We are on the terrace of the new Jerwood Gallery, overlooking the working beach, the April sun making the sea sparkle. Low-key in design in deference to Rock-a-Nore’s unique fishermen’s net shops, the building is clad in black ceramic tiles to reflect the changing seaside light. Yet as befits most new seaside galleries, especially Kentishtowner favourite Turner Contemporary, its genesis has been plagued in controversy (it was built on a former coach park).
Still, it’s the latest development for this mixed resort that is gently on the up, with its hilly Old Town, bucolic cliff top parks and lively pedestrianized George Street. And the new £9 million redevelopment of The Stade, the historic area home to Europe’s largest beach-launched fishing fleet, adds an additional hook for weekenders. In short, with the sun out, it feels like we are in Barcelona.
And up on the cafe terrace, surveying the full panorama – nets, engines, masts, anchors, tiny railway, swooping gulls, screaming fun fair – it’s quite exhilarating, especially with a chilled glass of rose or two in hand (the food is also excellent: try the local hake in curry batter, or the sweet pickled herring with potato salad).
And what of the art? Nicely endorsing the idea that less is always more, the gallery is compact and designed without fuss simply to view the work on display.
The main temporary exhibition is the first retrospective by Kent-based septuagenarian Rose Wylie, whose sublime and vast loosely-painted canvases cover the walls. Other artists worth checking out include Patrick Caulfield, Maggi Hambling and Dod Procter (don’t miss his ‘Lilian’).
Outside, we wind our way through the Old Town, and the little independent shops and galleries like uber-stylish Hendy Home Stores, Robert’s Rummage for second-hand books, and Judges deli and bakery, run by Green & Blacks founders Craig and Jo Sams.
(More tips? Porters, the Hastings Arms, real ale pub First In Last Out, and Dragon Bar – if you’re missing London already.)
Climbing up through the picture-postcard narrow streets we reach a vast park, known as West Hill, where there’s a clear view of the sea over the jumble of architecture, from adorable Tudor cottages to Georgian terraces and grand Victorian piles. There’s a Norman ruin perched on the clifftop, today over-run by hundreds of excitable kids on a school exchange.
To experience Hastings fully, however, it’s worth the twenty minute seafront amble to St Leonards, its twin and rival. Purpose-built by 18th century architect James Burton, who had developed large areas of Bloomsbury and Regent’s Park, it once attracted artists and writers like Turner and Rossetti, as well as the super-rich, but declined sharply in the 1980s and 90s.
Now, inevitably, its seafront is peppered with cool delis, and creative spaces like the Arts Forum, whilst nearby Norman Road has a string of boutiques and galleries leading up to the Maze Hill area, with its pastel houses, sunken park and carp pond. Top foodie tip is Michelin-starred St Clements, where we enjoyed a more-ish wild mushroom risotto and cod with bubble and squeak and lentils.
We slope back to the Old Rectory, our boutique b’n’b. An architectural mix of 17th century and Georgian with a grand Victorian façade, it’s the latest project from interior designer Lionel Copley, the owner of Swan House, a lovely guesthouse I’ve written about before in the heart of the Old Town.
We’re met by charismatic manager Shaun Brosnan, an internationally acclaimed sculptor whose studio is also onsite (don’t ask to see it though!) A quick tour reveals a cute breakfast room (where he throws regular supper clubs), and huge living space, complete with wonderful inglenook and sofas to drown in.
Our bedroom is at the front, positioned to enjoy the afternoon sun. Vintage 1970s and 80s plates adorn the charcoal wall, and there are painted floorboards, a fireplace stacked with wood and huge comfy bed.
But behind the house is the real surprise: half an acre of steep garden, complete with Tuscan-style terrace and pond. We laze by the gazebo, having raided the honesty bar for a large G ‘n’ T, and soak up the evening rays. A magnolia is flowering. The smell of lavender is in the air. It’s early April and it’s gorgeous.
Shaun wanders out with a sherry and engagingly tells us tales of his nomadic last few years, moving from London to Spain and now Hastings. He also confides plans to make their own bacon and sausages on site (he’s a brilliant cook as we discover the next morning over a gourmet breakfast).
But what, we wonder, does he love most about living here? Without missing a beat he says – as many an artist has before him – ‘the light.’
Words & Pics: Stephen Emms
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