Another South Coast weekend away that isn’t Brighton or Eastbourne…
There’s much more to Hastings than the battle that didn’t even happen there – that was six miles away. A pretty little Old Town full of distinctive shops, a fishing fleet of small boats hauled up on the shingle, Britain’s steepest cliff lift, a bracing prom walk and the famous “twittens”.
They’ve made big changes in Hastings, building a shopping centre where the county cricket ground used to be. But the beating heart, the pre-C19th Old Town, is largely as it was. It’s good for a browse: authentic and distinctive independent shops in George Street and High Street sell anything from antiques to organic food, via 1940s style dresses and glass sculpture. There’s a rich choice of one-off bakeries and cafes in High Street – try Café Maroc and Judges Bakery. There are raised pavements with Victorian cast iron hand rails, handsome old buildings and tantalising “twittens” – little passages leading off. The First and Last pub (FILO)in High Street brews its own beer – the logo is a cat on the tiles – just up the road. They do occasional tours.
Step in style
Hastings changes style in a few short steps. Start in the west at St Leonards, England’s first purpose built seaside resort, 250 years old in 2011. We dined well in St Clements Restaurant (joined to the Horse and Groom pub, St Leonards’ oldest) then walked east past Marine Court, the 1937 art decor block styled on the liner Queen Mary and along the prom. The Georgian Pelham Crescent was as good as Brighton – Bath even. Hastings is a routine resort in the middle. Then comesthe Slade, all wooden boats and fishermen’s huts on the shingle. For a finale an exhilarating ascent in the East Hill Lift, to wide open grassy heights, with wonderful views back over the town’s terracotta roofs. (The West Hill Lift is the UK’s steepest funicular railway.)
They were fishing sparingly in Hastings, caring for the future of our seas, long before Channel 4’s Fish Fight campaign. The town boasts Europe’s biggest fleet of small fishing boats that have to be launched from the shingly beach. Because they are small, they keep to local waters and don”t catch too much. So no overfishing, and no discarded, wasted catches. One of the best places to taste this haul is Webbe’s at Rockanore. They serve as much sustainable fish as possible, and can even tell you the boat that caught your order. Expect delicious preparations of lesser-known non-endangered fish, such as gurnard, pollack and razor clams. Try the steamed flounder with mussel and cider sauce.
Rags to riches
Even if your interest in painting goes no further than redecorating your bedroom, raise a brush to salute Robert Tressell, probably the most illustrious painter-writer there’s been. His book The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is an account of his hard years decorating the town”s big houses between 1906 and 1910. You feel every laborious brush stroke, the deep chill and the long hours. There’s an exhibition on his life and work, with photos of the town as it was, in the Hastings Museum and Art Gallery. I also like the Hastings Fishermen’s Museum, with its jumble of photos, memories of marine heritage and interesting items hauled up in fishing nets.
William wins away
Hastings will always, and imprecisely, be associated with our worst home defeat. William actually overcame Harold at Senlac Hill, next to the correctly-named town of Battle. It’s worth the six mile trip to the atmospheric sloping site, the size of several football fields. In my imagination I was already back in 1066, as the spectral arrows hailed down. English Heritage’s audio guide completed the picture, helped by Saxon thane Aelfric and Norman knight Henri d’Evereux, my companions from both sides of the combat. The trail is studded with informative point-of-view boards headed ”Stalemate”, ”The afternoon assault” and ”Norman trick tactics” and so on.
Rooms that rock
They were playing Jack Johnson at Black Rock, a transformed Victorian villa in a quiet road on a Hastings hill. In an an earlier incarnation music of choice might have been Mantovani. This is an example of how far the bright new crop of boutique B&Bs have moved from the traditional model, when tourists shared the portion-controlled breakfast with commercial travellers and repertory actors, and you tiptoed down a creaky corridor to the bathroom in the middle of the night. The delight is in the detail – rainfall shower, Pecksniffs toiletries, Egyptian linen and designer décor in our room, the Sea View, all light pastel shades. Sunlight streamed in through floor to ceiling windows. In our companion’s room, the bathroom was in a turret. This B&B won a VisitEngland’s Breakfast award.