Saturday, June 23rd 2012
Eastbourne is a well known and popular seaside resort on the Sussex coast. Quieter and more sedate than its more exuberant neighbour to the west, Brighton, it nevertheless has hidden depths and we discover new things on every visit.
Eastbourne likes to claim that it is sunnier than other places. This has been contested and these days the town refers to itself as “The Sunshine Coast”, which implies meteorological advantages without making any specific claim. It was a nice enough day today though at times dark clouds gathered as if to threaten rain, as in the photo below.
The railway reached Eastbourne in 1849, making its amenities and charms easily available to lovers of the seaside. Its first station building seems to have disappeared without trace and the current one, complete with a handsome clock tower, was built in 1886.
We had a particular visit in mind and set off there on foot from the station. On the way I took this photo looking along Furness Road. Eastbourne is surrounded by green countryside with the South Downs behind it. This may explain the favourable climate – always assuming that there is some truth in the publicity!
We were heading into a district of Eastbourne called Devonshire Park because the land was once owned by the Duke of Devonshire. It is no coincidence to find Eastbourne College here because it was founded by the Duke and other interested persons in 1867 and seems still to be flourishing. It is an independent school of the kind usually popularly called “public schools”, a misnomer since they are private schools charging hefty fees for attendance. In their defence we should however say that a certain number of bursaries are available allowing children to attend who would not otherwise be able to gain admittance.
Almost next to the College is the Devonshire Park Tennis Club, a sort of mini Wimbledon. When we arrived in the area, we found that the Aegon International Tennis Championship was in progress. I think it was the last day, actually.
The road to our destination was closed to traffic and there were barriers on all sides with officials marshalling the crowds. We weren’t sure we could get through but, of course, we could. Incidentally, why people would pay good money to spend hours watching other people whacking a ball back and forth across (or, very often, into) a net is not something I find easy to understand. Many folk did apparently want to do this, however, and there was a sizeable queue for admission to the grounds.
This is where we were going, to the Towner, Eastbourne’s gallery of contemporary art. Once inside the lobby, we found an oasis of calm. The Towner describes itself as “The Contemporary Art Museum for the South East”, as though it is the only one. It isn’t, of course. Not very far away there we have the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill and the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings, to mention but two. Admittedly, admission to the Towner is free but then so it is also to the De La Warr Pavilion.
Whether you like the new building will depend on your taste in modern architecture. As concrete boxes go, this one doesn’t jar too badly on the senses and, perhaps equally importantly, provides plenty of large spaces inside for displaying artworks and collections of art. The Towner was originally founded in 1923 but moved here (College Road) when the new building opened in 2009. The gallery was named after John Chisholm Towner (1840-1920), a local benefactor who left money and paintings to the gallery in his will.
There are some good views from the upper levels of the Towner. See also the photo above of the Tennis Club.
There were two main exhibitions, Willie Doherty’s Disturbances and A Point of Departure. To be honest, I found Disturbances depressing, especially the video with its voice over. In fact, I stopped listening to the words and concentrated on the stills and video sequences, some of which were very striking. Photography was not allowed in the galleries so I cannot show you any pictures.
A Point of Departure was a set of paintings and drawings by various artists of subjects to do with the sea and the coast. Whereas the works by Doherty were specifically made for the collection Disturbances, the works gathered under the title A Point of Departure were already owned by the Towner and had been brought together to form the theme. Of these, the works I liked most were wood cuts by an artist who has become undeservedly obscure and ought to be better known, Eric Slater. Fortunately, there is a Web site dedicated to him, allowing you to get an idea of his work: Eric Slater 1896-1963.
After visiting the Towner, we went for an exploratory walk around Devonshire Park which is a cultural area with three theatres within a short walking distance. We were intrigued by this 1898 pub, called the Buccaneer, with its green domes, and by an echo of the dome theme in Carlisle Street in these gabled shops. To my mind they recall the domes seen frequently in Brighton, reflecting the design of the Royal Pavilion.
When in Eastbourne, you naturally gravitate towards the seafront. While Brighton’s is open and somewhat brash, Eastbourne’s is demure and tranquil and often decorated with gardens and flower beds. The photo above was taken at the western end where Grand Parade meets King Edward’s Parade. On a green hillock stands Martello Tower no. 73, also known as the Wish Tower. This is the most western of the string of Martello Towers built along the coast in the South East in the early 1800s as a defence in the event of a Napoleonic invasion. Many towers remain but are often in a ruined condition though some have been converted to more modern uses. British Heritage’s listing describes the Wish Tower succinctly thus: “The walls are 8 feet thick built of brick with a cement coating. The door is 20 feet above the ground. Inside was a magazine with 2 rooms above it. On the roof was a gun emplacement. This Tower has been largely spoiled during the 1939/1945 war by an observation post or range finding look-out having been built on top of it with a square roof that juts out in front.” Happily, the towers never needed to perform their original purpose.
Looking east gives a view of the nearby lifeguard station and, further along, Eastbourne Pier. Around Britain’s coasts, piers are under threat and struggling to survive. Eastbourne’s is still going strong, I’m glad to say. As with the whole stretch of coast in this corner of the land, the beach is shingle and while this may disappoint visitors hoping to ply their buckets and spades, it means you don’t get sand in your sandwiches – or in your eyes when the wind blows! As a child I learned to walk bravely in bare feet on Brighton’s round pebbles.
There we found this work of public art, ascribed to Jackie Brown and “Participants from the Bourne Project”, and describing itself as “A SCULPTURE CELEBRATING WALKING AS PART OF THE PATHWAY TO HEALTH WALK PROJECT.” The round stones can be moved in the slots.
Here too, we find the slightly unusual RNLI Museum and shop. Following the wreck of the cargo ship Thames in February 1822, in which event six men lost their lives, the local MP “Mad Jack” Fuller commissioned the building of Eastbourne’s first lifeboat, the Samaritan, powered by oars and crewed by local fishermen. Two years later, in 1824, the Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck, later renamed the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, was founded. In due course, Eastbourne gained a lifeboat station, which is the building pictured. With the establishment of a modern lifeboat station, the old station became a RNLI museum and shop. (The clock was restored in 1998 but has failed again unfortunately.)
What I find unusual about the lifeboat station is that the inspiration for its building came, not from a seafaring hero, but from an actor, William Terriss. Terriss was a popular English actor, specializing in Shakespearean and nautical roles. In December 1897, on the steps of the Adelphi Theatre, he was stabbed and fatally injured by Richard Archer Prince, a struggling actor who had become insanely jealous of Terriss. In view of the huge public display of grief, the Daily Telegraph started a memorial fund, the proceeds of which were used to build the lifeboat station. It was opened on July 16th 1898 by the wife of the local landowner, the Duchess of Devonshire. The lifeboat, James Stevens No 6, was retired from service in 1924 but remained here until 1935 when the station was reopened as a museum.
Turning inland in search of coffee, we spied a pair of rather Italianate towers and went to investigate. This turned out to be one of the three theatres of Devonshire Park, the Devonshire Park Theatre.
We were kindly given permission to take photos in the foyer where we could appreciate the decor and the quality of the finish which continues down into the details.
The foyer has a domed ceiling with a round skylight in the centre. The impressive chandelier hanging in its centre is not an original part of the decor but is a genuine Victorian article. It hung in the Great Hall of the the Grand Hotel, Eastbourne, from 1875 to 1984, when the owners, De Vere Hotels, presented it to the Devonshire Park Theatre where, I must say, it fits in beautifully.
It was quite late when we stopped for lunch at this tapas bar. In fact, we were lucky because most of the restaurants would normally have been closed in the late afternoon but were staying open because of the tennis tournament. The good thing about tapas bars is that there is plenty of choice for vegetarians.
After lunch we continued our ramble, not with any particular aim in view, but just noting points of interest encountered as we went along. One of these was the Eastbourne War Memorial, unveiled in 1922 but later adapted to commemorate the dead of the Second World War as well. What interested me was not so much the angel of Victory alighting and brandishing a sword and a laurel wreath as the four dolphins decorating the four corners. They look nothing like the dolphins you see swimming in the ocean and more like those medieval fantasy dolphins conjured up by artists going on travellers’ tales alone. How do I even know they are dolphins and not some mythical winged fish? Because all along the south coast, as in Brighton where I grew up, you find these strange scaly dolphins everywhere, often in the town’s coat of arms. If you want to know more about the war memorial, you will find information here.
And then we found ourselves in a district called “Little Chelsea”. How strange. It didn’t seem at all like the Chelsea I know which would surely have been hopping on a Saturday afternoon, tennis tournament or not. There is a Web site for Little Chelsea but it doesn’t seem to have been updated since last December, leaving the impression that not much is happening here. It is surely a questionable practice for towns to name their districts after those in other towns because, even if this is a quick way of creating an identity, it is self-defeating in the long run as comparisons are bound to be made between the original and the emulator, nearly always to the disadvantage of the latter.
I was fascinated to see this entrance purporting to be the entrance to homes built (and presumably owned) by “The Eastbourne Artizans Dwellings Co LMTD”. It bears the date 1891, placing it in the later Victorian period. I believe that “artizans dwellings” was a scheme to provide housing for the working classes but I know nothing beyond that. A study topic for the winter evenings, perhaps. The spelling of “artizans” is unusual but the lack of an apostrophe is not: the 19th century had as much difficulty with the placement of apostrophes as does the 21st.
Suddenly, we were in front of the town hall. This massive building is too big to photograph in its entirety because you simply cannot get far enough away from it. You would need a fisheye lens with all the distortion that that implies. No prizes for guessing that this imposing piece of civic pride is of Victorian vintage. Yet it seems as robust as when first opened for business and has obviously been looked after. What do you do when you encounter a building like this? Well, if you are us, you go in and say “May we take some photos, please?”
What do they say in response to our request? Usually, as today, they are very welcoming and are pleased when we admire their building. It helps if it is the weekend because then there are few people about and everyone is more relaxed. There was an event in progress upstairs so we could photograph only the lobby, the stairs and the landing but the reception clerk was very knowledgeable and told us a lot about the building.
It is not unusual to find extensive use of stained glass in the richer town halls. These may contain pictures of famous people or historic events, or coats of arms. The quality of the glass is very fine as you can see from the next photo.
Towns of the age and size and history of Eastbourne can usually lay claim to several coats of arms. Often these are given to them by titled families or elements from the latters’ arms may be incorporated into the town’s own coat of arms. In the above, the three stags come from the Duke of Devonshire’s escutcheon.
We could not go onto the upper floors though I did grab this quick shot of a corridor, complete with well made panelled doors and glass work. Whether this is a corridor of power, I have no idea, but it didn’t seem that any work as being done today.
When the town hall first opened for business, it included a magistrates’ court, as was common at that time. At the end of the building the independent court entrance is to be found. This part of the building has since reverted to the town hall, the court having moved elsewhere. The presence of a police car (whose rear you can just see) was therefore fortuitous!
Near the main entrance we found the foundation stone. It was laid by Lord Edward Cavendish, third son of… yes… the Duke of Devonshire. So no surprises there, then. The inscription has suffered somewhat from the passage of time and parts can be read only with difficulty. The year in particular is illegible but we know that the town hall was in fact built in 1886.
We had covered some ground during the day and seen a lot of different things from different periods of history and, though Eastbourne is not that far from London, we did not want to start back too late. I, for one, felt that I had put in a good solid day of exploration and was looking forward to going back to the station and finding a comfortable seat on the train!