Back in 2012 my partner and I took a week’s touring holiday to South East England; it was partly for me to revisit places I’d known as a child when my grandparents lived in Bexhill-on-Sea, and that I’d not seen since, but also out of curiosity – we felt it was somewhere no longer familiar and probably worth exploring. We were pleasantly surprised by all sorts of things; I wrote about these, along with some other musings on South East England, in this post.
Through an odd turn of fate we’ve become more familiar with one part of this area when we began to visit our elder son who’d moved from Bristol in 2018 to the High Weald near Battle with his partner; her family have connections with this part of Sussex and it’s only a few miles to Bexhill where my grandparents lived. It’s an extraordinarily varied landscape with many contrasts – undulating hills and steep cliffs, marshes and dense, stream-filled woodlands (once the heart of a huge iron working industry in the 17thC that dates even further back to pre-Roman times), and seaside architecture ranging from sedate Regency, extravagant Edwardian, pioneering Modernism, and 1970s brash! Here’s a three-part tour of some of our discoveries and observations along this coast with photos and a little history thrown in for good measure! Hastings below, St Leonards-on-Sea here, and Bexhill-on-Sea here; enjoy your visits!
On our first very brief visit to Hastings in 2012 we saw the land-based fishing fleet at Stade beach with the famous black-tarred, clapboard “Net Shops”, excellent value fish stalls and the adjacent, swanky Jerwood Gallery – now Hasting’s Contemporary – with some fascinating and thoroughly accessible exhibitions. A decade later we’ve become frequent visitors to this surprisingly large town, just 20 minutes drive from our son’s home. We’ve been exploring inland behind the Stade beach where the attractive Old Town is packed into a valley flanked on one side by West Hill, bearing the remains of Hastings castle, and on the other, East Hill, each hill boasting Victorian and Edwardian (respectively) funicular cliff railways. Click on any photo to see the full image.
This valley (last photo in gallery above) once carried the main road from London, fortunately diverted long ago, and the narrow parallel streets leading inland from the Stade – linked by crooked, sometimes steep and often picturesque alleyways – are lined with buildings of mellow old red brick, painted weatherboard or half-timbering with stucco from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries…
…and include shops full of “antiques”, “shabby-chic” furniture, extrovert interior design, up-cycled stuff, and plain old-fashioned junk.
But there is also some more specialised retail in this cluster of streets; in the High Street is a silk flower manufacturer, Shirley Leaf and Petal company that’s been going for over a century and provides flowers for film and theatre all over the world. And it has a tiny basement museum full of unique tools, well worth a visit.
Over the last fifteen years or so the Old Town, along with St Leonards (see related post), has attracted modern day bohemians, hipsters, idiosyncratic style-setters – call them what you will – from London. They come to visit and display their sartorial quirks, then maybe settle – it’s a lot cheaper than London and not far away. It’s been dubbed the Shoreditch of Sussex or Dalston on Sea and the influx is accompanied by mutterings of “gentrification”. Further up the High Street is A G Hendy & Co Home Stores; I wouldn’t like to say if this is the cause, effect or just evidence of gentrification but it is a mesmerising cornucopia of retro utility home wares – natural twine, enamel bowls, feather dusters and earnest authenticity.
Not far away, in the parallel All Saints Street, also owned by the multi-talented Alastair Hendy, is the Tudor House, not a shop but a kind of almost-Tudor time capsule; it’s open occassionally for special events – such as the Jack in the Green weekend in early May, Hastings Summer Carnival, and Christmas. Our only visit so far was in December 2019 it was a very charming, indoor wintery experience. We have yet to witness the Hastings Jack in Green celebration but there’s a vivid description of it here from some years ago.
Artists have enjoyed the sea air, light, and charm of the Old Town for at least a 150 years; the Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his sister Christina were regular visitors to Hastings, staying at rooms in the High Street. Dante finally married his muse and model, Lizzie Siddall in the Old Town’s parish church, St Clements in 1860;
“The love story between Siddal and Rossetti is like that of a tortured adolescent film script: for 10 years they were ‘engaged’, but Rossetti refused to set a wedding date. Neither was easy to live with: Siddal was addicted to the drug laudanum, and Rossetti was serially unfaithful”
For more on this tragic story visit the BBC Culture website this quote is taken from: The tragedy of art’s greatest supermodel, and an excellent read on “Pre-Raphaelites at the Seaside”
However, this “quaint quarter” terminates suddenly as you collide with the modern town centre behind the seafront, and it’s a fairly unlovely, traffic-blighted mess, with decades of inappropriate development and some people clearly struggling with their lives and the environment they find themselves in; the town centre is described on the Hastings Town Deal blog as “Disconnected and unloved”. It’s the 13th most deprived town in England and along with 100 others, has been the recipient of some of the government’s “Levelling Up” fund to “support the regeneration of the town centre and gateway sites over the next decade”. It can only be hoped this will reduce the “health and economic inequalities in the town”
The seafront adjacent to this part of the town is, I think it’s fair to say, the stereotypical ‘kiss-me-quick’ domain – boating lake, trampolines, go-karts, True Crime museum, a great choice of fish and chips, a wide promenade with an alarming mix of multiple users, from toddlers on trikes to speedy electric scooters. And, there’s the pier. In the 1960s this was a leading venue for top bands – The Rolling Stones played there 3 times in 1964 and Jimi Hendrix, The Kinks, The Who and The Zombies in the same era.
“Hastings Pier has such a fantastically rich musical heritage – and is quite unique in how it became the host for waves of new types of music such as progressive and glam rock (Pink Floyd, The Nice, Genesis, Hawkwind, Sparks, T-Rex) and onward into the punk period (Sex Pistols, The Damned, The Clash, The Jam) and in the 1990s, as youth musical culture became more dance orientated again – like in the 1950s – Hastings Pier morphed into a rave party venue featuring acts such as the Prodigy.” The Musical Heritage of Hasting’s Pier – The People’s Pier
Its celebrity status has diminished now but after a few catastrophes (fire, closing down, legal disputes, closing down again after re-opening for a short period) the pier is open and still draws the crowds – judging by the posters it now hosts a fair number of tribute bands, but on our last visit, a wonderfully named event called “Queer on the Pier” was reverberating along the promenade.
To complete the seaside experience there is of course, the long beach with plenty to see; channel shipping, people playing, paddleboarders – or over-assertive waves – and distant views of Beachy Head to the west. The “alcohol-free zone” notices on the promenade railings will prepare you for the fact that anti-social behaviour measures have been required, though it clearly doesn’t stop anyone intent on a tinny or six. The beach is divided into sections by wooden groynes (useful wind shelters), and populated by numerous very savvy, overbearing seagulls, best avoided, but that’s tricky when you take your fish and chips down there to eat!
There’s a bit of sand when the tide’s out, but the beach is mostly shingle, which I’ve realised, has its own attraction; I’ve found many ornate and complex pebbles here, patterned, hieroglyphed and some, worn by time, friction and water have holes all the way through and are known as “hagstones”; they allegedly have some interesting properties …
… and, a weird connection with one-time Hastings resident, the notorious occultist, poet, novelist and English mountaineer, Aleister Crowley who allegedly cursed the town – “Crowley’s curse says that if you have lived in Hastings you can never leave and if you try you will always come back”. Taking a hagstone from the beach and leaving the town may (possibly) provide the only protection…
Leaving the creep-factor behind, the steep shingle bank is good for getting immersed in the sea quickly at high tide, something that used to be a pleasure; however, a month after our last dip there, pollution alerts were issued for every beach between Hastings and Brighton (including several Blue Flag holders) after the discharge of raw sewage into the sea by Southern Water in August 2022; the problem continues. Follow Feargal Sharkey on Twitter.
Follow me a short distance westwards to visit St Leonards-on-Sea…