some degree of repute when Bognor was still in embryo; and prior to the birth of that place was reckoned among the principal villages of the district.”


The history of this area consists of St Mary Magdalene Church in South Bersted, which is of course one of the oldest in the area.


Therefore it did not really take into consideration the church at the entrance to the area, that of the Parish Church of the Holy Cross, which is almost hidden at the junction of Chichester Road and North Bersted Street.


A diverse church, that outwardly has an old and drab appearance, was dedicated in 1884. The original spire of this church was removed in 1979 but the surprise is the interior, which is a remarkably modern church, which has a very active congregation.


Other aspects of Bersted are ‘coloured’ by their location such as a busy roundabout, but colourful is the correct description of the Royal Oak public house, which was not without much controversy when it was painted red in 1984.


It is alleged that there has been a building on this site since Elizabethan times. It is a listed building and still retains much of its historic appeal since the first recorded publican in 1842. It is believed that at one time Sir Richard Hotham, Bognor’s founder, owned it.


Richard Sharpe, who succeeded in making his public house known countrywide, was connected with another pub in the area. The Sharpe family were publicans of the Rising Sun on the Chichester Road from 1895 until 1933 and it was during this period that it became renowned for the displays that were produced by the attachment of postage stamps over the walls, ceilings and even furniture.


It was a bet that started the act of making pictures with stamps and the craze just grew, in line with the number of visitors that started to arrive. There were even special coach trips to see ‘The Stamp House’ as it was known for a time.


When driving around this area, it is very easy to forget that it was originally two small villages, on the outskirts of Bognor, but sadly like many small communities they have lost much of their identity with the expansion of housing, roads and the erosion of the fields and open spaces that was once enjoyed by the villagers.


As recently as 1920 North Bersted was surrounded completely by open fields. The village of North Bersted has a number of links with the past, such as Chalcraft Lane, as the word Chalcraft is a derivation of a Saxon word meaning calves croft. The area known as Rookery Farm was originally believed to have links with smuggling.


The need for housing and employment drives developers to move to the ‘outskirts’ of a town or village until eventually each separate community is joined into seemingly one community, with no visible boundaries.


In the 1930s, one of the largest developments was that of the Newtown Estate, with its distinctive fish and chip shop on the corner of the shops on the bend in North Bersted.


How this estate must have dominated the area when it was built by Neal’s the Builder. It must have been quite a shock with the number of houses and also the influx of so many people into the area at that time.


Gradually, over the years the growth of housing has crept over the area with new housing and of course the industrial estates based around the Durban Road area.


One of the major activities in this area, was that of the airfield, first in the 1930s when there were air shows put on by Sir Alan Cobham. Later in the Second World War there was of course the Bognor Regis Advanced Landing Ground, with more than 100 aircraft and about 2,000 airmen, many of whom were Norwegians in an area where today there are plans for even more houses.


Previous articles on this area have given us some very descriptive prose on the developments taking place. One in 1973 refers to ‘Horrible Bognor, not content with ruining itself, has all but put paid to the Bersteds now, pouring inexorable and glue-like with its shapeless blobs of bungaloid developments’.


Another report, in 1978, began with the comment that ‘golden wild mustard fringes part of the A259 road between Chichester and Bognor in a landscape as flat as a bowling green and happily there seem to be no hideous gipsy encampments this summer’.


The report continues from the road junction next to the Royal Oak remarking that, ‘this is where suburbia starts, a nondescript hotchpotch of bungalows and semis and some more pretentious houses, giving no indication at all that the English Channel lies before you only a mile and a half ahead’.


I am sure that the owners of the premises to which the writer was referring would not appreciate some of these descriptions.


The area of course is changing considerably not only with the new houses at North Bersted, but also with the addition of the road that provides a bypass to the town, direct over to Felpham.


The road to Felpham of course saw the construction of the newest bridge in the town – who can remember the lorries arriving in the town with the long structures for this road? This new road is increasingly becoming busy alongside the older routes as the number of homes continue to increase.

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