when is a bookshop not a bookshop? when it’s in Hastings.

Asta wouldn’t like it

We hadn’t gone to Boulevard Books with a view to buying something to read. The thing is this secondhand bookshop in the centre of Hastings Old Town mutates into a Thai restaurant after dark and despite the walls in our back room lined with books about Marx and red headed screen sirens the only thing on our minds was, well food.

A pattern was definitely emerging. Earlier in the day we’d had coffee and one of those eggy Portugese pastries in another bookshop that also doubes as a cafe. So ordering ‘Thai hot’ tofu and noodles, hemmed in by English political history and film biographies, was starting to feel, well, normal.

I’ve enjoyed an arm’s length relationship with Hastings for 30 years. Having a soft spot for English seaside towns since my childhood Kim and I often came here in the eighties when Epic Records provided me with a company car and an expense account for the petrol. We’d park in the Old Town and walk past the fishing net drying huts and up to West Hill. From there we’d look out across the lambent Channel and west to St.Leonards-On-Sea, beyond Bexhill to Beachy Head. I can still smell the seaweedy aroma of fishing, and old chip fat from the takeaways that line the promenade.  There was something about Hastings then that was both down-at-heel and appealing. Kim and I even toyed briefly with the idea of buying our first home here.

Since then Hastings, and St.Leonards-On-Sea to which it is joined at the hip, have drifted in and out of my life. Bassist with the Sade band Paul Spencer Denman, who I worked with for some years, moved here maybe 20 years ago, followed by other London media luminaries including former Elle editor Sally Brampton who gave me the first of many motoring columns. A couple of years back the friend of a friend upped sticks from London and moved in at the same time as I started listening to a jazz singer called Liane Carroll who grew up and lives in, you guessed it, Hastings.

Its position, 90 minutes or so from London by train or car, meant it has enjoyed the sort of short break lifestyle notoriety enjoyed by Whitstable and Southwold. Cool places for city dwellers to spend a weekend and feel affluent. There’s a name for them – DFLs (Down From Londoners).

With Russian and Chinese investors, and an expanding army of private landlords, pushing up property prices in London adventurous Millennial entrepreneurs and grown-ups trading down have moved in. The property sections of most newspapers proclaiming Hastings to be the latest hotspot. And compared to London it is very cheap. A two bedroom flat with an outer London postcode buys four bedrooms and views. The reason my morning coffee cafe was full of twenty-somethings with expensive haircuts on MacBooks and septuagenarians on iPads.

When another two friends cashed in their north London chips and bought into the Old Town I thought it was time Kim and I should go and see what all the fuss is about and how much or how little Hastings has changed in a generation – and a bit more?

The beach is shingle. It makes a pleasant sound when you walk across it but it’s not so easy on dog’s paws. And with Asta acclimatised to the soft Cornish sand we decided to leave her behind, in the capable hands of Claire, who according to frequent email updates, ‘hangs out’ with Asta for two hour stretches on Harbour Cove. Clearly we weren’t missed. As it turned out one of the first things we learnt about Hastings is that  dogs are unwelcome, almost everywhere. Not a single stretch of the beach between the Fishing Museum and the new pier permit them. And there aren’t many places beyond that either, the man with a black Lab said. Asta would have to have trotted up and down the promenade, on her lead, avoiding the cyclists who have the priority.

Despite all the press don’t imagine for a second the town is gentrified. It’s far too authentic for that. At once charming and quirky and idiosyncratic it’s shabby, unloved, derelict and in need of paint. But thats its charm. Hastings has that seductive Notting Hill and Deptford feel of the 1970s, when art students, musicians and anyone with a slightly Bohemian inclination rubbed shoulders with gor blimeys. In other words there two distinct Hastings: The gentrified BoHo of the Old Town, with its vegan burgers, waistcoats and stout boots, and 100 yards away, beyond the Wellington Place pedestrian underpass, familiar  down market high street brands,  chubby folks with green hair, and wobbly boozers swigging from cans of premium lager.

There is history here in spades. From the Norman invasion a 1000 years ago to its heyday as a fishing port in the 19th century. The tall stucco Victorian houses that line the unloved promenade stretch inland for half a mile speak of more affluent times. Many are multi occupancy now.

I can understand why our friends have moved into the Old Town. It’s like Padstow, but bigger, with much more going on. Black and white Tudor homes with leaded lights stand cheek-by-jowl with red brick houses with mullion windows and Gothic doors. The big difference is people actually live here, and in numbers. You can tell the lived ones from the holiday homes because many of the lived ones have displays of shells and pebbles, bits of driftwood, models and photographs in the windows. I saw one with a Lego somethingorother and another with dinosaurs. Badges of local quirkiness.

There’s a thriving live music scene, a cinema club and theatre. And there are festivals. Highlights are a Fat Tuesday (that’s Pancake Day to you and me), and a motorcycle festival, and the four day Jack In The Green twiddly diddly Morris Men rites of spring piss up around May Day.

So a strong sense of community and a we’re all in this together attitude. An article on the gethastings website, headlined Why Hastings Is Not Shoreditch On Sea’ sums it up with – ‘if you’re going to live here, you’ll need to love its quirks and you’re going to need at least one fancy dress costume.’

Boulevard Books and other one-off owner occupier shops and cafes are focused along two principal streets,  George Street and High Street. Among them: Judges Bakery with bread for every conceivable food allergy; Made In Hastings, something of a pioneer opening in 2004 and on a mission to sell ‘quirky’ art and artefacts produced locally; Seagate, one of those old style hairy and chunky and leathery mens and womens designer outfitters that wouldn’t look out of place in Hoxton; more than a nod to rockabilly and early Elvis at Voodoo Sirens; something of 19th century seafarers garb at Warp & Weft; the restaurant, cookery school and interiors shop (they even have brush of the week) at A.G.Hendy & Co in a picture book Tudor house; and more antique and bric-a-brac shops than you throw a sow-ester at.

AGCool shops and bookshops masquerading as restaurants aside by

the end of my second evening it was clear the real reason my friend has moved here are the pubs. Real, no nonsense, old fashioned boozers, where everyone knows everyone else and most of the ale is brewed locally. Dozens of them. So many it was all I could manage to squeeze in five over two nights:

My favourite is Filo, although not named after some fancy sort of French pastry.  Filo is an acronym for First In Last Out. It’s got booths and an open fire with  beaten copper hood in the middle of the bar. I liked the look of the dapper gent in a fedora and blue waistcoat with the entire left side of his face tattooed. I chatted with a big man about gout (something close to my foot) and  drank Old Town Tom and got talking with a young couple with two puppy huskies; I liked The Cinq Ports Arms too. Pronounced ‘sink’ not ‘cinq’, perhaps a sign that Hastings voted for Brexit. It’s a snug bar with Ercol chairs and leaded lights and a chatty bar maid. The building is 17th century. No meals, just alcohol, pickled eggs and quiz nights; I took a shine to The Hastings Inn too, close to the front.  It was curry night when I seated myself on a bar stool and polished off a couple of pints of Goldings. There’s blues on Mondays and an ‘open mic’ night each Wednesday;  More music at The Stag, one of the oldest pubs in town. When I went the low ceilinged bar was crammed with mostly middle aged men playing fiddly diddly folk music, a couple of whom grimaced at my tie. Nevertheless the barman didn’t raise an eyebrow when I tried to cause a scene and complained my pint was flat; The Crown, near my friend’s, is a gastro pub that was touted as the best food pub in the country last year. The night I was there they were wine tasting in the back room.

It’s not all ‘quirky’ do-dahs and decent pubs. The Jerwood Gallery, hemmed in by fishing boats and the Fishermans Museum is a champion of British art. Central to its permanent collection are works by Hepworth, Lowry, Nicholson and Sickert. It’s a stark, bleak, modernist structure, encased in 8000 black tiles probably intended to harmonise with the sea washed pebbles and drying sheds. It’s won a raft of architectural prizes but non as prestigious as the RIBA Sterling Prize 2017 awarded to the remodelled and rebuilt Hastings Pier, half a mile to the west, closed due to irreparable storm damage in 2008. Its replacement, splashed across the UK media last year, is not like any other. Devoid of Edwardian fun palaces, finials,  guilded architraves and seaside tackiness, the flat, almost featureless new pier is proof that less really is more. The result is a wide timbered platform poking out into the Channel. A space, and a big one at that, designed to be flexible and lend itself to a multitude of purposes. Sea Life Crafts: Rainbow Fish and Sea Settler Workshop and weekly Yoga On The Pier. Get the picture?

The pier is actually closer to St.Leonards-On-Sea than it is Hastings, where a coastarati are concentrated around Norman Road, where lifestyle emporiums like Shop and Fleet Gallery stand alongside the Hollywood glamour of Siren. The latter turned out to be owned and run by Kim Denman, the beautifully baroque ’n roll missus of the aformentioned Paul Spencer Denman.

So there you have it. Hastings, a seaside town that’s happening in parts and not in others. A town where its easier to find a pair of ostrich skin cowboy boots than it is The Guardian newspaper: “That’ll be special order only,” I was told with no small amount of suspicion.

It has changed a lot in 30 years. For a start there’s a funiculaire from the fishing port up West Hill that wasn’t working when Kim and I used to visit. The Jerwood is a fine gallery and there are scores of the sorts of shops I’ve spent my life’s wages in. I think its fair to say that Hastings (and St.Leonards-On-Sea) have character, and a lot of very good pubs.

In case you’re wondering I rounded off my Thai dinner with a Rita Hayworth biography. I’m glad we weren’t in the DIY section.

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