Sunday, April 1st 2012
We are off to Hastings today, that ever intriguing town with so many historic associations. Despite the sunshine, it is quite chilly and I have a scarf and gloves for extra warmth. We walked down the hill to St Pancras and while Tigger queued for tickets I went upstairs to the Camden Food Co only to find them closed. Instead we made do with coffee and croissants from Paul. We had breakfast on the HS1 as it speeded south.
Apparently from nowhere, a tiny caterpillar appeared on one of our paper napkins. There was nowhere appropriate to put it so we decided to keep it on the napkin until we could release it among plants. After an active period, the caterpillar became dormant and therefore easy to carry about in the paper napkin.
We had to change trains at Ashford International, still carrying the caterpillar in its paper cradle, and duly arrived at Hastings, where I transferred the caterpillar to a clump of trees. The rest is up to him and nature.
We headed for the town, passing the big old pub (now a “retro bar”, whatever that is) shown above, and walking through Priory Meadow shopping centre where this lively sculpture, by Alan Sly, of a cricketer by in full swing is to be found. The plate on the ground tells us that the shopping centre now occupies land that was once the Central Cricket and Recreation Ground with a 130-year history behind it. Sadly, the only memory left of its original purpose is the sculpture, entitled The Spirit of Cricket.
We paid a visit to this building. Once it was the town’s courthouse but has now been recycled for other purposes. One of which is to provide accommodation for the tourist information office. It’s always worth going there to see what information they have on local events. The office has rather pretty stained glass windows of which the above is a sample.
Our way took us through Queen’s Arcade, a Victorian “shopping centre” inaugurated in 1882. I deliberately caught it at a moment when it was quiet so that you can people it in imagination with elegantly dressed late Victorian shoppers.
This short underpass (complete with obligatory busker) leads to the Old Town, an area of narrow streets, antiques shops and, further on, the seafront and the fishing port.
A main artery of the old town is George Street, a place of antiques and secondhand shops, eateries and pubs and a certain amount of studied quaintness.
George Street is a pleasant place to stroll on a sunny day and has much to interest the casual explorer and perhaps also the dedicated antiques buff and bargain hunter. There are plenty of places to have lunch, too.
Have you ever heard of the “Topographical Water-Colourist”, Samuel Prout? I must admit that I hadn’t until I saw this unusually sited blue plaque in his honour, placed by the Old Hastings Preservation Society. Nonetheless, it adds a certain nuance to George Street, and you will find out more about Samuel here and on other Web sites.
The Olde Pumphouse is a Grade II listed building and has an appropriately “olde” appearance, together with an “olde” pump stuck on the façade, but I somehow don’t think it’s quite as olde as it cracks on.
We just missed this ceremony whose last actions were being performed for press and photographers. The Winkle Club has existed in Hastings since 1900. Its goals are to support underprivileged families in the town and, like all charities, it arranges and sponsors all sorts of events to raise money. An area on the seafront has been set aside and called Winkle Island, and that is the site of this sculpture, made of metal, replacing an older one of stone that was vandalized. It also includes a collecting box for donations, as being ably if ceremonially demonstrated here.
Our goal was here, the Jerwood Gallery, a recently opened gallery of modern art. It stands on a part of the seafront known as The Stade (more about that anon) and this has led to controversy and local opposition – see, for example, the Jerwood-no Website. Not being local, and therefore not having strong feelings about the gallery’s siting, I was nonetheless tentative about visiting it because, well, let’s just say that much modern art goes right over my head. I find it difficult to distinguish the works of some modern artists from pure rubbish. Admission to the Jerwood will currently cost you £7 per adult and photography is not allowed, so I am unable to show you any on the works. Had photography been allowed, there would have been precious few works I would have wished to remember, and those few were all the more welcome for their rarity.
After the visit to the gallery, we continued along the Stade. This is an area of beach used by fishermen to haul out their boats, to sell fish and to keep their “Net Shops”. There is also a small but well kept Fishermen’s Museum that is well worth a visit, though we did not go in today. (Admission free but donations welcome.) This beach has been used for centuries by fishermen for their activities and as such has both practical value and historic importance. it is therefore not surprising that any encroachment on it raises strong feelings.
After the boats, the most characteristic feature of the Stade is the “Net Shops”, tall and narrow buildings of wood. These are not shops in the retail sense (though some may now be used as such) but places of storage for fishermen’s nets and other gear. Their design is unique to Hastings and derives from a time when the sea came much closer inshore and space was at a premium. Each owner was allocated a small amount of ground, forcing the sheds to grow tall instead of spreading sideways.
This is a very busy piece of land and a lot is going on here, and not only to do with the fishing industry.
This is not the tidiest, cleanest piece of seashore you will ever see but it has to be remembered that this is a working beach where people make their living. To both east and west there is plenty of clean shingle beach for sunbathing and swimming.
Beyond the breakwater the delimits the Stade, the shingle beach is clean and affords distant views along the coast.
Immediately behind the beach are the cliffs. (There is a ruined castle at the top which we will visit another time.) To scale these heights, there are two lifts or cliff railways, of a type often called funicular. Pictured here is the East Hill Lift, built in 1904. The West Hill Lift, its sibling, is very similar. Both still operate, carrying passengers up and down the steeply inclined track. Two carriages act as counterbalances to one another, one going up as the other descends.
We walked back along the beach and passed the Miniature Railway. The locos are models of real engines, modified as necessary to be driven by full-sized humans. Adults and children can ride the special carriages and take a trip in novel fashion along the shore.
We had heard that there was to be a parade of old military vehicles and kept our eyes open for them but all I had managed to catch so far was this glimpse of a passing vintage car (note the chaps in uniform in the back). Even the good people at the tourist information office knew nothing about it. The parade, or the AA Commemorative Military Road Run, to give it it official title, was supposed to have left Sevenoaks that morning, heading for Hastings. Where was it?
We eventually located the vehicles drawn up on parade in good order in the car park on the Stade. (This view is from the cafe terrace of the Jerwood Gallery.) Apart from the fun of taking part, enthusiasts of old military vehicles, many of them in WWII uniforms, had the satisfaction of knowing that they were raising funds for the charity Combat Stress which supports members of the armed forces suffering from post-traumatic stress.
There was a wide range of vehicle types, of which I show just two above. My ignorance of military affairs does not allow me to recognize the different vehicles but I did see that most were British or American. All were in fine condition despite their age.
Personally, I preferred the civilian vehicles, though I was not always sure what their connection was with the parade. They were all in immaculate condition, like this pair of blue and red Ford cars. You would not have had to ask me twice to take a ride in one of these!
Following side streets and alleys, we returned to George Street in quest of lunch, which we found in a small cafe bar. Afterwards, we set off westwards along the seafront, deviating here and there as interest led us. There is so much to see here that it would take a book to catalogue it all and the most I can do is to pick out a few highlights, knowing that I am leaving our far more than I am showing.
We visited the slightly strange Pelham Crescent, perched above the seafront with shops below it (Pelham Parade), spoilt by the intrusive roof of establishments below. Built in the 1820s by Thomas Pelham, Earl of Chichester, hoping to cash in on the rising popularity of Hastings, the Crescent fronts the castle rock, itself riddled with caves dug by smugglers. The church, with its surely oversized portal, is called St Mary-in-the-Castle in reference to the chapel that once existed in the castle. These days it is an arts centre. At one end of the crescant, scaffolding appertaining to what seem to be permanent building works somewhat spoils the visual appeal of this unique stand of houses.
Now a Yates’s pub, this building was once the music hall. (Did it have a name? If so I haven’t found it.) As far as I can tell, it was not a particularly distinguished music hall and its one claim to fame is the event commemorated on the blue plaque affixed to the façade (see above): on November 6th, 1861, Charles Dickens here read to an appreciative audience passages from A Christmas Carol and The Pickwick Papers.
Beside Holy Trinity Church stands this drinking fountain, erected in 1861 in honour of Sarah, Countess of Waldegrave “in grateful commemoration of the constant support afforded by her to the religious and benevolent institutions of the borough and neighbourhood”. One panel carries the usual religious text that seems to be obligatory on Victorian fountains, but what caught my attention was the inscription about funding. This tells us that the fountain was financed by subscription by the inhabitants of Hastings and St Leonards, “including the pence of children and young persons educated in the national schools”. It’s good that the children’s “pence”, like the widow’s mite, are remembered, but one wonders how much pressure was put upon the children to provide money that the poorer families might have found difficult to spare. Time has dealt harshly with the fountain which is rather worn and from which quite large pieces are missing.
As a one-time library worker, I am always interested in libraries. This handsome building dates from 1881 and was the gift of Thomas Brassey, local MP and generous supporter of the town. Though a recent Act of Parliament had given local authorities powers to set up public libraries, Brassey felt that it was less complicated for him to donate a library outright than to enter into a possibly complicated financial partnership with the local authority. The institute he founded today happily accommodates the public library.
Like all self-respecting seaside towns, especially one whose history as a resort goes back to Victorian and even Georgian times, Hastings has a pier. Unfortunately, that pier is currently in a parlous condition. A glimpse through the protective netting on the gate (see below) gives some idea of the damage.
All seemed well until 1990 when a severe storm caused heavy damage. The pier had to be closed between 1999 and 2002 and again in 2006, while attempts were made to save it. In a curious echo of the tragedy of Brighton’s West Pier, in the early hours of October 5th 2010 an arson attack caused almost complete destruction of what remained of the pier. The building is privately owned but has received lottery funding to help restore the historic structure. In view of the apparent reluctance of the owners to proceed with restoration work, the council has issued a compulsory purchase order and hopes to gain control of the pier by this summer. Can it be saved? Wil it be saved?
On a happier note, the council’s flower beds were beautifully in bloom, and an appreciative ginger-tailed bumblebee was hard at work gathering pollen, both making a pretty sight.
We eventually reached Warrior Square with its handsome gardens. Warrior Square is in St Leonards and even though this is not a tremendous distance from Hastings Old Town, it is quite a good walk from there to here.
In front of the gardens is a rather fine bronze statue of Queen Victoria. According to the foundry marks, this was created in 1902. You would hardly think of Queen Victoria as a victim of the Second World War, would you, given that she died in 1901. But what about that hole at about the position of her right knee? Set in the pavement in front of the statue is a plaque and I can do no better than to quote its text:
THE BRONZE STANDING FIGURE
OF QUEEN VICTORIA ON A
POLISHED PINK GRANITE PEDESTAL
WAS COMMISSIONED BY HASTINGS
CORPORATION FROM THE SCULPTOR
FRANCIS JOHN WILLIAMSON
AND SUBSEQUENTLY UNVEILED
IN 1903. DAMAGE TO THE KNEE OF
THE STATUE WAS CAUSED IN 1942
BY A STRAY BULLET FROM AN
Despite having had lunch, we were feeling a little peckish and thought me might find coffee and a slice of cake in St Leonards. We walked up the hill to King’s Street (the right branch in the above photo) where there are cafes and a nice bakery but, unfortunately, St Leonards seems to close down on Sundays. All we saw open were a few burger and kebab places – not what we were looking for.
Nothing daunted, we tucked up our coat tails and started back along the way we had come, heading back towards Hastings.
Part way along the seafront is the White Rock Hotel and its cafe-bar is open to the public. It was quite busy but we managed to satisfy our craving for coffee and cake. Then we went to the nearby bus stop and were soon conveyed back to the station.
The journey was uneventful but this time we caught a train that took us to London Bridge. On the bridge, while waiting for a bus, I took my last photo of the day. If you have read other posts of mine you will perhaps know how much I deprecate the monstrous tower called The Shard. However, seeing it with the moon hovering above it, I thought it was worth a photo, so here it is.