Driving to Hastings along the tree-lined A21, you’ll see a sign: ‘You are now in 1066 Country’. It is easy to imagine the Saxon soldiers tramping along a rutted track through the woods to meet the invading Norman horde.
The modern road, narrow, and often clogged with traffic, snakes through the rolling countryside of the High Weald towards the coast. It usually takes an hour to travel the 40 miles from the M25, the London orbital motorway. Given the practical difficulties of reaching Hastings, it is not surprising that it feels cut off from the bustling south-east of England, despite the fact that ‘1066, Battle of Hastings’ is one of our best-known historical dates.
In fact, the battle was not fought in Hastings at all, which perhaps explains why the next sign by the road makes no mention of Saxons, Normans or battles, but says instead, ‘Welcome to Hastings, Birthplace of Television’. Birthplace of television? Really? Another thing about Hastings is that it doesn’t make much of itself. You’d struggle to find anything about television in the town. There is a low-key plaque in a back-street shopping arcade, a pub named ‘The John Logie Baird’ and a dusty exhibit in the town museum.
So what actually happened? Baird came to Hastings in 1922, suffering from ill-health, and it was here that he managed to transmit the first ever television picture. He would have refined his invention further, but his landlord gave Baird notice to quit after he nearly blew up his workshop with an electrical short-circuit.
So, back to 1066. The Norman invasion might be famous, but few historical events have left so little evidence. The coast-line here is constantly changing. The sea, siphoned through the narrow English Channel, washes everything down the coast to the massive shingle bank of Dungeness.
Dry land is exposed, washed away, inundated, channels silt up, rivers change their course, and as a result, nobody actually knows where William the Conqueror landed. It is likely to have been Pevensey Bay, near a railway level-crossing which is now a mile from the sea.
The Normans marched inland to meet King Harold’s forces, and the two armies met at what is now the little town of Battle, seven miles from Hastings. Again, nobody knows precisely where the battlefield was, and no archaeological evidence has ever been found.
The imposing Battle Abbey was built near Senlac Hill by William to commemorate his great victory, but a recent ‘Time Team’ television programme sited the battlefield near a roundabout just outside the town centre. However, William did build a castle in Hastings, on a cliff-top on what is now known as the West Hill. Little remains.
Modern Hastings is actually three places, each with a distinct identity. In the east, the medieval Old Town is tucked between two hills. It is exceptionally pretty, with old half-timbered cottages and many interesting little shops, galleries and tea-shops. The Stade, the working fishing beach where the boats are still winched up onto the shingle, lies between the Old Town and the sea.
Along the sea-front, past the West Hill with its Castle ruins, we find the largely Victorian town centre, and Hastings Pier. Burned out a few years ago in an arson attack, the Pier is currently undergoing restoration. Bits of the town centre conform to the run-down English seaside town stereotype, with houses in multiple-occupation, kebab shops and discount shores.
Hastings was a great port in early medieval times, one of the famous ‘Cinque Ports’, and some of this area was built on the silted-up former harbour. The new land, known as the ‘America Ground’ was originally outside the town boundary. It was settled by a wild, free-booting community, who declared their independence from England. The land was not claimed for the Crown until 1827, by which time Hastings’ reputation for smugglers and pirates was well-established.
Past the pier, Hastings turns into St Leonard’s, an older, and originally much grander resort. Founded in 1828, it was the first planned Georgian seaside town, designed and built by James and Decimus Burton, creators of some of London’s Georgian splendour.
The original colonnades along the sea-front are largely intact, as is the grand hotel, assembly rooms and the fine villas surrounding the nicely-restored pleasure gardens. Today, St Leonard’s is very ‘boho’, home of artists, designers and crafts people. West of St. Leonard’s, suburbs sprawl to Bexhill-On-Sea, then comes Eastbourne, the famous chalk cliffs of Beachy Head, and finally Brighton.
As well as the long sand and shingle beach, there are many green spaces in Hastings. In the east, at the top of a funicular railway, the Hastings Country Park stretches along the cliffs across six miles of open country towards Fairlight, Winchelsea and Rye. The West Hill has another large open space, reached by another funicular. The views from both hills are spectacular.
I’ll write about many of these places, and the area round Hastings, in future posts. In the meantime, you can read my own blog, www.hastings-battleaxe.blogspot.co.uk.
Stephanie Gaunt moved to Hastings, East Sussex three years ago from Birmingham in the West Midlands. She now lives overlooking the sea on a hill behind the Old Town with her husband Nick and Digby the food-obsessed rescue cat. She writes a blog about her experiences of starting a new life by the seaside, www.hastings-battleaxe.blogspot.com. Stephanie has always enjoyed writing, both prose and poetry, and is an active member of the Hastings Writers’ Group.