Is there anywhere else in the world more closely associated with one particular date in the distant past than Hastings? Gettysburg perhaps. Moscow and 1812? Though the town may be best-known for the most famous date in English history, there’s a lot besides heritage and history going on here these days, and it’s been put firmly on the cultural map by the black-clad Jerwood Gallery on its beach.
It’s a town of two halves, one being the old town between East and West hills, which after it had been ravaged by William the Bastard, aka the Conqueror in 1066, became a leading Cinque Port in the 12th century. The other is the seaside resort to the west, developed in conjunction with St Leonards-on-Sea in the early years of the 19th century. Long before the Conqueror breezed into town for a spot of R&R, and even for a couple of centuries afterwards, this area was homeland of the Haestinga tribe, a powerful force in its own right and independent of the surrounding Saxons. No wonder denizens still consider themselves a cut above others in Sussex.
The Old Town is characterised by its precipitous alleyways looking over a clutter of dignified Regency pads, ramshackle Tudor houses and fishermen’s cottages. The shops of George St contain some fine independents and a thriving community of local artists. The town’s most famous sons in the contemporary art world today are enfants terribles Jake and Dinos Chapman. They attended the local comprehensive, now known as the Ark William Parker Academy and formerly Hastings Grammar School, where their father was headmaster, still the only all-boys secondary school in East Sussex. Since 2012, the beach front of the Old Town, known as The Stade, has been dominated by the Jerwood Gallery, its black walls designed to match the pitch-black fisherman’s net-drying towers which have long been a symbol of the town. Hastings still boasts the oldest and largest beach-launched fishing fleet in the UK. Throughout August, until October 16, the Jerwood Gallery will be showing Marcus Harvey’s exhibition of his latest ceramics “Inselaffe”, the jokey German word – if that’s not a contradiction in terms – for the British, meaning “Island Monkeys”.
A good place to start an exploration of the town, though, is the West Cliff Railway, a cute little funicular which takes you up to the grassy park atop West Hill. On a sunny day, the view over the rooftops of the Old Town and out to sea is entrancing. Also on West Hill are Hastings Castle and 1066 Story. The castle was built by William the Conqueror though little remains now, while the exhibition features a 20-minute audio-visual synopsis for the historically challenged. Smugglers Adventure occupies St Clement’s Caves on the east slope, which are said to have been used by smugglers and other hearty brigands along these shores and were certainly used as shelters in World War II. From West Cliff you can head down the maze of vertiginous passages and alleyways to George Street.
Along the High Street, you’ll find the intriguing Flower Makers Museum, established in the premises of the company which provided more than 100,000 rose petals for the film Gladiator among many other fake-floral accomplishments. A little further along is the Old Town Museum of Local History which has a fine collection of Saxon coins and a particularly quirky gift shop. At the top end of the High Street is St Mary Star of the Sea (1882), a Roman Catholic church designed mainly by the poet Coventry Patmore, who lived at Old Hastings House. Beyond are the old Stables, built around 1700, now a theatre.
At the other end of the High Street, on the seafront, is The Stade. If you’re here in the early morning, you might catch the fleet coming in and can pick up some alarmingly fresh Dover sole, skate or plaice from the huts before they’re whisked off to the restaurants of London. Also worth trying to see is the Shipwreck Museum in Rock-a-Nore Road, with its cheery displays of memorabilia of maritime disasters along the coast, and also The Fisherman’s Museum: occupying the old Fisherman’s Church of St Nicholas. Built in 1854, the museum enshrines ‘The Enterprise’, the last indigenously built sailing lugger, and many other exhibits relating to the trade which once kept the town afloat. Also on Rock-a-Nore Road, the Blue Reef Aquarium offers a wander through shark-infested waters protected by a glass tunnel. Nearby, the East Cliff Railway is the steepest funicular in the UK, taking passengers up to the Country Park and more tremendous views over the Old Town and along the stretch of coast to the east.
The New Town, west of George Street, despite containing many of the town’s amenities, may not be the most pleasant to walk around: tacky amusement arcades, streets with a flyblown air, but at least the pier has recently been re-opened and given a new life as a commercial draw. From near the seafront, Queen’s Road leads past the 19th-century Town Hall under the railway to the pleasantly wooded Alexandra Park.
Cambridge Road leads west past White Rock Gardens to the Hastings Museum and Art Gallery, which holds collections of Wealden pottery, Sussex ironwork and an Indian pavilion of 1886 and occupies an impressively castellated redbrick building.
The seafront from the west end of Hastings to St Leonards provides an interesting picture of 19th-century development. East of Harold Place is Pelham Arcade (1824) by Joseph Kay, with the church of St Mary as its centrepiece. West of Queen’s Hotel is the White Rock Pavilion and the pier. And if it all gets too much, a very attractive short walk out of Hastings leads for a mile from the East Hill to Ecclesbourne Glen and beyond to Fairlight Glen, where the cliffs rise to 400ft and the trees still descend almost to the sea, much as they might well have done in 1066.
Its one in the eye for its critics. Hastings has much going for it besides Normans and Conquerors.