Hastings is one of the best places to sample fresh seafood on the East Sussex coast. Strolling along the waterfront, you’ll also find historic and attractive buildings, the award-winning new pier, the iconic Jerwood Gallery, and independently owned eating, drinking and shopping venues in the Old Town.
On the face of it, Hastings could easily be considered another British seaside resort that has seen its heyday. However, if you look beyond the surface, you’ll find a number of admirable qualities that are attracting an increasingly young and trendy crowd. The town has an incredible history, thriving creativity and maintains a pride in its local produce, especially when it comes to fish and seafood. You could easily spend a full day exploring the attractions of the old town, including its historic houses, churches, pubs, small museums and independent shops. There’s a direct train from London to escape the area and fill your lungs with sea air. Other visitors come from further afield as the town is close to the port of Dover and has train links to Ashford, which is connected to the Eurostar.
Most visitors have heard of the Battle of Hastings in 1066, when the Normans led by William the Conqueror defeated King Harold II and his army. However, the name of this momentous event is misleading, as the conflict took place seven miles north of Hastings. Still, you can walk among the ruins of Hastings Castle, high on the cliff tops, a reminder of the Norman conquest’s dominance in this and other areas.
Its rich maritime heritage has earned Hastings more attention in the history books than ever before. In medieval times, it was one of the original five pentaports, providing ships and men for the crown in exchange for special treatment. For centuries, it was also a favoured destination for smugglers, who dug caves in the sandstone cliffs. Smuggler’s Quest, a popular attraction for children, brings to life these tunnels and dwellings in the St. Clements Caves beneath the Western Hills.
Today, the coast of Hastings is a centre of activity for the fishing industry. You can witness the daily unloading of the catch by the largest fleet of beach fishing boats in Europe. As the town has no harbour, fishing boats are towed along the gravel beach with winches in tow. Visitors can stroll along the tall black huts or ‘net shops’ that were once used to dry fishing nets and equipment, but are now preserved as iconic monuments to this centuries-old fishing tradition.
Hastings began to attract crowds in the late 17th century, when the wealthier classes sought the health benefits of the sea and local springs. This led to the creation of buildings like St Mary’s in the Castle; a neoclassical style church that formed part of the seaside Regency style Pelham Crescent. Its great hall was carved into the cliffs and can still be visited today as part of an arts centre for theatre, opera, film screenings and live music.
As its popularity as a seaside resort grew, Hastings expanded westwards from the Old Town, eventually linking up with the new settlement of St Leonards-on-Sea. In the 19th century, a population explosion led to the formation of a town much closer to its present size. This was helped by the arrival of the railways, particularly the two railways to London. Cable car railways were also created to allow people to move up the steep cliffs. The West Hill and East Hill lifts on these tracks are still in operation, allowing people to enjoy the beautiful views on a clear day.
Sadly, the town’s boom years did not last. As the 20th century progressed, traditional British seaside destinations became unfashionable. Holidaymakers began to holiday abroad, leading to the economic decline of many resorts like Hastings. Since the 1930s there have been many attempts to revive the fortunes of the town, which remains home to a relatively poor coastal community. However, these new projects and building plans have not always been successful, sparking controversy along the way.
The last few decades have brought about a renewed interest in the regeneration of the town. In 2016 Hastings Pier reopened; six years after a fire had mostly destroyed its original Victorian structure. The new award-winning design juts into the sea with little obstruction, making you feel like you are walking on water as you stroll across it. The pier also uses reclaimed wood from its predecessor in its sun-drenched Upper Deck café and minimalist visitor centre; a space used for education, exhibitions and events.
The opening of the Jerwood Gallery in 2012 brought one of the biggest cultural boosts for the town. Hastings had become renowned for attracting creative types; therefore it seems a fitting site for a brand new beachside art gallery. The venue showcases a modern and contemporary British art collection in a prime location next to the Old Town, known as The Stade. It also hosts critically acclaimed exhibitions in a building that famously affords picturesque views of the fishing boats.
For an extra dose of culture you can visit Hastings during one of its many festivals and events that take place throughout the year. Creative talent goes on display in the Coastal Currents arts celebration and during music festivals like Fat Tuesday, which combines several days of live music and Mardi Gras costumes. The Seafood and Wine Festival, championing local produce, also draws a large crowd. Some events are decidedly more traditional, such as the four-day Jack in the Green Festival of Morris Dancing, featuring May Day dancers, drummers and parading characters covered in greenery. Perhaps the most breath-taking event is Hastings Bonfire Night, which continues a Sussex custom of staging processions followed by pyrotechnic extravaganzas.
Those seeking an alternative to the standard seaside budget hotel need look no further than Le Chateau Japonais (2 Linton Road). Blending French and Japanese influences, rooms come with deep-bath Jacuzzis and high-tech Japanese toilets. The outdoor hot pool is understandably popular with guests who like to relax while gazing up at the stars. This family-run B&B benefits from a quiet location away from the seafront, but within easy reach of the town centre and railway station.
The five-star White House Hotel (12 Godwin Road) offers a peaceful retreat high above the Old Town and within close proximity of a 400-acre country park. Equally pleasing to the eye are the hotel’s landscaped grounds featuring exotic plants, ponds, lawns, terraces and an outdoor swimming pool. Guests can stay in one of five en-suite bedrooms, or groups can book the whole of this elegant Victorian House for their exclusive use.
Restaurants, Bars and Cafés
Two branches of 1066 Bakery (5 Station Road/ 36 Priory Meadow) are conveniently placed for a quick lunch or coffee in the heart of Hastings. Established in 1950, the bakery prides itself on using local ingredients, sourcing most of its products from businesses within a 30-mile radius. Furthermore, award winning baked goods, breakfast specials and fresh salads can be consumed inside their café in an old double decker bus parked in St Leonards.
The laid-back feel of Hanushka Coffee House (28 George Street) can be quite appealing after a day spent sightseeing. The walls are crammed full of books to browse and the window seats provide a perfect place to watch the passers-by on one of the Old Town’s busiest streets. Light lunches, ice cream and cakes are also served alongside a decent coffee in this friendly café.
When it comes to eating out in Hastings, the town is unsurprisingly home to a plethora of venues serving local fish and seafood, but few offer the oyster bar experience of The Old Custom House (19 East Parade). Launched by the locally based St Clements restaurant, it provides a seafront alternative to their a la carte venue in St Leonards. Here diners can enjoy oysters, seafood platters or tapas-style plates accompanied by a well-selected drinks list.
Local artwork adorns the walls of Dragon Bar (71 George Street), which has a friendly atmosphere and a busy vibe, especially when DJs play there at the weekends. The owners opened the premises in 2005 following their success with a bar of the same name in Shoreditch, London. Restaurant-quality seasonally inspired meals are freshly prepared on the premises. Lunch and evening menus comprise of dishes like fisherman’s pie, treacle-boiled gammon, vegetarian burgers and thin crust pizzas made-to-order.
On the ground floor of The Printworks (14 Claremont) is a trendy bar that hosts special events on Thursday to Saturday evenings, which can be anything from live music to literature and theatrical performances. Moreover, this five-storey Victorian building offers much more than a bar, with each floor serving a different purpose, including homeware store, design studio, creative hub and B&B. Effortlessly stylish interiors are inspired by its former use as a local newspaper office and historical roots in The America Ground quarter of Hastings.
The Old Town, historically at the centre of Hastings, is a popular shopping destination for those in search of independent retailers. An enticing selection of specialist stores and antique shops spill out from its narrow streets and passages, known locally as ‘twittens’.
A G Hendy & Co Homestore (36 High Street) displays homeware from a time when pantries and sculleries were still in existence. Goods are laid out on antique furniture across several levels of a quirky house with stripped-back floorboards and old-fashioned bathrooms and fireplaces. Mixing new and vintage, its ranges reflect the revival of products like enamelware and non-plastic brushes for the home. This enterprising business also runs a cookery school and small restaurant, which serves lunches during summer weekends.
In the middle of the High Street sits the sophisticated delicatessen Penbuckles (50 High Street). A favourite with the locals, they sell a range of artisan treats, specialising in international wines and cheeses, including regional favourites. You can also sample delicious cakes, pastries, pies and deep-filled sandwiches along with a cup of Monmouth Coffee in their tasting room.
Made in Hastings (82 High Street) is run by five women who are keen to support local creativity by stocking products made by artists and craftspeople in the Hastings area. A cavern full of treasures; the shop displays are brimming with hand-made souvenirs and gifts, such as stationery, jewellery, scarves and products for the home. A distinctly nautical theme is present among its many wares, especially in picture book-style seaside prints by artist, Claire Fletcher and ceramics decorated in a palette of blues, greys and greens by potter Judith Rowe.
Butler’s Emporium (70 George Street) is one of the best-loved shops in the Old Town. Despite stocking mostly new products, the layout lends itself to that of an antiques shop, with a few relics from the past hiding among the displays. Gifts from around the world are sold here, such as fragrant soaps from Provence and Fair Trade slippers made in Nepal. Several ranges are also from Sussex-based companies, like Parkminster Products, who are well known for their hand-poured candles, which come in a range of unusual scents.
Voodoo Sirens (60 George Street) has become something of a mecca for vintage clothing enthusiasts. Specialising mostly in women’s garments from the 1940s to the 1960s, several genuine articles are on sale alongside vintage reproductions like patterned dresses and shaped trousers. Colourful handbags, shoes and accessories add a little extra glamour to the experience. In addition, the increasing demand for men’s clothing has led to the creation of a ‘man cave’ at the back of the shop.