The pebbly shore from which William turned inland to conquer
At the centre of this stretch of coast is Hastings, where William the Conqueror turned inland to defeat Harold and his Saxon army, and which in later centuries was one of the most powerful of the Cinque Ports. Reminders of the town’s history exist happily along with the dignified residential squares of Victorian times and the holiday amusements of the present day. Only a few miles away are quieter pleasures at Bexhill and Winchelsea.
Bexhill’s career as a resort began later than most when, in the 1880s, Lord De La Warr built Victorian terrace houses on land he owned between old Bexhill and the sea. Its chief feature is the spectacular De La Warr Pavilion, built in 1935, Bexhill’s answer to the usual seaside pier. Its long, low lines and glassed-in staircase dominate the seafront area, and it caters for all kinds of functions, from plays and concerts to exhibitions and conferences.
Old Bexhill is a short way inland, north of the railway at the top of Upper Sea Road. St Peter’s Church has a sturdy Norman tower, and is surrounded by weather-boarded houses. Near by are the Manor Gardens, where open-air productions of Shakespeare are presented.
At its eastern end, Bexhill’s seafront road ends at this clifftop viewpoint, with limited parking, giving superb views, straight out to sea, west towards the Bexhill seafront, and east towards the white bulk of the Marine Court flats in St Leonards. From the car park it is only a short walk down the hill to a secluded shingle beach at Glyne Gap.
Bulverhythe’s long shingle beach, old fishing boats and rows of beach huts can be reached from the A259, either down Bridge Way and across a railway footbridge, where parking is very limited, or down Cinque Ports Way, where the road swings under the railway, and parking is easier.
The Bo-Peep public house by the main road owes its name to the nursery rhyme which is said to have been written for the landlord’s daughter in the 18th century. Bulverhythe was a favourite place for smugglers to land their contraband – the ‘sheep’ of the rhyme are the smugglers, and the ‘tails’ their casks of French brandy.
At very low tides, the outline of the Dutch merchantman Amsterdam, wrecked in 1748, can sometimes be made out.
Though it is now joined to Hastings, St Leonards began life as a separate resort. It was laid out in 1828 by the architect James Burton and his son Decimus round a little valley which ran down to the seashore. Burton’s scheme included such strangely named places as Mercatoria (the market area) and Lavatoria Square (where the washerwomen lived). The valley is now a superb public garden, and a good deal of the Burtons’ building survives, including the Royal Victoria Hotel.
The most prominent feature of St Leonards is the huge white bulk of Marine Court, built in the 1930s to look like an ocean liner, with balcony sun-decks. castle, of which fragments still survive. The soft sandstone is honeycombed with caves, including St Clement’s Caves, said to have been used by smugglers in the 18th century for storing contraband.
The RNL1 lifeboat house, near the net sheds by the ruined harbour arm, is open every day during the summer. There are still more than 40 fishing boats working out of Hastings, and a Victorian chapel among the net sheds and stalls selling fresh fish is now the Fishermen’s Museum. The Old Town Hall, in High Street, has been turned into a well-laid-out local history museum.
The bustle of modern Hastings lies west of the castle, with its twin centres at the pier and the White Rock Pavilion. The joint beach of Hastings and St Leonards is about 3 miles long, and consists of shingle above high-water mark, leading down to sand scattered at low tide with rocks, sheltering rock pools
Though Hastings gave its name to the battle of October 14, 1066, the Normans and Saxons in fact met in combat at Battle, 6 miles inland. William the Conqueror landed at Pevensey Bay along the coast to the west, marched to Hastings and then turned inland along the ridge that Harold was defending. Hastings ancient and modern meet at the ‘Conqueror’s Stone’, a large rock by the entrance to the pier, on which according to legend William ate after landing in England.
When William landed, Hastings was already an important port, with its harbour at the east end of modern Hastings, where the fishermen still winch their boats ashore on the shingle, below the tall, black-painted net sheds. In the Middle Ages it was one of the most powerful towns of the federation known as the Cinque Ports, linked with Dover, Hythe, Romney and Sandwich, which provided most of the ships and men needed to defend the coast from attacks by the French.
Old Hastings lives on in the narrow, picturesque High Street, which runs up from the fishermen’s harbour and looks as though it has hardly changed in 200 years or more. The Old Town is hemmed in on both sides by steep cliffs, each with a lift up to the top. On one side are the open spaces of East Hill, and opposite is West Hill, where William the Conqueror built a massive full of marine life. Volunteer lifeguards patrol the beach at weekends and Bank Holidays in summer.
HASTINGS COUNTRY PARK
East of Hastings a 520 acre country park covers a stretch of magnificent sandstone cliff, deeply gouged by glens where streams lead down to the sea, with gorse-covered hillsides, woodlands and open grassland.
The park’s main landmark is the Victorian church at Fairlight, below which is the main car park, with a visitors’ centre. Leaflets describe five separate nature trails, the most picturesque of which runs for 2 miles through Fairlight Glen. The path runs through woodland, past huge boulders, down to Lovers’ Seat, named in memory of a girl who waited for her sweetheart to be rowed ashore from his ship. Among the birds to be seen are woodpeckers, linnets, greenfinches and redpolls.
From Fairlight the narrow road twists down to sea level at the eastern end of the sandstone cliffs. A road and a footpath lead to a shingle beach, with rows of wooden stakes to prevent erosion. Hundreds of wartime ‘dragons’ teeth’ – angled concrete blocks to deter invaders from landing – are still ranged along the foreshore.
This flat expanse of water-meadows between the sea-wall and the Royal Military Canal is criss-crossed by watercourses and dotted with grazing sheep. Two ponds known as the Colonel Body Memorial Lakes are a popular spot for birdwatchers. The canal, which begins at Pett Level and runs northwards to Hythe, was dug in the early 1800s as part of the defensive system against Napoleon. The ‘front line’ of the system was the series of Martello towers along the coast. The road runs below the concrete seawall, with frequent steps leading down to the beach, but no proper parking except beside the road. The beach is shingle, leading down to muddy sand.
This pretty little town, perched up on a ridge overlooking Pett Level, always looks half asleep and three-quarters empty. Yet Winchelsea was once one of the chief ports of the south coast, ranking, along with Rye, as an ‘Ancient Town’ equal in status to the original five Cinque Ports. Old Winchelsea now lies under the waters of the Channel, somewhere out in Rye Bay. Its last remnants were finally engulfed in a great storm in 1287, and the town was rebuilt on a new site, which was then on the sea but is now more than a mile inland.
Throughout the Middle Ages Winchelsea was constantly attacked by the French, with results that can still be seen in the beautiful parish church of St Thomas the Martyr, which was largely destroyed in a French raid during the 15th century. The build-up of shingle along the shore gradually cut
Winchelsea off from the sea, and it declined into its present picturesque torpor.
Three of the medieval gateways still survive, as does the ancient Court Hall, now a small museum. Winchelsea Beach is a village of chalets, caravans and camp sites above a shingle foreshore.
Accessible only on foot, this impressive ruin crouches low among the fields a mile from the sea. It was built during the 1530s, at a time when Henry VIII feared an invasion by the Roman Catholic powers, and is constructed to the plan of a Tudor rose, with rounded walls to deflect cannon-balls. It is being restored, and is not open to the public.