by Enza Ferreri
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Hastings, in East Sussex, was in the Middle Ages the head port of the Cinque Ports. Hastings is where English history begins, in 1066 with the Battle of Hastings won by William I The Conqueror, the king who started the Norman invasion. That's when England became in some way French, notably in the official language and in other strong cultural influences.
The Normans themselves were from Northern Europe - this is also what their name means, "men of the North" - who had settled in France and in other parts of Europe, like Sicily.
In reality, the Norman invasion of 1066 occurred not exactly in Hastings but 10 miles west, at Pevensey Bay, where their ships landed, and William the Conqueror prevailed over the Saxons 6 miles inland from Hastings, at the site where is now the town named Battle and there are still 1066 reenactments.
The anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, which took place on 14th October, is commemorated every year in Hastings for a week with various events culminating in a firework display and bonfire on the beach.
Hastings Old Town
The last tme I visited Hastings it was better than I remembered it, better than the average English seaside resort. Not only is it historical, but also with some natural beauty in the form of cliffs, pretty in its buildings, a little square with a round fountain on the seafront promenade, a huge square with a statue of Victoria which reminds one of Brighton but better, some crescents on the seafront also reminiscent of Brighton, and fine medieval buildings dating from the time when it was a wealthy fishing town.
I liked, when we entered Hastings, the hills on which it is built, which also make a nice pretty view from the road and the beach.
A very long stretch of gardens punctuated by vast ponds and tennis courts goes through the middle of the town, flanked by houses. This is in the Victorian, newer part of Hastings, with the seafront promenade and all the trimmings of English seaside resorts.
That is conjoined to the Old Town, the historical part, which lies mainly in the little, eastern-most valley of Hastings, and goes up the side of a hill.
Hastings Old Town roughly corresponds to the part of Hastings before the 19th century. Inside it is the shingle beach known as The Stade (old Saxon term meaning "landing place"), also called "Old Town beach" or "Stone Beach". The Stade is home to Europe's largest fleet of beach-launched fishing boats, and it has been used for beaching boats for more than a thousand years. Visitors are welcome to witness the fleet in action on this working beach.
This is where the characteristic Net Shops, black wooden huts on the pebble beach near the harbour stand tall among the boats, a sort of Hastings' landmark. Their purpose was to provide a weather-proof store for the fishing equipment made from natural materials, thus preventing it from rotting in wet weather. The sheds are tarred (hence the black colour) and weatherboarded.
Beyond the fishermen's huts lies the Old Town with all its traditional pubs (including historic Grade-II listed-building public houses), little alleys, old shops and little nice bright-coloured cottages, dominated by Hastings Castle on a hilltop.
One of them is the Dickens Cottage, a building with a timbered exterior on a high pavement on the High Street, in the heart of the medieval Hastings Old Town. The name is deceptive as, although Charles Dickens came to Hastings to give a public reading of his works and the town of Hastings did feature in many of Dickens' books, the cottage has only a very flimsy connection with the Victorian writer: Sir Henry Fielding Dickens, son of the novelist, used to visit the property with his wife.
Many events take place every year in the Old Town. One is the Hastings Old Town Carnival Week, which may include free concerts on the beach by local bands, dancing and a town criers competition.
A walk to the top of East Hill will reward you with fine views. It is quite a steep climb up the steps, so if you prefer you can take a funicular railway (£2.50 for adults, £1.50 for children, students, concessions).
The Smugglers Adventure in Hastings is a scary maze of caves and tunnels evoking the good old days of smuggling, excisemen and pirate cutlasses. Contraband was a profitable activity before the age of mass tourism.
Hastings' Pier, built in 1872 and considered a Victorian masterpiece, was destroyed by fire in October 2010, and there are plans for its reconstruction.
High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty
Bluebells near Hastings
East of Hastings is the Hastings Country Park, with glens covered with gorse and trees, sandstone cliffs, nature trails, footpaths, picnic areas and ample car parking.
The Hastings Country Park is part of the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, which meets the coast at Hastings. The character of the High Weald was established by the 14th century and has remained intact through main historical events and social transformations. Therefore, the High Weald is considered as one of the best surviving medieval landscapes in the whole of Northern Europe. It is a kind of legendary landscape, reminiscent of Narnia, evoking the expectation of Aslan coming galloping round the corner with a bunch of Centaurs.
Covering an area of 1,450 square kilometres, the fourth largest Area of Outstanding Beauty in England and Wales, the High Weald extends from Surrey to East Sussex. The landscape is a mosaic of small farms and sandstone cliffs covered in grass and gorse. There is a footpath running up to the Fire Hills, so called in local legend because the gorse bushes and yellow gorse flowers which cover the hills burst spectacularly into flame over the summer months when they become tinder-dry.
During this walk you can see several local giant herring gulls, and if you're lucky a barn owl as dusk falls, and even peregrine falcons. All in the setting of the beautiful scenery and landscape clifftops.
There are woods, some with the biggest and most amazing displays of bluebells, areas of about a square half kilometer in woodland valleys smothered with them.
On the way to the Hastings Country Park you'll go past Hastings Castle, built by the Normans in 1066 during the last (or latest?) successful invasion of England. Hastings Castle is by the sea, between the Old Town and the rest of Hastings. You can visit the ruins of Hastings Castle for £4.25 for adults, £3.95 for seniors/students/concessions, £3.50 for children.
St Leonards-on-Sea is a suburb to the west of Hastings.
Hastings and St Leonards are attached to each other, like Brighton and Hove, and Bournemouth and Poole. The former has shops, hotels, restaurants, bars, cafes, venues, the latter is more residential and less famous.
Parts of Hove are actually positively run-down, many people who look homeless are on the beach and the seafront, and drunk persons too. But then you meet people like that in Worthing as well, which is not a bad place. St Leonards, on the other hand, is not run-down.
Travelling by train from Eastbourne to Hastings is a journey of 30-40 minutes.
Enza Ferreri is an Italian web author living in London, and former journalist.
Email: ehg89 at britaingallery dot com