An irresistible market town, Arundel is on the steep west side of the Arun Valley as it drops to the river.
High on the chalk ridge are Arundel Castle, seat of the Howards for nearly 1,000 years, and a Gothic Revival cathedral that could have been teleported here from northern France.
Arundel has lots of gorgeous Georgian and Victorian period houses, and is a real find for art lovers, with many galleries and studios for such a small town, as well as a thriving arts festival at the end of August.
The town is also on the cusp of the South Downs National Park and a few short miles from the West Sussex coast for all the fun of the seaside.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Arundel:
1. Arundel Castle
One of England’s longest inhabited country houses, Arundel Castle has belonged to the Howard family, the Dukes of Norfolk, since the 11th century.
The castle was founded in 1067, less than a year into the Norman Conquest and by the middle of the 12th century the wooden fortress on the motte (earthwork mound) was upgraded to stone.
The castle was almost ruined in the Civil War, but was restored in the 18th century and then almost totally rebuilt from the 1870s to the 1890s to become one of Victorian England’s most prized Gothic Revival monuments.
The collections of the Dukes of Norfolk are lavish, and feature art by Canaletto, Gainsborough, Mijtens and van Dyck, as well as antique decorative arts like furniture and tapestries.
The castle’s old servants’ hall has been converted into a restaurant, while the former pantry is now a cosy coffee shop.
2. St Nicholas’ Church/Fitzalan Chapel
In Arundel Castle’s western grounds is a very unusual Perpendicular Gothic church, divided into two separate worship areas for Anglicans and Catholics.
Originally this was all the Fitzalan Chapel, raised in 1380 by Richard Fitzalan, the 11th Earl of Arundel.
When the castle was besieged in the Civil War in the mid-17th century the chapel was badly damaged and then fell into decline.
In the century that followed the west side of the building became an Anglican place of worship, while the chapel was restored in the 1830s.
There’s a ton of fittings and monuments to ponder, both in the chapel and church.
Some standouts are the 14th-century iron grille between the chapel and church crossing, the many 14th and 15th-century brasses and tomb chests in the Fitzalan Chapel, a fine 15th-century Spanish crucifix and a cinquefoil piscina and 14th-century fresco, both on the south transept.
3. Collector Earl’s Garden
On high ground to the west of the church and framed by the majestic Arundel Cathedral is a formal garden laid out in 2008 and included with entry to the castle.
This delicate Jacobean-style formal garden is a nod to Thomas Howard, the 14th Early of Arundel (1585-1646). He earned a reputation as one of England’s first art collectors, acquiring many of the works, like the Mijtens and van Dyck portraits, that form the basis of Arundel Castle’s collection.
The rescued a piece of the old grounds that had been covered with a car park.
The garden is made up of a system of “courts”, with precisely clipped lawns and hedges, Baroque-style stonework, a stumpery (comprising gnarled tree stumps) and two Victorian glasshouses.
The showpiece is a recreation of Inigo Jones’ “Oberon’s Palace”, sitting atop a rockwork mountain and surrounded by palm and rare ferns.
4. Arundel Cathedral
One of England’s most beloved Gothic Revival churches, Arundel Cathedral was built at the turn of the 1870s and echoes the great French Medieval cathedrals, particularly Bourges.
This was a Catholic parish church until the Roman Catholic Diocese of Arundel of Brighton was set up in 1965. The setting is glorious, elevated above the west bank of the Arun surveying the valley where it unfolds on to the coastal plain.
Go in to marvel at the workmanship, looking up at the soaring rib vaults, stained glass and tracery in the rose window.
5. South Downs
Arundel is surrounded on three sides by the UK’s newest national park, designated in 2011. Most of the park is taken up by the South Downs, a range of undulating chalk hills covered with lush grassland and woven with clear streams.
There’s no better way to appreciate the downs than on foot, and you can do this from the town.
Arundel’s website has a choice of four circular walks, into Arundel Castle’s park and through the Arun Valley.
If you’ve got the energy for a day hike you can get onto two famous trails within minutes of Arundel.
The South Downs Way starts in Winchester and ends in Eastbourne, grazing Amberley, while the epic Monarch’s Way retraces the future Charles II’s escape from England in 1651, crossing the downs and ending not far east at Shoreham where he set sail for France.
6. Arundel Museum
Local museums are always a good way to get a handle on a town, and Arundel’s is no different.
The attraction is manned by volunteers and its future was in doubt in the 2000s before securing a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund and moving into a new riverside home across from the Lower Castle Gate in 2013. In bright, well laid-out galleries you can get to know Arundel’s prehistoric past, find out about trade on the Arun River and view tools like bellows and anvils from when Arundel was an industrial hub in the early 20th century.
There’s an 18th-century sedan for the mayor, a Roman stylus, Cretaceous sea fossils and the preserved remains of a local early man from 500,000 years ago.
7. Bignor Roman Villa
In 1811 a farmer ploughing a field on the Bignor estate struck upon this opulent Roman villa.
The villa was soon excavated and became a visitor attraction within three years.
The site is still owned by the family of the farmer who first found it, and some of the appeal comes from the handsome Georgian shelters erected over the site 200 years ago.
In store at the villa are some of the finest Roman mosaics found in the UK, heralded both for their state of preservation and craftsmanship.
One depicts Medusa’s severed head and another spellbinding work shows Ganymede being abducted by Zeus disguised as an eagle.
Right beside the site is the Nyetimber vineyard, one of the stars of southern England’s growing sparkling wine industry.
8. Arundel Wetland Centre
Managed by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust is just beyond the Castle Park, around the bend in the Arun.
The wetlands sit below the Offham Hanger, a pretty tract of elevated woodland in the south downs.
The centre is more than a typical nature reserve as it has a captive collection of bird species on display, among them rare Hawaiian geese, Australian wood ducks and endangered marbled ducks from the Mediterranean.
The wetlands are habitat for lots of wild species, including varieties of warblers, tits, geese, ducks and kingfishers.
A boardwalk carries you over the water and reedbeds, and eight hides for spotting wildlife.
You can take boat safaris in the reedbed channels, while kids can have fun pond dipping, feeding geese and exploring the wildlife themed playground.
9. Amberley Museum and Heritage Centre
In 36 scenic acres of South Downs countryside, the Amberley Museum and Heritage Centre is all about South East England’s industrial heritage.
The museum is on what used to be a Victorian chalk quarry, and has a few structures leftover from this operation, like kilns, a DeWitt steam engine, locomotive shed, bagging shed and offices.
Other buildings have been moved to the site, including a 1920s bus depot, a rural telephone exchange, a metal foundry, a roadside cafe from the 1930s and many more.
From place to place you can see authentic tools for old-school trades like cobbling, pottery printing, brick-making, wheel-making and blacksmithing.
There’s a narrow gauge railway almost half a kilometre long, and a neat collection of historic buses, nearly all in working condition and dating between 1914 and 1937.
10. Tangmere Military and Aviation Museum
The old Royal Air Force base 15 minutes away at Tangmere has a compelling history.
Founded in 1916, it was used by the now defunct United States Army Air Forces in the interwar years before becoming a key base in the Battle of Britain, suffering a raid by hundreds of Stuka dive bombers in August 1940. After the war the RAF’s High Speed Flight tests took place here, setting world air speed records in 1946 and 1953. Since the 1960s the airfield has reverted to farmland, but two hangars and a small fleet of aircraft outside are a reminder of what came before.
Two key exhibits are the Gloster Meteor and Hawker Hurricane that broke that air speed record in 1946 and 1953 respectively.
11. Swanbourne Lake
Right next to the Arundel Wetland Centre is a large reservoir wreathed in woodland and the steep slopes of the South Downs.
Swanbourne Lake is exceptionally old for a man-made body of water, going back to before the Domesday Book in 1086. The water is partly walled by chalk cliffs, while on the east bank is the Swanbourne Lodge.
This fabulous split flintstone Jacobethan building dates to 1852 and houses a cafe for cream teas, ice cream or light meals.
For a small charge you can hire a rowboat in the summer, and life jackets are provided in the cost.
12. Aldingbourne Country Centre
This family-oriented open farm is managed by the Aldingbourne Trust, a charity helping adults with learning difficulties receive training, education and jobs.
The Country Centre is partly staffed by people from this background and has all sorts of domestic animals like friendly goats, ponies, chickens, alpacas and turkeys.
There’s a relaxing patch of woodland to walk in, while little ones can take tractor rides, play mini-golf or tackle the castle-themed playground.
Also at the centre is a cafe serving healthy food and sourcing some of its produce from the farm’s own vegetable garden.
13. Arundel Farmers’ Market
For the best of the Sussex and Hampshire countryside, the Arundel Farmers’ Market trades in the town centre on the third Saturday of the month.
Almost everything sold here is grown, made or reared within 40 miles of Arundel.
This might be poultry, meat, dairy, preserves, fruit and vegetables, cakes, pies, bread, herbs and flowers.
You can also sip a hot cup of locally roasted coffee or buy a bag to take home with you, and may be pleased to know that you’re supporting local farms and businesses shopping here.
People visiting Arundel with younger children may be happy to learn that there’s a seaside town only ten minutes to the south.
Littlehampton is at the mouth of the Arun and ticks all the boxes for an English coastal resort.
East of the river is a continuous pebble beach fringed by colourful beach huts and a promenade.
Lining the east bank of the Arun are pubs, fish and chip shops and restaurants with terraces where you can watch the yachts drift past in summer.
The charming Norfolk Gardens has an adorable miniature railway, as well as miniature golf and a pitch & putt course.
15. Arundel Festival
Across ten days in August people pour into Arundel for hundreds of music, drama, street theatre performances and art.
Arundel’s surfeit of art galleries and studios also open their doors for the Arundel Gallery Trail.
This involves 65 different locations – remarkable for such a small town – and has 150 artists taking part.
It’s a rare opportunity to meet skilled painters, ceramicists, illustrators, sculptors, furniture makers, printers and more, and there’s the bonus of seeing inside many of Arundel’s beautiful period homes.
The Arundel Festival takes place in the ten days up to Bank Holiday Monday, and on the last Saturday there’s a raucous dragon boat race on the Arun for charity.