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  • Writer's pictureSim Elliott

25 Views of Selsey

I walked to Selsey, along the east coast of the Manhood Peninsular, from Pagham Harbour, on Monday 10.05.21, after I had finished visiting the RSPB Pagham Harbour Nature Reserve. I have always liked Selsey because it has a feeling of remoteness, and the feeling that it could one day become part of the sea (again). The Medberry project to realign the sea wall, as a managed retreat, which resulted in creating wetland environment for birds, has prevented Selsey being inundated:"a one kilometer long shingle bank (the Medberry sea wall) , that had been repaired for decades, was alowed to fail.  Every winter the Environment Agency had employed buldozers to rebuild the bank, at costs of around £200,000 every year, to stop the sea from breaching it.

It was necessary to maintain the shingle bank because, behind it, was the only road to Selsey, hundreds of holidays homes, 360 homes belonging to local residents, and a water treatment plant. The last time the shingle bank was breached, in 2008, resulted in a flood that cost over £5,000,000 in damages, so the coastal defences were seen as vital.

The Environment Agency and the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) had an alternative plan. They suggested building a new sea wall two kilometers inland, on raised land, and allowing the existing defences to fail. This would create a new re-aligned coastline protected by a vast saltmarsh that could absorb the energy from the worst storms and trap sediment as well. Managed Retreat and Coastal Realignment | The Geography Site (

The settlement of Selsey is a curious mix of holiday homes and permanent residences, with some employment from shell fish fishing. It is a most curious place, with much charm. Holiday visitors in the summer vastly outnumber residents.

The name Selsey originates from the Anglo-Saxon Seolesige meaning ‘seal island’. Documentary evidence of Selsey is first recorded by Bede in his account of the conversion of the South Saxons to Christianity by St Wilfrid. Wilfrid, Bishop of York, having been exiled from his northern see (the bishop’s seat), was welcomed to Sussex by the local king of the South Saxons, and according to Bede was gifted 87 hides of land at ‘Seal Island’ for a monastery. Following the Norman Conquest, the English church underwent a radical reorganisation and in 1075 the see moved from Selsey to Chichester. Selsey remained in the ownership of the Bishop of Chichester. However, it never regained its importance as a religious centre and, instead, activity centred on agriculture and fishing. Selsey Manor, to the north of St Peter’s Church, remained under the ownership of the bishops until, in 1561, Queen Elizabeth forced the bishop at the time, William Barlow, to surrender a number of manors in exchange for various rectories and tithes. St Wilfrid’s chapel was built at Church Norton in the 13th century. It remained the parish church until the late 19th century. It is believed to be the site of Wilfrid’s original monastery in Selsey. For centuries the main occupations in the village were farming, fishing and smuggling. The area remained relatively isolated up until the end of the 18th century. The present day peninsula was in fact an island for a long time, with its own ferry, ferry house and ferryman. In 1661, it is recorded that the ferryman was paid ‘four bushels of barley’ and was allowed to collect a halfpenny from every traveller. It wasn’t until 1809 that the causeway was completed, linking Selsey with the mainland. In 1819, the passing of the Enclosure Act transformed the area surrounding. Selsey, permitting the enclosure of the land into large, rectangular fields. Further transformation of the village occurred during the 19th century, when Selsey expanded and developed as a seaside resort. This expansion was helped by the opening of the Hundred of Manhood and Selsey Tramway in 1897 which connected Selsey with Chichester. The line finally closed in 1935, in part because bus services like Southdown were more reliable. [May Selsey men died in World War One]. In March, 1915, the first death in action of a Selsey parishioner was reported. This was William Henty Woolven of upper Norton. He was one of the casualties of the Dardanelles operation. He was remembered in a memorial service in May, 1915. These services were repeated many times throughout the course of the war.


During the interwar period, Selsey, together with other coastal villages at this time, became popular seaside holiday destinations. It was a well-known retreat from the hustle and bustle of London and a number of people even had second homes in the village. Sand competitions were held with prizes being given out, including £2 in 1927. During the 1930s, Selsey saw the arrival of a holiday camp. Broadreeds, which later became Pontins,. There was an increasing demand during the summer on facilities at the camping sites. Old buses were also used for accommodation, as well as carriages from the Selsey tramway.

Selsey’s relative isolation after World War One meant that many famous people were attracted to the village. Such people included actors and singers as it gave them peace from their busy lives in London and other great cities. Eric Coates chose to make Selsey his home. He was a great composer, and produced a number of popular waltzes and marches.


As the war was declared in September, 1939, holidaymakers packed their bags and left Selsey in droves. A searchlight battery was stationed near Bill House, as well as an anti-aircraft battery on the farmland to the west of the Mill.

Selsey gained town status in 1995. The town boasts one of the largest temporary villages in the whole of Western Europe, known as West Sands Bunn Leisure Holiday Village. It is believed that during the summer months the number of people in Selsey swells to exceed 29,000 people.

Today, Selsey’s strong seafaring traditions are kept alive by a small fishing fleet supplying the infamous Selsey crab to restaurants far and wide.

By Amy Roberts, collections officer and Pat Saunders, volunteer at The Novium Museum



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