Forget Brighton – the cool crowd gravitates towards this bold alternative

Hastings - Getty Images

Hastings – Getty Images

I’m sitting upstairs at Maggie’s, Hastings’ famous fish and chip shop, gulping down the best flounder I’ve ever had. No wonder it tastes so good: it was caught today, landed on the beach outside, and bought at the fish market below. Packed with flavor, garnished with homemade tartar sauce. What better way to refuel after an exhilarating walk along the windswept prom?

It’s not just the food that makes Maggie’s so special, it’s also the location. It is in the heart of Stade, Hastings’ historic fishing port, and restaurants overlook a shanty town of ‘net shops’ (long wooden huts where fishermen hang their nets to dry their nets) and fishing boats beyond. Boats are launched directly from the pebble beach. A fishing fleet has been here since Saxon times.

The adjacent Fishermen’s Museum is a friendly reminder of the dangers of the sea. Housed in a converted chapel, it is filled with memorabilia donated by fishing families. The highlight is the Enterprise, one of the last non-motorized boats to fish these waters, but the most impressive feature is the memorial wall, adorned with poignant snapshots of local fishermen who died at sea.

William Cook at Maggie's, Hastings' famous fish and chips shop - William Cook

William Cook at Maggie’s, Hastings’ famous fish and chips shop – William Cook

For me Hastings is full of happy memories – I used to come here as a kid and bring my kids here when they were little. We stayed with my wife’s parents who live a few miles away in Rye and have always loved our day trips here. Unlike Rye, who is quite slender, Hastings has some guts under his fingernails and is full of fun things to do. My kids adored the miniature railway that ran along the beach and still goes strong today.

Now my wife’s parents are dead, our kids are grown (and too cool to accompany) and my wife’s 9-5 (unlike me) is why I came back here alone. I thought this would be a melancholic spin, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. I was here mid week but the place was very lively and I met a lot of super people. I can’t wait to come back again.

Many outsiders are pretty rude about Hastings, and it’s easy to see why. “It’s a little rough in here,” says Lionel Copley, who runs Maggie’s. “I always called it Marmite Town because you either love it or you hate it.” He loves it just like me.

It has never been as trendy as Brighton or as smart as Eastbourne. Some parts of the city have a distinctly ‘Costa del Dole’ feel (sleepers, street drinkers…). I’ve always had a soft spot for this place but for a long time it seemed like its best days were behind us.

Yet something pretty cool has happened in the last decade: Hastings has attracted a flamboyant, old crowd. These hipsters (some locals, some comers) have re-energized the town by turning old tired retail spaces into quirky shops, bars and cafes. A generation ago, I saw the same thing happen in Brighton. Now that Brighton has gentrified, the people who made it popular are migrating east from West Sussex to East Sussex.

Hastings beach - Tim Grist

Hastings beach – Tim Grist

Why did Hastings run away? I think it has a lot to do with the gradual ending of the daily commute. Hastings has always been more affordable than Brighton (under an hour from Brighton – an hour and a half from Hastings), largely due to slower rail links with London. If you’re trekking to London every day, 90 minutes one-way is a hassle, but if you only need to do it once or twice a week for an awkward meeting, it’s easy-to-make.

And now visitors are taking notice. Where I stay is a good indicator of this trend. David and Derval are a kindly Anglo-Irish couple who bought and built a beautiful late Victorian villa called The Knowle, and they now live here and make bespoke B&Bs. Everything is boutique hotel standard but also wonderfully intimate. You feel like an old friend staying here rather than a paying bookie passing by.

Full of sea air, I slept like a baby. In the morning Derval prepared me a delicious breakfast. Haddock with poached egg was excellent, but my favorite was the quince jam made from fruit from the garden. Feeling ten years younger, I set out to explore the town.

Knowle is in St Leonards, the town adjacent to Hastings, and they have very different histories, although they have long been united in one town. Hastings is the only English seaside resort with an old medieval town (the ruins of Britain’s oldest Norman castle appear in the narrow streets below).

Hastings Castle ruins - Getty

Hastings Castle ruins – Getty

St Leonards, by contrast, is an early Victorian invention, the invention of an ambitious builder named James Burton, ‘a Regents Park by the sea’. When I first started coming here, many of these beautiful homes were pretty shabby but now many are being restored by enterprising housewives like David and Derval. Some are absolutely magnificent. After decades of trouble, St Leonards is on the rise.

Two shopping streets to go are Kings Road and Norman Road. The first is a jolly jumble of small shops and restaurants – some pleasantly eccentric, others refreshingly realistic.

The latter boasts two of the most refreshing venues in the city: Kino-Teatr is a vibrant arts center, stage theatre, live music, cinema and fine arts; The Heist is an offbeat food collective housed in an old bank with several cafes and an amazing seafood restaurant called the Boatyard, where I ate Maldon Rock oysters and flounder and leeks and seafood custard.

There are some bleak parts to Hastings itself, but you never have to go far to find something interesting or appealing. The ancient old town is an architectural marvel filled with half-timbered buildings dating back to the Middle Ages. George Street is the busiest street. I had a pint of crunchy Alan the Red Rye Ale at The Crown, a cozy bar on All Saints Street.

Hastings Contemporary is a stunning modern gallery located on the waterfront, whose simple design reflects the old net shops that surround it. The bright and stylish cafe upstairs has great sea views. The Hastings Museum and Art Gallery is more traditional, housed in an ersatz mansion on the green edge of town.

Hastings Old Town area - Getty Images

Hastings Old Town area – Getty Images

Inside is a family-friendly mix of local history and fine art: some gorgeous views and a few stunning modern pieces. But Hastings isn’t entirely cool and flashy. There’s still a little kiss-me-quick: a few gift shops, a crazy golf course, a few arcades…

I found myself at The Royal in St Leonards. This was an old school bar until James Hickson took over. Like many people, he moved here from London. “I found this place very inclusive,” she tells me. “There was a great mix of people in the bars, a great mix of age groups.”

He brought good food to The Royal, but did not compromise on his friendly atmosphere. “Hastings has always had the charm of the old town and St Leonards has really moved on,” says James. “More and more things are happening here.”

I had a nice sea bass with parsnip, cabbage and brown shrimp paste, washed it down with a glass of Long Man cayenne, then walked across the road to the train station. An hour and a half later, I was already craving the sea air of Hastings and another serving of fresh fish.

How to

Double room at The Knowle ( from £130 per room per night, including breakfast.

For more information about Hastings and the surrounding area, visit

Have you ever been to Hastings? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below.

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