Forget Brighton – the cool crowd chooses this gritty alternative

Hastings-Getty Images

Hastings-Getty Images

I’m upstairs in Maggie’s, Hastings’ famous fish and chip shop, swallowing like a wolf the best breaded plaice I’ve ever had. No wonder it tastes so good: it was caught today, landed on the beach outside, and bought from the fish market below. Garnished with homemade tartar sauce, bursting with flavor. What better way to refuel after a refreshing walk after a windswept prom?

Maggie’s is so special not only because of the food but also because of the location. It is in the heart of Stade, the historic fishing port of Hastings, and diners look down on the shanty town of “net shops” (those tall wooden huts where fishermen hang their nets to dry) and the fishing boats beyond. The boats are launched straight from the pebble beach. A fishing fleet has sailed here since Saxon times.

The Fisheries Museum next door is an intimate reminder of the perils of the sea. Housed in a converted chapel, it is full of memorabilia donated by fishing families. The centerpiece is the Enterprise, one of the last boats to fish these waters without an engine, but the most moving feature is the memorial wall, adorned with poignant photos of local fishermen who died at sea.

William Cook at Maggie's, the famous fish and chip shop in Hastings - William Cook

William Cook at Maggie’s, the famous fish and chip shop in Hastings – William Cook

For me, Hastings is full of happy memories – I used to come here as a child and brought my children here when they were little. We stayed with my wife’s parents who lived in Rye a few miles away and always loved our day trips here. Unlike Rye, who is rather a coward, Hastings has some sand under his fingernails and is full of fun things to do. My kids loved the miniature coaster that runs along the beach which is still going strong.

Now my wife’s parents are dead, our kids are all grown up (and too cool to hang out with), and my wife is 9-5 (unlike me), so I came back here alone. I thought it would be a melancholy comeback, but I couldn’t be more wrong. I was here in the middle of the week, but the place was buzzing and I met a lot of great people. I can’t wait to come back.

Many outsiders are rather rude to Hastings, and it’s easy to see why. “It’s a little rough around the edges,” says Lionel Copley, who runs Maggie’s. “I always call it Marmite Town because you either love it or you hate it.” He loves it and so do I.

It has never been as fashionable as Brighton or as elegant as Eastbourne. Some parts of the city have a distinct “Costa del Dole” vibe (people sleeping in the street, street drunks…). I’ve always had a soft spot for this place, but for a long time it seemed that its best years were behind it.

However, something wonderful has happened in the last decade: Hastings has drawn an artsy, grunge crowd. These hipsters (some locals, some newcomers) have brought the city to life, turning dilapidated old shops into quirky shops, bars and cafes. I saw the same thing in Brighton a generation ago. Now Brighton has become gentrified, the people who made it fashionable are migrating east, from West Sussex to East Sussex.

Hastings Beach - Tim Grist

Hastings Beach – Tim Grist

Why did Hastings take off? I think it has a lot to do with the gradual decline of the daily commute. Hastings has always been cheaper than Brighton, mainly due to the slower train connections to London (Brighton is less than an hour – Hastings is an hour and a half). If you go to London every day, 90 minutes each way is a chore, but if you only have to do it once or twice a week for the odd appointment, it’s easy.

And now the guests are catching. Where I stayed is a good indicator of this trend. David and Derval are a kind Anglo-Irish couple who bought and modernized a beautiful late Victorian villa called The Knowle and now live here and run a bespoke B&B. Everything in the standard of a boutique hotel, but it is also wonderfully intimate. You feel like an old friend staying the night rather than a paying player passing through.

Full of sea air, I slept like a baby. In the morning Derval made me a delicious breakfast. Her haddock with poached eggs was excellent, but my highlight was her quince jam, made from fruit in her garden. Feeling ten years younger, I set out to explore the city.

Knowle is in St Leonards, a town adjacent to Hastings, and although they have long since merged into one, they have very different histories. Hastings is Britain’s only ancient seaside resort with a medieval old town (the ruins of Britain’s oldest Norman castle tower over the narrow streets below).

Ruins of Hastings Castle - Getty

Ruins of Hastings Castle – Getty

St Leonards, on the other hand, is an early Victorian invention, the work of ambitious builder James Burton, “Regents Park by the sea”. When I first started coming here, many of these beautiful houses were rather shabby, but many are now being renovated by enterprising housewives like David and Derval. Some are even palatial. After decades of stagnation, St Leonards is on the rise.

Two shopping streets to look out for are Kings Road and Norman Road. The former is a cheerful jumble of little shops and restaurants – some delightfully quirky, others refreshingly down-to-earth.

The latter boasts two of the city’s most invigorating venues: Cinema-Theater is a vibrant center for the arts, theatrical staging, live music, cinema and art; Heist is a funky gourmet collective in an old bank with a couple of cafes and a great seafood restaurant called Boatyard where I gorged on Maldon Rock oysters and Halibut with leek and seafood custard.

Hastings itself has some somber bits, but you never have to wander far to find something interesting or appealing. The historic old town is an architectural marvel, full of medieval half-timbered buildings. George Street is the busiest thoroughfare. At The Crown, a cozy pub on All Saints Street, I had a hearty Alan the Red Rye Ale.

Hastings Contemporary is an impressive, modern gallery on the seafront, with a stark design that echoes the old chain stores that surround it. The bright and stylish upstairs cafe offers stunning sea views. Hastings Museum & Art Gallery is a more traditional museum housed in a replacement manor house on the leafy outskirts of the city.

Hastings Old Town — Getty Images

Hastings Old Town — Getty Images

Inside is a family-friendly mix of local history and art: stunning scenery and some fascinating contemporary art. But Hastings is not fashionable and artistic. There’s still a bit of a quick kiss: a few gift shops, a crazy golf course, a few arcades…

I ended up at The Royal, St Leonards. This was an old school pub until James Hickson took over. Like many people, he moved here from London. “I find it very inclusive here,” she tells me. “Pubs had a great mix of people, a great mix of age groups.”

He brought good food to The Royal but didn’t sacrifice its friendly atmosphere. “Hastings has always had an old town charm and St Leonards has changed a lot,” says James. “More and more is happening here.”

I ate a wonderful sea bass with parsnips, kale and brown prawn butter, washed down with Long Man bitters, then crossed the road to the train station. An hour and a half later I was back in London, already longing for the sea air of Hastings and another bowl of fresh fish.

How to do it

Double room at The Knowle (www.theknowleatstleonards.co.uk) from £130 per room per night including breakfast.

For more information about Hastings and the surrounding area, visit www.visit1066country.com.

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