It’s a fine summery morning, the first Monday in May, a big bank holiday in England, and a note of expectancy hangs in the air. I’m up with the sparrows as usual, pedaling along the red-and-white checkerboard tiles of the promenade that runs along the seafront here in Hastings, an old Victorian resort nestled along the south coast.
The tide is out, and the sea is like silk and shimmering in that delicate shade of silvery blue that melds so perfectly with the salt haze over the Channel that there doesn’t appear to be a horizon.
Half a mile ahead, the remains of the town’s old pleasure pier, opened in 1872, wades into the slack water on dozens of spindly iron legs. The distant figures of a dog walker and dog, ambling along the glistening sands beside it, throw the scene into scale.
I always love coming down here at this hour of the morning, before the rush, when all is still and quiet; it’s like riding into an old penny postcard.
Later on, of course, this will be crowded—the beach, the promenade, the tacky seaside amusements down by the Stade, as the beach along the old quarter of town is known. Queues will stretch out the door of the little old family-run fish-and-chips shops in the Old Town.
The Grand Parade
Today is the day of the grand parade, when they let loose the Jack in the Green—a mischievous character associated with the arrival of spring in traditional May Day celebrations (and for some long-forgotten reason associated with chimney sweeps as well). He’ll gallivant through the old quarter and up West Hill and sometime this afternoon be symbolically slain at the bandstand in Alexandria Park, thereby releasing the Spirit of Summer for another year.
There will be Morris dancers, chimney sweeps, street performers, and bands. Adding to the noise and color and sense of occasion will be the arrival of 35,000 or so motorcyclists—Hastings is a big biker town, and club runs to the seafront have been a May bank holiday tradition going back to the “Mods” and “Rockers” in the 1960s.
My wife, Cheryl, and I will come down here this afternoon with the kids, take it all in, play a round of crazy golf at that quirky little seafront course that’s been around forever. Then we’ll buy a couple of bundles of paper-wrapped, strongly vinegared chips at the Blue Dolphin and pick at them with those little wooden forks they provide, and maybe finish with some gelato from Di Polas, the new gelateria in town.
That’ll round off another fine afternoon along the seafront here in the ancient Sussex town where Cheryl was born and raised, where our girls Lucy and Ella are growing up, and which has become mine by adoption.
I’m not English, nor did I holiday by the seaside when I was a child. Except for a few dim and fondly recalled memories of visiting the boardwalk at Asbury Park, near where my grandmother lived along the New Jersey shore, we hardly ever went.
The World’s Most Famous Battle?
Perhaps therein lies my fascination now. The Hastings seaside has something of an erstwhile Asbury Park atmosphere to it, with sticks of pink peppermint rock instead of saltwater taffy, and a much, much deeper well of history.
The street names around here hint of the story: Edward, Norman, Saxon, William, Battle. My children were born at Conquest Hospital. Hereabouts is where William the Conqueror changed history, becoming in 1066 the only military leader, other than the Romans, ever to invade England successfully.
He landed about ten miles (16 kilometers) west of here, near the village of Pevensey, then led his men inland several miles through secluded marshes to Senlac Hill, where the fighting took place near the present-day village called, appropriately, Battle. But it was nearby Hastings—an ancient seaport even then—that somehow secured the naming rights to the site of the Norman conquest: the Battle of Hastings.
My morning bike rides along the seafront and through the Old Town are filled with visual prompts that span these past thousand years, from the elegiac ruins of the 11th-century Norman castle on East Hill, overlooking the town—the first built in England by William the Conqueror, after he crossed from France and seized the English crown—to the drab ’50s and ’60s buildings along the seafront that replaced the Victorian shops and houses taken out by German V-2 rockets during the war.
Along my route, I pass Royal Mail pillar boxes that still bear the ciphers of Queen Victoria, King Edward VII, and King George V; pass 18th-century pubs with secret doors in back and passages leading to smugglers’ caves; and pass a cavalcade of architecture that runs from medieval to Regency to the gigantic art deco Marine Court, a block of seaside flats built in 1937 and designed to resemble the Cunard ocean liner Queen Mary.
William the Conqueror might have been the one who got Hastings into the history books, but it was Victorian holiday-makers, in their thousands, who put Hastings on the map.
With the coming of the railways, it became possible for the masses to get away from sooty, grimy, gaslit London and take their annual holidays by the seaside.
Who Says It Always Rains in England?
Well-placed towns along England’s (relatively) sunny south coast suddenly became honeypots for sun-seeking tourists. Hastings, only 60 miles (97 kilometers) south of London and a contender for the sunniest place in Britain, became a fashionable resort. (To this day, Hastings shares with neighboring Eastbourne the U.K. record for most hours of sunshine in a month—383.9—set in July 1911.)
Like all the best places, Hastings had its own ornamental pleasure pier, a masterpiece of seaside orientalism—all onion domes, minarets, and lacy ironwork—designed by Eugenius Birch, the doyen of Victorian pier builders, stretching nearly a thousand feet out into the sea with a great airy ballroom at the end of it.
There were bandstands on the promenade, gardens, parks, kiosks, bathing huts, and striped deck chairs by the hundreds along the beach. There were grand hotels and theaters, bingo halls, amusement parks, a picturesque cricket ground, and, by the turn of the century, a pair of funicular railways running up the sea cliffs above the old town, giving sightseers fun and easy access to the ruins of the Norman castle and the smugglers’ caves used by generations of Hastings boatmen.
And when lidos—those über-stylish, art deco, open-air swimming complexes—became all the rage at English seaside resorts in the ’20s and ’30s, Hastings jumped right into the deep end, building one of the biggest and grandest in the country down at the St. Leonards end of the beach, with a pool more than 300 feet (91 meters) long and accompanying high-dive platforms, sunbathing pavilions, and a roller-skating rink.
More than 33,000 holiday-makers took a dip during the first month it opened, in the summer of 1933. They could hardly have guessed as they splashed around in the sunshine that the glory days of the bucket-and-spade holiday by the English seaside as they knew it had just peaked and that a long and not-always-so-genteel decline had just begun. Indeed, that first glorious summer was the only time the new lido would ever turn a profit.
It’s long gone now, closed in 1959 and demolished decades ago, one of many casualties of the great fadeaway experienced by virtually all of England’s seaside resort towns in the latter part of the 20th century. Cheap air travel and package holidays to Spain and Greece opened up more exotic holiday possibilities to Britain’s sun-starved masses.
Compared with the real-life Costa del Sol and the shimmering white-and-blue hues of Santorini, the faux orientalism of an old Victorian fun pier didn’t seem nearly so thrilling and far away anymore. It could still draw crowds on a sunny bank holiday weekend, but they were rougher crowds.
Hasting’s own pier—much of it, anyway—burned down in an arson attack in 2010, after lying derelict for years. Its loss galvanized the community and set in train a massive—and successful—fund-raising effort to rebuild it. Nearly £14 million ($20 million U.S.) was allocated to what the Independent newspaper described as “the coolest” pier restoration in all of Britain—a sleek, wood-and-glass, 21st-century interpretation of the classic English seaside fun pier.
It’ll be in plenty of good company when it opens this summer, for after floundering in the doldrums for a few decades, Hastings seems to be finding its feet again. Stroll along the High Street in the Old Town now, and you’ll find jazzy new cafés and curio shops. One of the town’s boutique hotels has just been rated the nation’s best seaside hotel and in the top ten in Britain, while Maggie’s, one of Hastings’s most popular fish-and-chips shops, is routinely listed among the best in England—no mean feat given the competition.
The crowds coming now are growing bigger, and better behaved. And as for good old-fashioned tacky fun by the seaside, Hastings landed a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records in 2012, when 14,231 costumed “pirates” gathered en masse during the town’s annual Pirate Day—a big festival weekend in celebration of Hastings’s smuggling past. The occasion was topped off with a glorious display of fireworks, the whirling colored lights of the carnival rides shimmering against the darkening summer sky, and a dinner of paper-wrapped fish and chips, pungent with vinegar and salt.
“You know, Hastings is really kind of cool,” a visiting friend of mine confided to me the other day as we walked along the seafront, down to the Old Town to buy some fish from a fishmonger.
As he lives in relentlessly trendy Brighton, I gave him a sidelong glance, uncharitably wondering if he was being ironic, but he was busy soaking up the raffish cheer of an unspoiled English seaside town. I heard myself replying, “You know, it really is.”
Read more from Roff Smith at his website, My Bicycle and I.