I HAVE to admit that, as I lay awake at night listening to the wind drive intermittent sleet against my bedroom window, I wondered if the Met Office’s forecast of ‘sunny intervals’ was perhaps a tad optimistic and that maybe I shouldn’t get up early to catch a train back to Hastings.
It was admittedly still bitterly cold when I did catch that train, and indeed had not stopped being so by the time I got to Hastings at around 9 am.
After finding myself some breakfast and a warming coffee, I headed back to the seafront, where I espied Hastings Castle looming dramatically overhead, silhouetted against the sky.
Just taking that picture of the castle resulted in almost instantaneous frostbite in all fingers, as the brisk wind whipped my body heat away. The sun, having risen just over an hour earlier, was still skulking about near the horizon as if struck by celestial stage fright and I wished heartily for something wooden to burn, just so I could keep warm.
Poor old Hastings Pier. Built in 1872, it enjoyed its heyday in the 1930s just before the economy went into a nosedive. Somehow it struggled on through subsequent decades despite becoming dilapidated and suffering heavy storm damage, most notably in 1990. It closed in 1999, reopened in 2002 and then closed again in 2006.
A campaign to restore it to its former glory was pretty much dealt a death blow in October 2010 when a couple of teenagers appear to have decided that burning it down would be a bit of a laugh. The council have since stuck a sign on it promising that it’s not being demolished, although the really unsafe bits are being dismantled, and the campaign to save it goes on. It doesn’t look good though. The arsonists have been charged and bailed to appear in court.
Do Not Adjust Your Set
Footage of the burning pier doubtless looked suitably dramatic, as seen on that famous Hastings invention, television.
No really, one of the town’s more unexpected claims to fame is as the birthplace of telly for John Logie Baird was living there, far from his native Scotland, when he first demonstrated the analogue transmission of moving silhouette images in 1924. He moved to London the following year, having been asked to vacate his workshop by his landlord.
With the burnt wreckage of the pier behind me, I headed westwards, aware that I could see Eastbourne far off in the distance, almost hidden in morning mist. Rather more visible, as my feet carried me along the promenade from central Hastings to St Leonards-on-Sea, was the great white art deco bulk of Marine Court.
When Marine Court was built in 1937, it was guaranteed instant fame — or possibly notoriety — as what was then the UK’s tallest block of flats. It wasn’t universally popular and, much as I love art deco, it doesn’t really blend with its environs, which mostly come from about a century earlier.
It also doesn’t help that as you come alongside it you discover that its paint is peeling and its original windows have been replaced piecemeal with jarringly inappropriate PVC frames.
St Leonards-on-Sea was developed in 1826 by the successful London architect James Burton, who had previously been responsible for large swathes of Bloomsbury and the houses around Regent’s Park.
It was successful and grew as a town, merging with Hastings in 1875. Like any good seaside resort, it got its own pier in 1891, although that only lasted sixty years, being dismantled in 1951.
The pier used to sit almost exactly opposite the Royal Victoria Hotel, which places it pretty much behind this…
Actually, this is the Conqueror’s Stone, which is… well, I’ll let the plaque attached to it explain:
William isn’t St Leonards-on-Sea’s only connection to royalty. Rather randomly, the late Prince Rainier III of Monaco attended school in the town, at a prep school long since closed. The temperature must have been a bit of a shock after the balmy Mediterranean climate of home.
Actually, to be fair to the Met Office, as the morning progressed, the wind dropped off and the sun made excellent inroads on the task of warming things up. It certainly didn’t quite get to cosy, but it was bright and sunny and the clouds were interspersed with patches of blue sky
All in all, this made my perambulation along the promenade greatly more enjoyable and so naturally, the promenade stopped and my path followed the road into the town. Now, walking a couple of miles along a busy urban highway isn’t the best kind of walking but my spirits remained high. After all, it could have been four miles of shingle headland à la Dungeness.
A Racy Past
After a while, with the weather much more clement, the road spat me back onto a foot and cycle path beside the beach. I was now approaching Bexhill-on-Sea and the path rose up atop a low cliff of what appeared to be chalky soil before joining a road that dropped back down towards the town. This stretch of road, believe it or not, is where the UK’s first ever organised motor race was held in 1902 and Bexhill-on-Sea proudly proclaims itself as the birthplace of British motor racing.
The races were organised by the eighth Earl De La Warr in conjunction with the Automobile Club of Great Britain and Ireland (which was later to acquire Royal patronage and become the RAC). Bexhill’s hotels were fully booked by eager spectators and participants alike, with over two hundred of the latter.
One of the racers was Lord Northcliffe, the founder of that infamous crime against journalism the Daily Mail. While many of the vehicles were powered by the new-fangled internal combustion engine, the fastest car was steam-powered and reached a terrifying 54 mph. That may not sound all that impressive now but the national speed limit in 1902 was 14 mph, which was often reduced to 12 mph by local authorities. People had never seen motor cars going so fast.
I navigated down Galley Hill at a literally more pedestrian rate of somewhere around 3 mph. I was about ready for a sit down and a nice cup of tea, maybe some elevenses. I passed several people on the seafront, many of whom nodded and said hello, in that way that people who aren’t Londoners often do. One random bloke foolishly ventured to add further conversation, commenting that it was cold, and with such a traditionally British opening I felt confident in raising the equally British obsession of tea by enquiring where I might find some. Random Bloke thought about it for a moment and then gave me some very careful and totally accurate directions, for which I thanked him. A short while later tea and a bacon sarnie proved their restorative worth.
Exactly how short a while later I could easily discern by using Bexhill-on-Sea’s rather splendid Coronation Clock, which graced the seafront a little further on…
The clock was built for the coronation celebrations of Edward VII in 1902, clearly a busy year for Bexhill-on-Sea, what with the motor racing and all. Much too busy in fact, for the clock tower wasn’t actually finished until 1904, a mere two years too late.
Perhaps they’d have made better time on its construction if they’d had a clock tower handy to tell them if they were running behind?
Battle of Sidley Green
Motor racing isn’t the only excitement that Bexhill-on-Sea has known. In 1729 it was hit by a tornado and in 1828 it was a hive of smuggling scum and villainy, being home to the Little Common Gang. This led to the Battle of Sidley Green, where a group of about 40 smugglers and a similar number of customs men fought each other, after which a ‘local girl of loose character’ shopped her boyfriend, who then turned informer himself and sentences of Transportation to New South Wales were handed out all round.
Meanwhile, in fiction, the town was home to the Goon Show’s Dreaded Batter-Pudding Hurler, thanks to wartime resident Spike Milligan. Today its most famous resident is probably Graham Norton.
Random Bloke Returns
As I was heading back out of Bexhill-on-Sea, I passed a man getting into his car who asked me, to my bemusement, if I had found my cup of tea.
It was, of course, Random Bloke from earlier, who immediately gained a million more helpfulness points by telling me, quite unasked, which of the two possible ways onwards involved a mile of trudging through shingle and which one did not. I chose not.
Road to Normans Bay
After thanking Random Bloke greatly, I ended up following the road again because tarmac, while dull, is less nightmarish to walk upon than shingle.
My route took me along a small, winding back road with several blind bends and no pavement. An alarmingly concave chain link fence with shattered fence posts and a number of literally exploded bollards all gave mute testament to the gap between how well local drivers thought they could handle blind corners and how well they actually could.
I was a bit nervous to be honest.
The road swung inland for a bit, crossing a railway line via a level crossing, and then becoming even more twisty and blind. I was now approaching the vicinity of the hamlet of Normans Bay but first I came upon the Star Inn, seemingly a pub without a village, and decided that these roads of imminent death could only be improved by downing a quick G&T.
There has been a pub on that site since 1402, since when it has served shepherds, travellers and smugglers, with a lot of activity by the latter during the 18th century.
A hundred years later, in Victorian times, a whale washed up on the shore and died nearby. At 70 tons in weight and over 60 feet long, the whale carcass soon began to draw crowds, with many travelling from London just to see it. As there was no railway station, people were just jumping from the train — a good way to end up as dead as the whale. The proprietors of the Star Inn urged the local authorities to build a railway halt and it is still there today serving its tiny hamlet and the neighbouring caravan park.
The hamlet of Normans Bay was actually underwater in 1066 for the Pevensey Levels were then a sea inlet extending some way inland. Pevensey itself, a small village and the site of a Roman fort, where William may actually have landed, formed an island — hence the ‘ey’ part of Pevensey’s name.
Apparently, the levels are home to the fen raft spider, which is rare in the UK (although less so in Europe). Rare or not, I’ll give them a miss thank you very much.
While Pevensey itself is now inland, there is the village of Pevensey Bay sitting on the present-day coastline. Pevensey Bay is extremely seaside-y, with some of the houses really giving off strong 1950s vibes.
It was the site of another major smuggler-customs officer confrontation in 1833 but these days it just seems very peaceful, if slightly annoying in that the road does not run directly alongside the beach.
With the endless shingle of the beach screened from my vision by a series of beachfront homes, I realised that I would completely bypass some, if not all, of the Martello towers built along this coast. Still, that’s ok, I told myself. It’s not as if I don’t know what those look like by now.
Almost before I knew it, I had reached Eastbourne and found myself wandering through its Sovereign Harbour area. This is a fairly new development, which seems to comprise a series of marinas holding shockingly expensive yachts, overlooked by a number of shockingly expensive luxury flats
I made my way around the harbour and was amused to discover that at its mouth, keeping it safe from Napoleon, was a not entirely unfamiliar structure.
Now, I knew that Eastbourne, aside from being an ancient centre of habitation and a current favourite for retirees, was one of the command posts for the Martello tower chain and has a redoubt, much like Dymchurch.
With the sun low in the sky and the temperature dropping right off again, I finally made my way into the Eastbourne proper. Eastbourne has been a seaside resort since at least 1780, when four of George III’s children decided to visit it for a summer holiday. It has a Grade II* listed pier, dating back to 1870 which, despite mine damage in WW2, isn’t a burnt-out wreck.
My walk ended at the pier and I headed into the town centre to try to locate its Victorian station and the first of a series of trains home.
There’s Nothing For You Here
I was a little tired but in good spirits, with my feet not aching at all. Furthermore, I was highly amused by a sign I’d spotted just before reaching Eastbourne Pier. I recalled reading that the Local Shop in the hysterically dark and twisted comedy series The League of Gentlemen was inspired by an actual experience in Rottingdean, not all that much further round the East Sussex coast. Imagine then what went through my mind when I saw this…
It was still quietly amusing me halfway home.
This time: 15½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 180½ mile