Hastings. If you went to school in the UK, the name probably conjures up memories of your history lessons — learning how William the Conqueror and his French-Norman fleet stormed across the English Channel in 1066 to stick an arrow in the eye of England's last Anglo-Saxon King.
While the Battle of Hastings actually took place a few miles north of Hastings, traces of its historical significance remain, from the ruins of the castle built by order of the new king to a grubby mural depicting scenes from the Bayeux Tapestry on the underpass that connects the Old Town to the new one. But this seaside town's ties to the Norman Conquest are far from the most interesting thing about it...
It's a breath of fresh (sea) air
Hop on a Hastings-bound train at London Bridge and you could be sitting on a shingle beach within an hour and a half, assuming Southeastern behaves. And the town has gritty seaside charm in spades.
The pier once attracted the likes of The Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix, who set his stratocaster both metaphorically and literally ablaze on its stage. A storm and, later, a devastating fire — unrelated to Hendrix’s outlandish showmanship — may have destroyed the original structure upon which these superstars performed, but its current, more minimalist incarnation recently won the RIBA Stirling Prize and is well worth a visit. Candy-hued fisherman's huts sell ice cream, locals practice yoga on its vast expanse of timber planks, and in the summer, live music and open air film screenings draw the crowds.
If you'd rather be in the sea than hanging over it, rent a kayak and head out onto the water. You can also swim, of course, but it can get pretty chilly. Further east along the coastline, there's a small funfair and a couple of arcades. With more 2p machines than you can shake a stick of rock at, these are worth a visit if you've got kids to entertain.
It's a crazy golf hotspot
Did you know that crazy golf has its own world championships? Well, it does. And every summer since 2003, it's taken place in Hastings. At other times of year, pros and amateurs alike can make use of what claims to be the world's largest miniature golf complex, open all year round. Choose between your standard windmills, a pirate version, and — my personal favourite — the Polynesian-themed adventure golf course, featuring snarky talking tiki statues.
Where to eat and drink in Hastings
There's more to Hastings than fish and chips, though that classic dish is worth trying. Get into the town early and treat yourself to a slap-up breakfast at Pelican Diner, or head straight to Di Pola for a proper ice cream (hey, you're on holiday!)
When lunchtime rolls around, grab a green curry and some 'crispy treats' from the phenomenally good value Eem Sabai , a teeny Thai takeaway attached to the shopping centre (sadly closed during the lockdown).
For dinner, you're spoilt for choice, particularly if you're pescatarian. Tuck in to the catch of the day at White's Seafood and Steak Bar, or grab a punnet of cockles and prawns straight from one of the fisherman's huts and have an alfresco sunset supper on the beach. If you're up for something really special, go for Boulevard Bookshop and Thai Cafe. Second-hand bookshop by day, incredible family-run BYOB Thai restaurant by night, you're free to browse the bookshelves while your dreamy two-course meal is cooked up (it's how I found this delightfully dated Time Out guide to London).
Also worth a visit is Farmyard, situated in the St Leonard's area. The restaurant and natural wine bar focuses on local and sustainable produce, specialising in fresh fish and tapas. Look out for different offers on different days of the week, or swing by on Sunday for a fantastic Sunday roast.
It's got its own castle...
Alright, so it's not exactly the Palace of Versailles, but the ruins of Hastings Castle are nevertheless worth trekking up the West Hill for — if only for a viewing of 'The 1066 Story', the charmingly naff audio-visual programme screened daily inside the castle's cinema room. While you're up there, you can visit Smugglers Adventure, a subterranean network of caves once used by — you guessed it — smugglers to stash their contraband. Today, it still houses a truly unnerving array of bootleggers, but at least these ones are waxwork.
... and two funicular railways
Hamstrings not feeling another walk up a massive hill? Try the funicular railway instead (sadly currently closed until further notice due to Covid-19 restrictions). The East Hill Lift is the UK's steepest one, and dates back to 1902. The summit boasts excellent views of the town, and if you walk far enough along the gorse-strewn grass, you'll reach Hastings Country Park, a nature reserve within the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, which extends all the way to Fairlight's Fire Hills.
There are whimsical old buildings to ogle
Cradled in-between the East and West hills you'll find Hastings Old Town. This is the bit of the town that pre-dates the 19th century — a mishmash of medieval, Tudor and Georgian buildings — and it's pretty damn charming.
George Street, one of the Old Town's main thoroughfares, is all quirky shops, cobbles, and lively pubs, while the quieter All Saints Streets boasts buildings dating back to 1450. My own grandmother lived at Number 135, a lopsided 16th century Merchants House. Once the house was sold, it received a dramatically rustic makeover, featuring groyne oak floors, a lead-lined wooden bath tub and a slightly bewildering mix of antique furniture. You can stay here yourself if you're feeling flush, or else wait for one of its occasional open days for a nose around.
There are plenty of excuses to dress up
Hastings residents love a good party, so there are plenty of weird and wonderful festivities taking place all year round. For me, the best one is Jack in the Green, an old English folk tradition that the town revived in the eighties, where everyone goes a bit Wicker Man (minus the human sacrifice). There's Morris Dancing; lots of day drinking; and parade through the Old Town and up the West Hill which culminates in the slaying of the Jack, a hulking great effigy made of leaves, to release the spirit of summer.
After that, there's Pirate Day, Carnival Week, the Old Town Pram Race, and a big bonfire parade in the autumn.
You're never short on watering holes
There are some great pubs in the Old Town, including The Albion (good live music), The Stag Inn (excellent beer garden) The Crown (if you're feeling fancy). In the town centre, it's a little more sparse, a reflection of the frankly woeful lack of investment in the area — but that's for another article. The Imperial is great, though, as is gay-friendly cabaret pub The Fountain.
If you're up for a late one, your options are somewhat limited, but The Printworks hosts some brilliant parties and The Brass Monkey's monthly silent discos are always a laugh (the latter is currently closed owing to Covid-19 restrictions but hopes to reopen soon.)
... or cultural enrichment
Hastings Museum & Art Gallery — due to reopen on 27 August 2020 — is a good destination for anyone interested in the town's social history, with a permanent collection exploring everything from its smuggling heritage to the skirmishes between mods and rockers in the '60s.
Film buffs can skip the ODEON in favour of arthouse flicks and old classics at the Electric Palace Cinema, while theatre lovers are catered for by the White Rock Theatre (closed until further notice due to COVID-19 restrictions), alongside smaller venues like St Mary in the Castle.
There's also a thriving local arts scene, and the former Jerwood Gallery recently relaunched as Hastings Contemporary and has exhibited work by Tal R, Roy Oxlade, and Hastings local Sir Quentin Blake. The gallery is also temporarily closed owing to the COVID-19 pandemic - reopening details TBC.
Finally, it's not Shoreditch-by-the-sea
...And that's what makes it so great. There's heaps of community spirit in Hastings, as well as genuine eccentricity and the sort of unbridled creativity that can flourish in a (relatively) affordable community.
For residents, it's absolutely vital that this unique character is preserved. And that's why projects like the £4 million Jerwood Gallery can provoke controversy. In a town where 38% of children live below the poverty line, rents have increased by over 23% in the last six years. The steady increase in tourism has boosted the local economy, but in an era of rogue landlords and AirBnB, not everyone gets to reap the benefits. Unless community wellbeing is put at the centre of any such regeneration project, it's merely gentrification by stealth.
The good news is that a number of projects have sprung up to mitigate this. Rock House, run by a trio of social enterprises, offers affordable flats and office space at capped rents, and in early 2019, Organisation Workshop saw a group of economically underprivileged and otherwise marginalised locals come together to similarly transform part of the derelict Observer Building, while receiving training and support to grow as entrepreneurs.
If you're planning a visit, consider donating to Heart of Hastings Community Land Trust, which ran the Organisation Workshop. Alongside dodging ruthless seagulls and dressing up, bigging up grassroots innovation is about as Hastings as you can get.