Saturday, March 07, 2009


When I was 10, I was sent away to a children's home by the sea. Run by a charity, it was a rather strange place and wouldn't have been out of place in a Charles Dickens novel. My parents were only allowed to visit me once a month and when they arrived, I always begged them to take me to Hastings.

We even went there for a holiday. That's how good Hastings was.

Then, in the 1980s, things changed. Most people could afford to holiday abroad and the traditional British coastal resorts slowly died. In the case of Hastings, the local authorities entered into a Faustian pact in which unemployed people from different parts of Britain could leave their home towns and live in the local hotels and guest houses.

It seemed like a win-win situation.

The hotels had a guaranteed income and the unemployed were swapping an industrial town for a holiday resort. Unfortunately, although there may have been an injection of cash into the local economy, the end result was named by the tabloids as the Costa del Dole - a haven for petty thieves, drug addicts and teenage mothers.

I've no idea how much of this is true, but this image of Hastings, combined with the appalling transport connections, meant that it was one of the least desirable areas in Sussex. Silly people like me spent a fortune on tiny houses in Lewes, whilst the really clever ones bought beautiful, huge Victorian houses in the Old Town of Hastings.

I went to Hastings today for the first time in years. Parts of it are undeniably hideous and many of the locals look like the remnants of some failed experiment to cross-breed humans with apes, but I still really like it. If you want character, Hastings has it. If Hastings was a person, it would be a mad, alcoholic uncle who used to be a sailor. Never dull, slightly threatening and full of surprises.

The first surprise today was the West Hill Lift, a strange, Victorian funicular railway, tucked away in a back street:

For a mere £2, you can buy a return ticket that takes you up to Hastings Castle and a tourist attraction called Smugglers' Adventure. As a rule, I find that anything with the word adventure in it usually falls a long way short of anything approaching mild excitement, but I was pleasantly surprised.

Situated in a network of dimly-lit, man-made caves, Smugglers' Adventure managed to be both entertaining and informative, with an atmosphere that was spooky enough to excite children without completely traumatising them.

My son loved this bloodthirsty scene:

However I was more interested in this strange figure carved in the rock:

Its origins are unknown and whilst many believe it is a medieval saint, it is also possible that this is a much older pagan image that predates Christianity.

The more I looked at it, the more I was reminded of this character from Star Trek:

After the caves, we walked around the Old Town and explored some of the quirky, interesting shops. In one bookshop I found this beautiful edition of a novel by R.M.Ballantyne:

I was tempted to buy it just for the illustrations:

Not to mention this book plate:

I wonder who Bertie Mason was. Did he survive the Great War? When did he die? He may have descendants out there who would love to have this book.

I would have loved to have spent longer browsing through the shelves, but when you have a nine-year-old boy with you it's not possible. I shall have to return. This bookshop in particular appealed; the opposite of today's dull, sterile chain bookshops:

The Old Town is lovely and I started to wish that I'd been one of those forward-thinking Londoners who decided to forgo the dubious pleasures of a two-bedroom flat in Brighton for a four-bedroom Victorian house in Hastings. I'd be in excellent company, with at least two fellow bloggers as neighbours.

There's no denying that much of Hastings is rough, but even the less desirable parts of the town have some beautiful buildings that have a seedy opulence about them and perhaps Hastings' decline and poor transport links to London have saved it from the sort of gentrification that has turned parts of Sussex into extensions of Islington.

Before we left, we passed a boating lake that was closed for the winter:

Can you see a strange object in the foreground? On closer inspection it turned out to be a tiny bald, tutu-wearing doll, planted in the murky bed of the pond:

It was too big to be one of Slinkachu's Little People, but it wasn't there by accident.

Today's visit reminded me why I loved Hastings so much as a boy. Why had it taken me so long to go back?


Grey Area said...

Cheers for that, an excellent description of Hastings - yes, you are right about the mad uncle thing, I've lived in far 'nicer' places but I love Hastings.

There are a couple of astonishing 2nd hand bookshops hidden away in odd corners, drop me a line and I'll send you the details.

But the big question is - did you go to Sir Cloudsley Shovells house???

Anonymous said...

Glad you liked it here, and yes, many people comment we've (well, hopefully not all of us) been rather smashed than brushed with the ugly stick. Lots of odd ways of walking too.
But...did you and your son realise the true horror of the Smugglers Adventure - that of the colonies of spiders just off the main passage in (you know the scary one as you enter)?

Steerforth said...

Spiders in caves? That sounds like a Doctor Who episode I once saw.

Anonymous said...

Here's the true horror...

Steerforth said...

God, I hope my wife never reads this (and she usually doesn't). She's a terrible arachnophobe and wouldn't set foot in Hastings, let alone the caves, if she knew about this.

Unknown said...

I live in Australia and am going to the UK for the first time next year. My grandfather came from the UK - and his name was Bertie John Mason. I understand he was born in Saffron Waldon in about 1886 - which would have made him about 7 or 8 and possibly the right age to have been the Bertie Mason referred to in the book plate.

If so, then he eventually came to Australia where he met and married Victoria May Burton. they had four children, my mother being the youngest. Bertie was a diabetic and died in 1923.

Steerforth said...

It could be him, you never know. I wonder if the shop still has the book?