I AM standing on the main road that divides Hastings Old Town with the seafront. To my left, the tired looking funfair is framed by the English Channel; wave after wave of silky green ocean stretches out to France. The fairground - this wonderfully garish tradition of the British seaside, with its swirling helter skelter, dodgem cars and cluster of doughnut stalls, is being enjoyed only by a small attitude of local teens, who should probably well be at school. It's a little bleak on a grey and blustery Thursday in autumn.
Take a half-step turn to my right however, and the view is somewhat changed. Individual clapboard buildings are painted in fresh chalky grey, peppermint green and milky seaside blue. Timbered cottages and red tile houses have become shops, cafes, restaurants and traditional pie and mash shops. Seagulls swoop looking for titbits and the scents of salt and vinegar and frying fish and chips waft invitingly in the air.
Hastings was once a popular Victorian south coast resort that fell into deprivation and neglect. The shell of its famous pier wrecked by a fire in 2010 was one final stark reminder of better times.
After many years on the dark side, however, it’s most definitely on the up. The town has seen a transformation of significant proportions over the last ten years. The D-F-L’s (Down-from-London’s) have moved in and the pound shops have moved out (almost). The town once coined Costa-Del-Dole is now termed Notting-Hill-on-Sea, and all in a decade. Nice work.
Its reinvention received an added boost when The Jerwood Gallery opened its doors in March this year.
The Old Town
The compact Old Town is a blend of Tudor, Georgian and Victorian architecture harmoniously lining the curving streets. Awash with dainty hand-painted shop fronts, selling everything from English cheeses to Victorian bicycles (available to hire); paintings and antiques to a shop with the sole purpose of selling artificial flowers.
There are independent restaurants aplenty and cafe life is booming, with outdoor tables lining the blustery High Street. Cath Kidston polka dot and flowery prints are on display in so many places one would think they were on a Kidston pilgrimage.
A dreadlocked man in sunglasses strums flamenco rhythms on guitar, sitting on a bench in the Maritime Garden at a crossroads on a High Street thronged by fashionable thirtysomethings.
Courthouse Street is like being in London’s Portobello with a seaside twist. Colourful bunting swings merrily in the wind. The oldest building in Hastings, The Old Courthouse, dates back to 1450, its twisted timber beams still supporting the original building on the corner of the street. The History House has an exhibition of local history, for free.
At the edge of the Old Town, The Cutter Pub, with its dark and tattered decoration and beer-drenched carpets is not entirely appealing. The exterior is dreary with peeling paint covering the original façade. But the ‘blue plaque’ shows the artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti stayed here in 1860 before his wedding to Elizabeth Siddal in the nearby Clements Church. Hastings has other literary connections too – Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, published in 1914, was based on the town.
Eating and Drinking
In the Old Town there is winter comfort food aplenty wherever you turn your head. Traditional pie and mash, and proper fish and chips from the The Blue Dolphin Fish Bar on the High Street. There is a good scattering of well priced restaurants too, offering everything from tapas to locally caught seafood.
The Pomegranate on Market Street is particularly eye-catching with a menu mainly dedicated to fresh-off-the-boat fish and seafood (starters around £6, mains £15).
The opening of The Jerwood Gallery has changed the face of The Stade – the Old Town fishing port, where tar-stained huts sell jellied eels, seafood and fish. I’ve always found fish and art to be a winning combination; there’s nothing quite like picking up fresh mackerel along with a visceral experience. It’s the first time that the Jerwood Permanent Collection of paintings, including works by L.S. Lowry and Stanley Spencer, have been on public display; so a first for the art world and Hastings itself.
Hastings lies below a jagged cliff top. You can reach the top in old-fashioned glory. The West Cliff Railway takes you up to Hastings Castle, while the East Cliff Railway goes to Hastings Country Park. If you want to venture away from the Old Town then there are amusements galore back at the seafront and lots of shopping opportunities in the modern side of town.
That’s what makes Hastings special to me. It’s a place of contrasts, its fortunes found and lost, only to reemerge once more. Long may its funfair rides and art galleries reign.
Black Rock House is a beautifully restored Victorian villa with sea views and within easy reach of the beach, Hastings Station and the Old Town.
It’s a member of ‘Sussex Breakfast’, an initiative that showcases hotels that make their breakfast from at least 60 per cent local, seasonal ingredients, sourced direct from the producer or local farmers.
The Blue Plaque trail www.culturetrail.co.uk
The Hastings Museum & Art Gallery has a permanent collection of coastal landscapes including Fishmarket On The Sands by JMW Turner. http://hastingsmuseum.org
The Electric Palace Cinema in a dinky High Street townhouse has an excellent programme of art house and world cinema. www.electricpalacecinema.com
The White Rock Theatre on the seafront has a traditional programme of comedy, theatre, and touring musicals. https://whiterocktheatre.org.uk
For further information about the Jerwood Gallery, go to www.jerwoodgallery.org.
There are regular train and coach services from London. Charing Cross and Victoria to Hastings take between 1 hour 30 minutes and 2 hours. Coaches from Victoria to Hastings take 2 hours 25 minutes (fastest service).
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