It’s impossible to walk into the seaside resort town of Hastings in East Sussex, England, and not be educated in its medieval history.
While I was buying our train tickets, posters reminded me that the town is close to when the Normans invaded England in longboats and overthrew King Harold II at the horrific Battle of Hastings in 1066 It’s a defeat so firmly etched in British minds that local insurance companies have incorporated the date into their TV jingles.
Upon arriving in the city and entering an underground passage, I saw a mosaic celebrating the city’s heritage: charging knights, windsurfers, and a mother and child flying kites. The images were rendered in brown and blue tiles and looked as vivid as the bingo halls that line the city’s waterfront.
My girlfriend and I were visiting Hastings for rock skimming, sea glass collecting and arcade deathmatch with our 7 year old daughter. We were eager to see the recent regeneration of the city.
Hastings was not always the commercial mix of tourist facilities and medieval traditions that it is today. As package holidays to the Continent became the holiday of choice for many Britons in the 1970s, English seaside resorts faced economic difficulties.
A recent investment of $34 million has rejuvenated the region’s arts and culture scene. During our visit, tourists rushed between museums focusing on true crime, artificial velvet flower making, and beach fishing. The latter was once key to the region’s economy, but its future is uncertain due to Brexit, which was favored by local voters in the 2016 referendum.
Although it was the shoulder season of October, the streets of Hastings were sunny when we started exploring. Our daughter ran across the beach and I had flashes of my childhood trips to the sea.
Because we live in East London, a visit to the South East Coast meant an 80 mile drive, and it was like landing on another continent. I remember my father teaching me to trap crabs in a jar; picking up the nearby military base on my transistor radio; and seeing so many flavors of ice cream available on the beach that my neck hurt reading the menu that stood above me on the wall. Knowing that I had the potential to make my daughter as excited as me felt like a big responsibility.
After checking in to our guesthouse – where the friendly receptionist was happy to greet us early and show us to our room at the top of a spiral staircase – we headed to our first destination: the “old town”. of Hastings. Parts of the area date from the 8th century; today its narrow, cobbled streets are packed with bubble tea shops, mussel cafes, Tudor houses and modern bistros with galvanized steel tables, their interiors lit by multicolored lanterns.
You can buy coffee and cake for around $7, or try one of the cocktails listed on the brown paper menus: Whistling Gypsies, Hello Sailors.
We climbed the cliffs through side streets to reach the caves of St. Clement, formed around 14,000 BC and used as a lair by buccaneers in the 17th and 18th centuries. Today, they can be explored as part of the smugglers’ adventure.
A vampire at the front desk sold us passes—it was almost Halloween—and we descended tunnels draped in luminous cobwebs that stretched more than an acre underground. Blue spotlights gave the rock faces a lunar quality, while effigies of Joseph Golding, who dug into the caves in the 1820s, peeked out of the stone hollows like gargoyles.
We spent about an hour underground, posing in front of notices offering rewards of 100 guineas (about $30,000 today) for capturing dead or alive smugglers “by order of the Crown.” Our daughter loved pressing the various tongue buttons on the talking pirates, as well as typing vowels into a reproduction Morse key to signal the Royal Navy model ships.
After pizza on the waterfront, we took an evening stroll along the shore between lifeguard huts, which shone white in the moonlight and looked eerie with their flags lowered. The waves crashed on the beach, the noise fading with the traffic as we walked back to our guest house.
In the morning, we had breakfast at Cafe Hanushka among rows of old books, green glass reading lamps and old-fashioned radios playing wartime swing tunes. We had planned to take the funicular (cable cars) – the steepest in the UK – up to the top of the cliffs, but the West Hill Lift terminal was closed for maintenance.
Too bad: I had traveled on one as a child and hoped to relive the cream and brown cars of a bygone era. You can’t enjoy their diagonal ascent and not feel a bit like James Bond battling Jaws at high altitude in the 1979 movie “Moonraker.”
Instead, we took the measurements, sometimes looking below at beached trawlers with names like “Christine” and “Moonshine.” The wet sand beyond them shone like a lens; a little further on stood the projecting remains of the old pier and its restored counterpart. Pieces of wood rose from the sea like fingers.
It was hard not to think of the infamous Smalls Lighthouse, erected on oak piers off Pembrokeshire, Wales, in the 1770s. One of its keepers had died in service and his bedmate trapped had become unbalanced. I had listened to a musical rendition of their ordeal by local experimental composer Plinth, and I couldn’t get the gripping album cover out of my mind.
Wanting a more joyful marine experience, we drove down Rock-a-Nore Road and visited the Blue Reef Aquarium. Halloween celebrations continued here with glow-in-the-dark skeletons placed between glowing mule tanks.
Our daughter loved seeing the creatures from the 2016 animated film “Finding Dory” up close, and arriving at feeding time meant we had to look up from the observatory tunnel as the sharks came and went, chasing descending flakes of food. The side rooms offered salamanders, poison dart frogs, and tarantulas in reassuringly sturdy terrariums.
Outside, the free Shipwreck Museum housed a charming collection of artefacts from the hundreds of ships wrecked in the English Channel. Visitors could peruse salvaged 400-year-old cannons, French muskets from 1820 and Portuguese maps from the 16th century (on which Australia was not shown). Each exhibit had been salvaged by local divers; customers could test whether they would make effective treasure hunters by trying to haul cargo on a reproduction pulley.
Back on the waterfront, we followed the music and cotton candy to Flamingo Amusement Park. Our daughter worked her way through a mechanical gambling house and then introduced two pennies into slot machines. Thirty years ago I had visited a similar arcade in nearby Camber Sands and spent all my pocket money (plus anything I could ask my mum) on a RoboCop game and a shooting range with light weapons. I was thrilled to see the same joyful abandon in my child.
We left Hastings a few days before November 5th, or Guy Fawkes Night as it is known in Britain. Despite Halloween’s popularity, winter nights in the UK are dominated by communal bonfires commemorating the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605 to blow up the House of Lords and assassinate King James I. Celebration of Fawkes.”
According to tradition, the town’s bonfire had involved the burning of “Guys”: effigies of Fawkes and unpopular media figures. As we drove through Romney Marsh, I wondered how many burned Boris Johnsons would lie among the ashes.
IF YOU ARE GOING TO
Where to stay
2 Carlisle Parade
A Georgian guesthouse located about two minutes walk from the beach and five minutes from Hastings train station. WiFi, smart TV, private check-in and breakfast available. A family room with a sea view costs around $160 per night.
Where to eat
14-15 Pelham Crescent
This Italian restaurant serves pizzas, burgers, salads and fresh fish. Gluten-free and vegan options available. Open daily from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Torta al cioccolato (hot fudge cake) about $7.
What to do
Caves of St. Clement, West Hill
The underground tunnels that were used to hide contraband now feature over 70 life-size smuggler figures. Natural cave areas can be dark with uneven floors. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (in March it closes at 4 p.m. and is closed every Tuesday.) Adults about $14, with family tickets (two adults and two children ages 3-12) about $47 .
A charity museum independent of the Nautical Museums Trust. Multi-sensory exhibits include fossils and salvaged objects; a gift shop sells products from local artisans. Open daily from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. (November to March, hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekends, Wednesdays and Thursdays.) Free.
blue reef aquarium
An aquarium featuring over 250 marine species and 3,500 animals with a focus on promoting conservation. Four daily live chats and feeding sessions. (Check the website for more information.) Open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with last admission at 4:30 p.m. Adult admission about $17, with family tickets about $58.
Information: Online: visit1066country.com