1066 Country – Part 1 – Hastings
by Peter d’Aguilar
Hastings is a town steeped in history, and it continues to captivate locals and tourists alike. Peter d’Aguilar takes a look around and details the conquests right up to the thriving community there today.
The vibrant seaside town of Hastings has a rich maritime, historical and cultural heritage. Set in the heart of 1066 Country, Hastings is made up of three distinctly different areas connected by a shared promenade. In the east, between the East and West Hills, lies the preserved Old Town with its shingle beach, fishing boats, museums, festivals and distinctive narrow alleyways – known locally as twittens. In the west, St Leonards features the classical elegance of James Burton’s architecture and the antique shops and vintage galleries of Norman Road – recently described as the new ‘Portobello Road-on-Sea’. Sandwiched between them is the Town Centre, with Priory Meadow Shopping Centres’ eclectic mix of retail outlets, cafes and restaurants.
Along with Sandwich, Dover, New Romney and Hythe, Hastings became one of the medieval Cinque Ports – five strategically important components in the English Channel coastal defence network set up by Anglo-Saxon King Edward the Confessor to guard the south coast against Norse invaders. William the Conqueror’s famous victory over Edward’s successor, King Harold, at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 did much to shape modern Britain. During the Middle Ages, a combination of violent storms and French raiders hampered Hastings’ development as a working harbour. Consequently, fishermen had to launch their boats from the beach (it now has Europe’s largest beach-launched fishing fleet). Smuggling became rife in the seventeen and early eighteen hundreds but, after the Napoleonic Wars, Hastings transformed into a popular resort town – driven by the 19th century boom in rail travel and the growing Victorian enthusiasm for seaside holidays. The consequent influx of new visitors resulted in a dramatic increase in the local population; rising from around 3,000 in 1801 to over 10,000 in 1831. Today it has climbed to 90,000.
The May Day Bank Holiday weekend features a Jack-in- the-Green festival and the May Day Run, when thousands of motorcyclists descend on Hastings via the A21. The yearly carnival during Old Town Week takes place every August, followed by a month-long arts festival and a two-day food and drink festival. During Hastings Week in mid-October, the Hastings Bonfire Society stages a traditional Sussex Bonfire Night; with a torchlight procession through the streets, a beach bonfire and firework display. Hastings also holds a celebrated Pirate Day each July – and is currently the world record holder for most pirates assembled in one place. The town has three cinemas, two theatres and a thriving arts venue and also holds popular annual beer and music festivals. The White Rock Theatre is renowned as a venue for live music, stand-up comedy, circus, panto and community events.
Located in the Stade area in the heart of the fishing quarter, The Jerwood Gallery houses an important collection of 20th and 21st century British art never previously on public display. The Hastings Museum and Art Gallery concentrates mostly on local history. As fishing plays an integral part in Hastings’ past and present, the Shipwreck Museum and the Fishermen’s Museum recall old seafaring days and famous local shipwrecks. Next to the museums are the impressive tall black net huts, with a fish market offering fresh environmentally-caught fish, seafood restaurants and cafes.
William the Conqueror built Hastings Castle in 1070, four years after the Norman invasion. In 1287 a storm hit the southern coast of England, causing the cliff and half the castle to fall into the sea. Today, its Grade I listed remains overlook the town centre and the English Channel from West Hill. Hastings Pier is visible from all along the seafront. In 2010, a major fire burned down most of the buildings on the pier and damaged its infrastructure. After a £14m refurbishment, the pier reopened in 2016. Built in the 1930’s, the double decker promenade runs from the pier beyond Marine Court with a break at Warrior Square.
Hastings has two funicular railways – the West Hill Lift and the East Hill Lift, which is the steepest in Britain. The recently-restored Hastings Miniature Railway chugs along the beach from Rock-a-Nore to Marine Parade. National Cycle Network route NCR2 passes through the town, on its way along the south coast between Dover in Kent and St Austell in Cornwall.
Since 1984, Hastings has hosted a Half Marathon; starting and finishing by the West Marina Gardens in St Leonards. The Hastings International Chess Congress has attracted many world champions since its inception in 1911. The World Crazy Golf Championship has been held on Hasting seafront since 2003.
Famous Hastings residents include the inventor of television John Logie Baird, novelist Robert Tressell, computer scientist Alan Turing, comedienne Jo Brand, Madness frontman Suggs and England footballer Gareth Barry.