In the 1790s, what had been the small fishing port of Hastings in East Sussex blossomed into a popular seaside resort and today it’s one of England’s favorite coastal towns. With its pebbly beach and black wooden fishing huts, the imposing castle on the cliffs and a charming cobblestoned old town, Hastings offers a mix of old-world allure and modern experiences and it’s a town of surprises. Hastings is the birthplace of television. TV’s inventor, John Logie Baird, conducted experiments in his lodgings on Queen Street, which resulted in the world’s first television in 1925. The shingle beach, the Stade, is home to Europe’s largest fleet of beach-launched fishing boats with the freshest seafood on sale daily from small huts.
What to See and Do
A new gallery on charming George Street in Hastings Old Town, Tadhg Mae Projects, owned by Harriet Delaney Onslow, is an excellent place to start a visit to Hastings. The gallery, with its brightly painted walls, checkered flooring and display of supernatural books, magazines and gifts perfectly captures the quirky nature of Hastings. The inaugural exhibition, A Dream Within A Dream (until 3 December) features Modern British artist Ivor Abrahams’ celebrated 1976 print portfolio, E.A. Poe: Tales and Poems. Abrahams’ spine-chilling series is a vivid evocation of the supernatural in 20 works, inspired by the poems and writing of Edgar Allan Poe, including such well-known gothic classics as The Sphinx, The Raven and Dream Within A Dream.
The British sculptor, ceramicist and print maker, was so eclectic in his practice that he was described by his art dealer, James Mayor, as Europe’s equivalent of Robert Rauschenberg. The aim of Tadhg Mae Projects is to present esoteric, folk and mystical work that explores the magic of the natural world. Future exhibitions will tie into similar activities in the town, like the famous Jack in the Green Mayday festival. And, in an aim to make art accessible to both veteran and new collectors, the limited edition Abrahams prints are an affordable £150 each, with posters at £25.
Hastings Contemporary, set among the black timber fishing huts on the seafront, is currently showing three excellent exhibitions. Upstairs is the first major UK solo exhibition of new and recent works by Lagos-based artist Nengi Omuku (until 3 March 2024). The stunning, figurative oil paintings are on gesso-prepared composite strips of the Nigerian fabric sanyan; a tightly-woven, hand-spun material that is an important aspect of Nigeria’s cultural history. Next door an intriguing installation by Roland Hicks (until 3 March 2024) combines aspects of drawing, painting, still-life, geometric abstraction, collage and performance with sculpture. Working directly on sea-facing walls, Hicks has created the illusion of a flimsy patchwork of found materials, as if someone with rudimentary carpentry skills had hastily assembled a barrier out of whatever came to hand, inviting visitors to interpret the result as they see it themselves.
In the ground floor gallery, three new sets of pen drawings by Sir Quentin Blake (until 12 November 2023), show the surprising artistic possibilities of a ballpoint pen. The sketches of heads, bearded sages and vultures are fascinating. An art tour can be continued in commercial galleries in neighboring St Leonard’s, including Project 78, a contemporary art gallery committed to showcasing emerging and established artists working in any medium.
Shopping is a delight, with plenty of independent antique and vintage shops on the High Street and George Street. The Clockwork Crow, an antique shop in a beautiful old building on George Street offers furniture, handmade tiles, beautiful rugs and blankets and vintage linens. Bobby & Dandy has hand-picked vintage womenswear and menswear, with a focus on items from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. Hawk and Dove on High Street carefully sources vintage tweeds, including coats, trousers and jackets. Expect high-necked, wool Nordic sweaters, corduoroy trousers, velvet blazers and more.
Be sure to take a ride on the UK’s steepest funicular railway, open since 1902, to Hastings Country Park that overlooks the old town and the coastline. The views across the rooftops and sea stretch for miles and are the best in town. Every May, the hilltop is the starting point, at dawn, of a May Day festival, Jack in the Green with live bands, dancing and a colorful procession through the streets of the old town, filled with unique characters, dancers, drummers and giants.
America Ground is a whimsical area between Hastings and St Leonards-on-Sea that in the first three decades of the 19th century played a key role in the expansion of Hastings. The area was a combined industrial and housing estate providing many services to the town’s developers and its freedom from local authority control also created a radical libertarian atmosphere, leading to it being named after the newly-independent former British colony. Today, America Ground maintains its bohemian air. For starters, check out Hanushka coffee house, with its floor to ceiling books and Wow and Flutter, a secondhand record and book shop.
Where to Stay and Eat
The Old Rectory, a charming boutique bed and breakfast near the High street in the Old Town, is a great choice. The eight charming rooms are named after the city’s streets and each room is unique and individually furnished, with quirky wallpaper and antiques. The Crown suite has a roll top bathtub and a toilet hidden behind what appears to be a bookshelf. The lovely toiletries are from their own Copley made by the sea range. The lounge on the ground floor is cozy and has a well-stocked honesty bar with drinks and snacks. The pretty garden out back is a great place to unwind after a day of sight-seeing.
Nearby, the 16th-century Stag Inn pub, on All Saints Street, the oldest residential street in Hastings, features beamed ceilings and rustic floorboards. The menu has fresh, unfussy, seasonal dishes from local suppliers, often with an Indian theme. Highlights include saag paneer croquettes with pickled chilli, mango and green chilli chutney; roast hake fillet; smoked haddock pakora, brown shrimp, spiced cauliflower and coronation butter sauce.
For the best fish and chips in town, head to Maggie’s on the seafront, among the fishing huts. This popular cafe is in its third decade of serving hearty portions of the freshest fish, cooked to order so a reservation is recommended.
The Crown, a family-run pub at the foot of the clifftop country park, sources ingredients from the local fishing fleet, farms and producers. The menu includes a beer-battered fish finger sandwich in homemade ciabatta and seasonal meat, fish and vegan/vegetarian dishes that change throughout the year.
In neighboring St Leonard’s, there are also plenty of choices for food and drink. Starsky and Hatch in Bottle Alley on the beach is great for coffee. The Royal pub across from the train station dates back to the 1860s and is the ideal spot for a drink before taking the train. St Clement’s, a seafood restaurant tucked away in the artist quarter, Mercatoria, is dependent upon the daily catch from the small, sustainable day boats in Hastings. The menu often includes Rye Bay scallops, grilled Hastings skate wing and line caught wild local seabass.
Farmyard a restaurant, wine bar and wine shop in St Leonards on Sea specialises in local produce and natural wines. Great organic meats, the freshest fish and seafood, creative veggie and vegan dishes, cured meats, local cheeses and much-loved Sunday roasts have made this a local favorite. The Three Faces has a beachy Balearic vibe and a menu of excellent tapas. La Bella Vista, a favorite of The Who’s Roger Daltry, is a modern Italian restaurant located on the St Leonards seafront. Marina Fountain, a cozy pub by the sea in St Leonards has great food, beer, wine and Sunday roasts.