Published in Harper's Bazaar, 22 MAY 2014
The aim of my weekend drive down to Hastings? To get a double-dose of culture care of an East Sussex town bookended by bang-on-the-beach Jerwood Gallery and the De La Warr Pavilion at Bexhill. And, having heard this sly old sea dog keeps a clutch of chic shops, guesthouses and cafés hidden in its Old Town, I was keen to correct my own memory of Hastings; I hate not having first-hand experience of the best-kept weekend-away secrets. The last time I drove to this Kent-bordering coastal city was eons ago to take a DJ friend to a gig at a nightclub at the end of the pier. Hastings Pier burned down a few years but 2015 is set to be a creative rebirth if the energy of locals such as Zeroh is anything to go by – Daniel Hardiker and Neil Hetherington are among the artists are working with the charity behind the pier’s regeneration.
Wending our way from West London to the South Coast, a swerve from the M23 and we were in South Downs countryside so charming we felt edified before we’d even reached the actual art galleries. Especially since our steed was the Bentley GT Coupe, which treated us to proper old-fashioned touring in a sleek modern tailored suit. Cross-stitched leather complemented by 567 horsepower is luxury travel indeed. 75 minutes south of London and we were in 1066 Country – as it’s declared at every signage opportunity. There is now also an official year-round Coastal Culture Trail to shout about, which runs 20 miles along the coast between the Jerwood, the De La Warr and Towner Gallery in Eastbourne, leaving discerning weekend-awayers with little reason to default to a Brighton B&B.
There are always compelling free-entry shows at the De La Warr Pavillion, but we were content with the car park as we admired the first Modernist public space built in Britain in all its 1935 art deco glory. The current show I Cheer a Dead Man's Sweetheart showcases an interesting contrast between the work of 21 living artists spanning six decades, and runs until 29 June. The Grade 1 listed building is known to let its often-quirky contemporary works spill out onto the top of the building too – Richard Wilson’s bus installation teetered off the roof’s edge in 2012 to much acclaim. Now the ‘People’s Palace’ is a popular space for weddings too – some hide their celebrations in the cinema until visitors have gone home, but most enjoy giving the hoi polloi something to gawp at aslong with the art shows and stunning sea views.
In a similarly arresting way, the Jerwood Gallery gives good performance even from across the street. Its dramatic neat black-glazed-tiling sits next to the protected patch of historic fishing net huts and the contemporary architecture boldly mimics these tall black structures on a larger scale. It seemed a little crazy to this out-of-towner to hear how much of a fuss locals kicked up when this quality private museum replaced the lorry park at Stade in 2012. Access to the Jerwood Collection isn’t free: but £8 seems fair (only £3 to residents) to admire this unique, lovingly chosen and diverse array of 20th- and 21st-century British paintings and sculptures. There is also an emphasis on celebrating local artists, and the drawings of Sir Quentin Blake (who owns a centuries-old cottage on a nearby lane) will be exhibited 19 July - 15 October.
A flash of Swan House’s Tudor-beamed exterior could convince even the most skeptical that this East Sussex seaside town is as characterful as British destinations get. Particularly since this residence sidles up to a sweet hodgepodge of terraced cottages, and the grey-stone 14th-century St Clement Church at the end of the same quiet road. Duck in the dinky front door and the boutique B&B’s low-ceilinged interior feels immediately homey, with five-centuries-old features framed in charcoal-toned Farrow & Ball, goat-hair Coban Rugs and Melissa White’s hand-painted decorations. Sofas by the giant range fireplace practically beg you to collapse into them with a cup of tea and a Tunnock’s teacake. Run by Brendan McDonagh, who is a tonic in himself as host, nothing is look-don’t-touch about this stylish-but-relaxed five-room guesthouse. Perhaps what helps keep standards so high is the good-spirited rivalry with his ex-partner Lionel Copley who runs his own guesthouse up the road, the The Old Rectory. Anyone who gets a kick out of artist Deborah Bowness’ trompe l’oeil wallpapers, will get even more of a thrill at this nine-bedroomed Victorian house owned and decorated by the Katherine Hamnett designer. The beautifully tended flower-filled garden is a great spot to gulp some of that East Sussex sea air. (Double rooms at both from £120, including a first-class locally sourced breakfast.)
Old Hastings, Juliet Kinsman/Instagram
The High Street
Old Hastings’ High Street is lined with a glut of vintage and antiques stores to pick through for retro treasures such as furniture- and frock-packed 20th Century Fashion & Design, which sprawls across two floors (01424 460068). For a seemingly art-directed selection of homewares and delicious bites to eat, Instagram addicts, get thee to AG Hendy & Co (01424 447171). For edible souvenirs or a Monmouth coffee or craft beer pick-me-up, pause at Penbuckles Delicatessen (01424 465050).