IT looked like a stage set for Pirates of The Caribbean. More Jolly Rogers than you could shake a cutlass at, flapping from every half-timbered gable in Hastings Old Town.Our photographer pal Chris, an incomer who’s lived here for two decades, was dismissive about the imminent Pirate Day: “Just a load of blokes wanting to slap on eyeliner and be Johnnie Depp for a day”. I didn’t dare ask him if he was up for a hornpipe at the accompanying Shanty Festival!
'The cuckoo in this nautical nest is The Jerwood, a contemporary art gallery whose pewter-glazed tile starkness is meant to complement the net shops'
Chris was kindly showing us round the South Coast’s most unsung destination, a seaside resort that has something for everyone. Our base was the atmospheric Old Town, rough fishermen’s haunt turned arty hub or rather fancifully, ‘Shoreditch on Sea’. Beards, thankfully, were more old sea dog than hipster, but there’s a definite boho vibe.
Fancy a Piece of Cheese? We did
We were staying in our own equivalent of a crow’s nest – the cutest, most shipshape lodging since Captain Cuttle customised his own cabin! Yes, The Piece of Cheese cottage was infested with mice.
Purely decorative, of course. Every cranny, and there are many, boasts a mousy memento. It all starts outside with a cheesy blue plaque proclaiming: ‘Celebrated movie stars Mr & Mrs Michael Mouse once spent their summer holidays here’. We rented this quirky property from Sussex and Kent rental specialists Freedom Holiday Homes. The cottage is not what estate agents call ‘deceptively spacious’. It is definitely cramped but cannily equipped. Cooking is restricted to a hotplate and a microwave, so I’d recommend eating out; the patio is a sheltered sun-trap for reading Treasure Island, say, but there isn’t enough room to sunbathe; it’s dog-friendly but more suitable for our chihuahua, Captain Smidge, than the Great Dane in your life; and, of course, it sleeps just two. The bonus here is the upstairs bedroom is a glorious airy space.
All this is set inside a yellow wedge-shaped building. Hence the name. It’s the second smallest cottage in England and the only three-sided one. Originally, a workshop, it was built for a £5 bet in 1871 and is famous enough to feature as an attraction in The Rough Guide. We loved it for itself and its handy location, just off All Saints Street and close to the seafront and the area they call The Stade and that’s the place to start when exploring Hastings.
The Stade – hooray up she rises
The Stade is still home to the traditional beach-launched fishing fleet (it involves crunching the boat onto the shingle and winching it onshore on oil-greased wooden slats) and the iconic tar-daubed three-storey ‘net shops’, weatherproof stores for fishing gear. The day’s catch is still auctioned off at the Fishmarket, built here in 1993 by a non-profit company on behalf of the fishing community – which is celebrated in the adjacent Fishermen’s Museum, one of the best of its kind. The Shipwreck Museum next door is a bit of a flotsam and jetsam of an attraction, but I quite liked its oddball exhibits. Both Museums are free.
Their own kippers and hot-smoked salmon are the lure at Rock-a-Nore Fisheries conveniently next to the hearty Dolphin pub), but it’s hard hereabouts to resist fish in battered form. The much-touted chippie is Maggie’s above the Fishmarket (lunchtimes only, must book), but with Captain Smidge in tow, we settled for a takeaway (excellent) from the Blue Dolphin. At weekends go for Pat and Tush’s stall selling hot fish rolls; if you don’t want bread you get double fish!
The cuckoo in this nautical nest is The Jerwood, a contemporary art gallery whose pewter-glazed tile starkness is meant to complement the net shops. It houses the Jerwood collection of 20th and 21st century art, including Stanley Spencers and Lowry’s. It was closed for a week of ‘rehanging’, so I can’t pass judgement. Architectural critics love it; Stade diehards, who feel it rides roughshod over their heritage, don’t. The transformation of this foreshore is hardly a yuppie landslide. A cliff-hugging apartment complex in blackened timber (what else?) looks stillborn for the moment.
Beyond the old tars’ territory
Captain Smidge as mermaidFrom behind The Jerwood, a miniature railway runs 600 yards to the carousels, crazy golf and boating pools clustering by the pebble beach. Here and in the amusement arcades across the wide seafront boulevard Hastings reverts to the typical British seaside resort. In the wrong weather, bracing, as they say. It’s good to see money is being spent to restore The Pier, devastated by fire four years ago. Further along the esplanade, alongside the beach amazingly, you come upon Britain’s first underground car park (Carlisle Parade, 1931). Reinforced concrete with Art Deco flourishes, if you are interested. Best of all is the bizarre lower deck walkway called Bottle Alley, featuring long mosaics of broken, coloured glass. It all adds to the fascinating oddness of Hastings.
We came upon it en route for the new happening quarter to the west of the town centre, St Leonard’s. In truth it’s only happening along the main drag, Norman Road with a cluster of galleries and eateries. A reward for the climb was a pint of Harvey’s Sussex Bitter in old-fashioned boozer the Horse and Groom at the summit.
It’s pub o’clock, then time for some smuggling
Hastings is blessed with some fine hostelries, notably in The Old Town. Try the First In, Last Out (The FILO) with its own brewery and excellent tapas on Monday evenings, The Stag, Hastings’ oldest pub with folk and bluegrass nights (and the occasional shanty session) and our Piece of Cheese local The Dolphin. Even closer to the cottage, The Crown on All Saints Street was about to reopen as an impressive-looking craft ale house. Another reason to return. Further out, in the village of Pett we liked The Two Sawyers and its flower-decked beer garden.
Our most distinctive meal in Hastings was in a quirky George Street bookshop, Boulevard Books, which opens in the evening as a Thai restaurant, with a bargain menu of £13 for two courses and £2 BYO corkage. George Street and the High Street are great cafe and antique shop territory. It’s a lovely architectural mishmash. Across the busy Rye road, the area around Alll Saints Street, parts dating back to the 13th century, is full of curious “twittens” – curious little passageways to wander into.
Smuggler's tableauBut the best way to walk off all the cake and fish and chips is to walk up the East and West Hills, which tower over the harbour. For the faint-hearted, each has a funicular rail lift from the Town. The East Hill gives access to a clifftop country park; the West boasts the ruined Castle and, more interestingly, The Smugglers Adventure, acres of caverns one used for the dangerous trade of contraband, which is brought to life in a series of eerily lit, interactive tableaux. Lots of fun, if you are not quite ready to become a fully-fledged pirate!
Out and About from Hastings
The Battle of Hastings took place a few miles inland. You can visit the battlefield and adjacent Battle Abbey in the quaint. little town of that name. There’s lots else of interest, too. Opposite the Abbey, Yesterdays World displays one of the finest collection of social history artefacts in the country. For full details of what to do in Battle visit this link.
There are two vineyards to visit in 1066 Country, both with tasting rooms and trails among the vines. Carr Taylor, who launched the English sparkling wine industry are big players; I preferred the biodynamic wines of Roy Cook at Sedlescombe. Nearby is Bodiam Castle, a storybook example dating back to 1385. Perfect for the kids.
Spike's HeadstoneRye, further east along the coast from Hastings, is one of the most delightful towns in England, bur don’t neglect much smaller Winchelsea on the way. Once in the days of King Edward I it was one of the most important ports in England, but a combination of the Black Death and the sea retreating destroyed its importance. Today it is just a sleepy village, dominated by the tremendous church of St Thomas The Martyr. Testimony to Winchelsea’s former greatness are the Adlard tombs inside, featuring a rare carved likeness of King Edward. Also don’t miss some terrific 20th century stained glass and the headstone of comedian Spike Milligan. For propriety’s sake the Diocese insisted his epitaph “I told you I was ill” should be engraved in Gaelic!
The Stade seafront and its dramatic cliff backdrop (CP)
To enquire about the Piece of Cheese and other Freedom Holiday Homes properties visit www.freedomholidayhomes.co.uk. Our rental for three nights in July/August peak season would cost £371, but the price for a similar period in September is £334 and October just £236.
Chris Parker Photography: www.parkerphotography.co.uk. Chris kindly let me use some of his pictures (those marked CP, if you can't tell!)
For tourism information for the whole area visit this link.
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