Saturday, June 20th 2015
For today’s jaunt, we chose the historic and charming town of Hastings in East Sussex. Hastings is for ever remembered for events that occurred in 1066, the one historical date that everyone, so it is said, remembers. The Norman Duke William, we dutifully recite, beat King Harold at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Despite the confidence with which we say it, this famous battle did not actually occur at Hastings. It occurred some miles away, somewhere to the north, though we are not sure exactly where. It is said that William sought to soothe his conscience for the death toll caused by the battle by building an abbey on the site of the conflict. Battle Abbey was dedicated to St Martin and its ruins are still visible today. Was the battle really fought here? Probably not. Terrain that is suitable for fighting is not necessarily suitable for building abbeys on, but the Normans and the Anglo-Saxons certainly clashed near this place.
Before the conquest, Hastings was an Anglo-Saxon port. It was probably first settled by a man called Hæsta who gave it his name with the addition of the suffix –inga, meaning ‘folk’, so that it was known as the homestead of ‘Hæsta’s people’.
In Harold’s day, you reached Hastings on foot, on horseback or by horse-drawn conveyance. We moderns have an advantage over him: today we take the train. The official way to travel to Hastings from London is to take the train from Victoria. We have a better way: we take the HS1 from London St Pancras to Ashford International and pick up a train there for Hastings. St Pancras is just down the road from us and this saves the trek through London.
Usually when we change trains at Ashford, we have to wait only a few minutes but today, the next train for Hastings was in an hour. How should we fill in the time? In theory, our tickets did not allow us to break our journey and therefore, according to the regulations, we should stay on the station. Tigger approached the man at the barrier and sweetly asked whether we could be allowed to leave the station and come back later. He agreed, and we passed through the barrier to go on a ramble around the station.
What surprised me most was when we crossed a bridge and found ourselves looking along a river, not a dirty, concrete encased river of the sort usually found in built-up areas but a stream decked with greenery and a surface dotted with lily pads. This is the River Great Stour which passes through Ashford and by some miracle (or good environmental management) remains clean and alive.
We had originally intended to return to the station via the same exit by which we left, so as to be let in by our friendly railway man. However, we were now at the other side of the station and decided to try and blag our way in the save the long walk. We found the barrier but it was unmanned. Beside it was a machine labelled ‘HELP’ and with a button to press. We pressed it and a face appeared on a small screen. Tigger explained our predicament. The barrier clicked open and we went through!
We caught our train and soon arrived at Hastings. Beside the railway station is the bus station but we made our way to the town centre on foot.
Our way to town leads through a square known as Priory Meadow though I am not sure that it ever had anything to do with the priory. This area was once sea, not land, and the harbour of Hastings was located here. A process of silting filled it in and by the 16th century it had become farmland. Later, the cricket ground was created here but has now been moved elsewhere in favour of turning the area into a large shopping precinct. Buried deep beneath the shops there are no doubt seashells and pieces of rotting ships.
Near the seafront is this building and on its ground floor is an Italian restaurant. We usually have lunch here, as we did today.
After lunch, we walked along to the intriguing Pelham Crescent. It is a curved terrace of houses in Georgian style with a church in the centre. Beneath it, fronting onto the road, is a row of shops which were included in the original design. In the open space in front of the houses and the church – what would normally be considered the road in a normal crescent – is what looks like the superstructure of buildings below the surface. This seems so intrusive and out of place that I assumed at first that it was a modern innovation but no, I saw that it appears on old photographs of the crescent and so now I think it may be part of the original design. (I am not certain of this and stand to be corrected.)
The houses are of classical Georgian design and would be at home in Regency Bath or Brighton. The terrace was built in the 1820s for Thomas Pelham, Earl of Chichester, to a design by Joseph Kay. It stands at the foot of the cliff, part of which had to be removed to make way for the crescent.
What is perhaps the most startling feature of the crescent to the modern visitor is the Classical-style church set in its centre. Pelham was obviously as concerned for the spiritual welfare of the inhabitants as he was for their physical comfort! The church is called St Mary-in-the-Castle and Hastings Castle stands above it on the cliff top. St Mary’s was deemed surplus to requirements as a church in 1970 and is today an arts centre.
(Because of the confined space in front of the church, I had to photograph it in parts and stitch these together. As a result you may notice some distortion in the image. For example, the left pair of pillars look fatter than the others when in fact all are of the same thickness.)
In a time of voracious land-grabbing and monstrous building developments, Pelham Crescent remains as a unique and beautiful monument to the Georgian era and a treasure for us to enjoy in the present. It has rightly been given a Grade II* listing.
Hastings has a long history but it is a lively modern town with a character and charm of its own. If you are like us, though, you will tend to make a beeline for the part that is called the Old Town which is the most attractive and interesting part, in my opinion. Here you will find narrow streets packed with shops and pubs and more antiques shops than you can shake a stick at.
We walked along George Street and visited some of the shops.
The street was busy with tourists and locals and the pubs were doing plenty of business.
Antiques, secondhand books, novelty goods, art and crafts, novelties and gifts, pubs, cafes and restaurants – there is everything here that you can think of and mores besides.
Beside Westhill Arcade is the entrance to the West Hill Lift. There is a matching East Hill Lift. Though the sign at their entrances uses the word ‘lift’, both are in fact funicular railways with a pair of balancing carriages running on tracks. The West Hill Lift is unusual in running mainly in a tunnel cut through the cliff. It first opened in 1891 as a private enterprise but from 1947 has been run by the local Council.
George Street leads to High Street and here we found a building that intrigued me, not least because of an inscription that reads ‘SUPPORTED BY VOLUNTARY CONTRIBUTIONS‘. Further enquiries revealed that it was built in about 1842 on land given to the Hastings Trustees by one William Lucas Shadwell to serve as a hospital. It continued in use as such until taken over by the NHS in 1948. It is still used as a clinic1.
What’s special about this shop? Not a lot, really, I suppose, though I noticed that above the door of what is now a men’s outfitter’s, a narrow panel, flanked by two decorative ones (and two more that have been painted over), bears the words ‘FINE CHEESE WINE & COFFEE’, which suggests that it was once a grocer’s. But when? The shop has hosted several different businesses during its life. Not so long ago it was the Harris Restaurant and Tappas [sic] Restaurant and in 1846, it was recorded as belonging to J. and T.H. Spencer, furnishers. So, when was it a grocer’s, if indeed it once was? I have no idea, but the sign remains as a memory of other times.
We came to a street that is now known simply as The Bourne but was once called Great Bourne Street. On a corner with Courthouse Street stands a rather plain red brick building that looks as though it might be a chapel, an idea supported by the words ‘JOHN WESLEY’ above the largest window. It is in fact the second chapel on the site. The first, also Wesleyan, was made by converting the previous building. This was a theatre – called simply The Theatre – that had opened in 1825 but had never enjoyed much success and was sold in 1833. It lasted as a chapel until 1939 when it was replaced by the present chapel. This, however, no longer functions as a chapel but has been given over to other purposes.
Running off The Bourne is a smaller street called E. Bourne Street. On its corner with All Saints Street, we spied this rather fine house. I particularly noticed the stone window surround. I wasn’t sure how old it might be but, whatever conclusions I might have come to, English Heritage trumped them by stating it to be 18th-century and Grade II listed.
Gulls on a car
We were heading towards the Jerwood Art Gallery on the seafront. We had come to see an exhibition entitled Lowry by the Sea. Unfortunately (though understandably), photography was not allowed in the gallery so I cannot show you any pictures. I enjoyed the exhibition, because it showed a side of Lowry that I had not seen before and thus gave me a new perspective on the artist.
On the way, I stopped to take a photo of gulls clustered on a car. In fact, there were groups of gulls on several cars. I think they find cars convenient perches, affording a better view than the ground while remaining close to whatever it is that interests them. The fact that gulls tolerated being so close to other gulls shows that they were very interested indeed in something. What might it be?
Here’s a clue: the art gallery stands beside an area of the seafront called the Stade and the tall narrow buildings you see in the picture above are called Net Shops or Net Huts. The answer is that the Stade is home to what the Hastings Fishermen’s Protection Society says is Britain’s largest fleet of beach-launched fishing boats and, wherever there is fish, you find gulls hoping for a free meal.
What about the strange looking huts? Thereby hangs a strange tale. They are crowded together in a small area that was once all that the Stade was. (Stade is said to be an ancient word meaning ‘landing place’). Nets in the old days needed to be carefully dried after use and were hung out under shelter. Having so little room for their drying huts, the fishermen built them narrow but high. Some had cellars but others, nearer the sea, stood on legs to allow the water to flow under them. In 1887, however, a groyne was built to reduce the sheering effects of the water. As a result, shingle began to collect around the Stade and the beach began to expand and giving the fishermen much more space for their boats. The thin tall net shops still remain crowded together as a reminder of times past when the beach was much smaller.
Having satisfied their curiosity on the Stade and perhaps visited the Fishermen’s Museum, visitors are likely to turn their attention to the other side of the road where a row of shops, pubs and restaurants awaits their attentions.
Before turning for home, we took a stroll along the beach and peered in at the Lifeboat Station. (The yellow-garbed figure on the right of the picture is a dummy not a real person!)
Lifeboats are kept under shelter until needed and then have to be launched. Traditionally, this meant building a station perched safely above highest sea-level, with a ramp for the lifeboat to slide down into the sea. Modern technology allows things to be done more safely. The station is set back from the sea and the lifeboat has to cross solid land before reaching the water. This is accomplished in Southend by using hovercraft that can travel as well on land as on water (see Southend on Sea). In Hastings, the lifeboats are moved using tractors with caterpillar tracks. You can see the tractor in the photo above and here is a video showing a practice launch: RNLI Hastings Lifeboat Training Exercise Launch.
From here you get a view of the East Hill and part of the track of the East Hill Lift, said to be the steepest in the UK.
On our way to the station, we again passed along Pelham Place (the street from which I took the full frontal photo of Pelham Crescent) and I stopped to take my last photo. It shows the magnificent building that was once the Empire Theatre but which has, sadly, fallen upon hard times. Designed by Henry Runz, the Empire opened in March 1899 with a special matinee presided over by the local mayor. Many famous variety artistes – Marie Lloyd among them – appeared here. In 1907 it joined the Hippodrome chain and later transmuted into the De Luxe Cinema but continued to stage variety also. After the war years, its fortunes declined though I have not been able to trace the story in detail. In 1978 it was gutted internally, the ground floor becoming an amusement arcade and the upper floors divided between snooker and bingo. This is perhaps sad but where economic necessity holds sway, sentimentality is powerless.
For our return to London, we should have taken one train to Ashford and a second to St Pancras but, as our tickets had “London Terminals” as their destination, we instead took the train to Victoria and rode the bus from there to the Angel. This is certainly not our last visit to Hastings. Though much of it is familiar to us, there is always something new to discover and perhaps an exhibition worth seeing in the Jerwood Gallery.
1My thanks go to the Old Hastings Preservation Society for information received.