TRAVEL: Hastings... a modern slice of history
Jeremy Gates finds some of the finest fish - and fattest seagulls - as he explores the south coast of England.
Despite being more than a century old, the steepest working funicular railway in Britain clanked its way steadily up a gorge in the sandstone cliffs to a parkland plateau 267 feet above Hastings Old Town.
From the top of East Hill, the Channel waves had a sparkle we hadn’t noticed at ground level, all the way along the coast to St Leonards and beyond.
Inland, the wide open spaces of the 660-acre Hastings Country Park offered us hardly a stray dog for company. And looking east, we could almost follow a line of shingle beaches, running beyond Fairlight Cove to ancient Rye, a 13th century Cinque port.
So many smugglers thrived on this stretch of the coast that their gravestones in All Saints churchyard are specially marked with a skull and crossbones.
For the return trip, we took the less scenic route down several dozen steps into the Old Town.
Linking these streets which run towards the beach are ‘twittens’ - Sussex alleyways - which have become tightly-packed terraces of their own, some surrounded by spectacular gardens. They provided a key location in Foyle’s War, the BBC TV series of a few years back.
However, the High Street of the Old Town probably brings the 1950s vividly back to life better than any television serial.
There’s an Electric Palace Cinema, elegant tea rooms run by early retired rat-race refugees from London, a ‘Made In Hastings’ shop promoting local craftsmen, and the splendid Judges Bakery serving organic loaves and fine cakes in brown paper bags.
The Flowermakers Museum, inside another shop, was created by an eccentric, flamboyantly dressed lady who worked on the set of Gladiator - as well as other blockbuster films. Directly opposite is a vacant corner plot, festooned in flowers which serve as a memorial to a hotel destroyed by a German fighter plane.
No wonder a glossy magazine calls this place Notting Hill By The Sea.
But could Hastings be the next episode in the long-awaited revival of the English seaside resort?
It’s certainly quirky: take the second-hand bookshop in George Street which serves Thai food freshly cooked on the premises at £13 a pop, if you take your own wine!
More than £7 million of Heritage Lottery Fund money is already earmarked to rebuild the metal structure, decking and railings of The Pier (900ft long and closed to the public since 2006) which burned down last autumn.
Given half a chance, locals ram a collecting box under your nose to speed the rebuilding along. There’s real enthusiasm for this project, possibly to cheer up Queen Victoria, currently surveying the wreckage from her plinth in Warrior Square.
Long before that, in spring 2012, the Jerwood Gallery will be created, a relative snip costing £4 million against the £17 million splashed on Margate’s Turner Gallery, around the headland on the Kent coast.
The Jerwood Collection, which is funding the project, includes pictures by Sir Stanley Spencer, L.S. Lowry, Walter Sickert, Augustus John and many more. They should have massive impact when it opens early next year.
With a lifeboat station and dark blue fishing boats arrayed on the beach, Hastings feels like a rugged, working port - not a softie, Cath Kidston-style creation for the Boden Brigade.
Surrounded by towers of black-painted sheds which store the fishermen’s nets, the slate-covered Jerwood sits squarely on The Stade (‘landing place’), right next door to Eat At The Stade, a restaurant run for the council by Stephen and Louise Kelleher, who brought their family down from London, partly because of the low living costs.
Their smoked salmon sandwiches must be among the freshest served on local authority premises anywhere in England. And there’s a rush for speciality breakfasts (kippers, poached egg and toast all for £5.95) served until 11am.
Of course, any seaside resort these days needs a trendy restaurant to be born again, and Hastings has got that too.
Webbe’s Rock-a-Nore is next door to Rock-a-Nore Fisheries, founded in 1850 and so famous for its finely smoked fish that TV cook Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is among the regulars.
In Webbe’s, you can have a masterclass in cookery before you choose something from the catch on the beach. The starter course alone - which can include oysters with gazpacho, cuttlefish fritters, smoked haddock risotto balls and cod tempura with Thai dipping sauce - will satisfy plenty of appetites.
We ploughed on for a main course too, washed down with a delectable Sancerre. Thank goodness it was only a short walk back to our five-star B&B, Swan House.
Parts of the building date to 1490, though the computer room and decking at the rear probably came a bit later. Stepping into a terraced cottage on a narrow street, you find yourself standing in a large oak-beamed hall with a massive stone fireplace at the far end.
With Shaker-style seats and driftwood benches alongside Provencal wrought-iron chairs, a drinks cabinet available ‘on trust’ to guests, a DVD library and bedside carafes of water, Swan House often feels like a setting for a fashion shoot.
But former archivist Brendan McDonagh, who created this perfect seaside bolt-hole for stressed out townies with partner Lionel Copley, pulls the whole thing together with delectably fresh breakfasts served on stripped pine tables: kippers with parsley butter, scrambled eggs and homemade baked beans, not to mention sausages, mostly gleaned from local suppliers.
Belfast-born McDonagh says business has boomed since he started in 2006.
“It’s families from Europe, Americans too,” he explains. “They start in Dover, spend a day in the open spaces of Romney Marsh and we’re first stop on their route to Stonehenge.”
What a sweep of history! British visitors can content themselves with briefer excursions into the surrounding lanes and byways of East Sussex.
At Great Dixter, gardening fans have the added bonus of a magnificent 15th century house restored and enlarged by Sir Edwin Lutyens. Created by the late Christopher Lloyd, the grounds are tended by his protege Fergus Garrett and a team of young trainees with a delightful gift shop, which appears to be mildly disdainful about the idea of making money.
Burwash, the country house home of Rudyard Kipling, feels like an authentic early 20th century family home with the old boy’s car still in the garage. It’s easy to imagine the writer in his book-lined study, able to hear guns on the Western Front, which had killed his son in 1915.
When you are this close, of course, you must see the setting of the most famous event in British history: an impressive visitors centre at Battle uses film, interactive displays and a battlefield walk to retell the story of 1066 and all that, following the Norman landing at nearby Pevensey.
A modern-day King Harold always looks skyward, when they re-fight the battle each year in October, while the original king has lain serenely beneath the high altar of Battle Abbey for more than 900 years.
Key facts - Hastings
:: Best for: Lots of things for children to see and do which don’t cost much.
:: Time to go: Year-round, though stately homes and gardens close around October.
:: Don’t miss: Once you’ve had your fill of Hastings, head to neighbouring St Leonards to see fine terraces by Decimus Burton and enjoy a meal at St Clements.
:: Need to know: The tourist board provides great brochures and information.
:: Don’t forget: Ear plugs for light sleepers: the seagull choir starts up around 4am.
:: Jeremy Gates was a guest of Swan House, where five-star B&B in a double room starts at £115 per night, with suite from £145 plus £25 per child sharing with parents. Minimum two night stay at weekends, though Wednesday nights in September start at £100 per room. Swan House reservations: 01424 430 014 and www.swanhousehastings.co.uk.
:: Same owners operate The Old Rectory nearby, alongside All Saints Church with double rooms from £135. The Old Rectory: 01424 422 410 and www.theoldrectoryhastings.co.uk.
www.HomeAway.co.uk offers seafront apartment sleeping six in Hastings for £825 per week, in August.
:: For destination information about Hastings and 1066 Country, contact Tourist Information Centre (01424 451 111 and www.visit1066country.com).
:: The Time out New Kent and Sussex guide costs £12.99.