Friday, 27 August 2010

Sussex Coast Walk Day 12 Eastbourne - Hastings

Bexhill Promenade
I had looked long and hard at the logistics of this section after the fantastic walk along the cliffs from Exceat and concluded that it might be best achieved on a bike.  After the lengthy section of chalk cliffs between Brighton and Eastbourne it comes as a bit of a shock to find a relatively flat coast once again.  The area of Sussex between Eastbourne and Hastings is the clay part of the Weald where it meets the sea.  Eastbourne is somewhat sheltered from the elements by the proximity of Beachy Head and the coastline is dominated by caravans and holiday homes as a result, giving a very different character to what has gone before.
Bexhill Seafront Houses

One of the reasons I chose to cycle this section of coast is that there are reputedly very good cycle lanes in Eastbourne, Bexhill and Hastings with no obvious footpath along the coast itself.  The section that looked particularly problematic was between Pevensey Bay and Cooden Beach.  Other correspondents have suggested walking along the shingle beach, but after my previous experience in Selsey I thought better of it! I had decided to park in Bexhill rather than Eastbourne or Hastings since I knew that there would be less pressure to find a space.  My original intention was to get the train to Eastbourne from Bexhill, cycle right through to Hastings and get the train back to the car.  Unfortunately it didn’t quite work out that way as due to a miscalculation on my part there wasn’t a train for another forty minutes.  I decided therefore to start my trip by cycling to Hastings and then getting the train to Eastbourne and complete the trip back from there.  It was by now mid afternoon and faced with a deadline of darkness falling by about 8pm waiting around was a luxury I didn’t have.
Grand Prix Coast

It was a sunny and breezy afternoon, perfect conditions for the ride ahead.  I had actually waited for such conditions on an available day as I felt that this stretch of coast deserved it.  The promenade in Bexhill is a short distance from the train station and the central core of the seafront has a relaxed and historic air about it.  Perhaps the fact that Bexhill has been rather overshadowed by its more illustrious neighbours (Eastbourne and Hastings) has been to its benefit.  Many of the seafront buildings have been kept in more or less original condition, rather than being redeveloped into more modern (and perhaps uglier) places to fit in with business needs.  The front is replete with traditional shelters, untouched by vandalism and painted in crimson and white livery.  There were plenty of people walking about enjoying the sea air, meaning that the ice cream kiosks were doing a brisk trade!
Galley Hill

After a short distance I came across a stone commemorating the first motor races in Britain.  Bexhill is very proud of its motoring heritage (seems rather and unlikely place now!) and hosts a gallery devoted to the old history.  Sadly there wasn’t time to visit today (make a mental note to do so soon) but I did pause for a moment to try and imagine the scene over one hundred years ago as an Edwardian Crowd would have turned out to watch the fairly rudimentary cars racing along the short course on Bexhill front.  At this point of course I wasn’t entirely sure how far they would have had to travel, but about a mile on as I climbed the slope of Galley Hill another stone marked the start line.  I couldn’t help but wonder whether the slope of the hill helped with the start – no doubt these fairly fragile cars would have benefited from a little induced momentum!
Coastway Train

Galley Hill is not much of a hill in reality, more of a sandy hillock.  But enough height is gained to make a good viewpoint above the otherwise very flat landscape.  Behind me the eastern edge of Bexhill is dominated by some rather uninspiring blocks of flats, rather disappointing compared with the magnificence of the flats on the seafront closer to the town centre.  At the top of the hill is an unusual looking coastguard station and a popular looking car park that was full of vehicles parked up to admire the view.  Ahead of me was Hastings, my next destination and a short distance away over the low sandstone cliffs that form the coastline between the two towns.  From Galley Hill the section of coast down to Glyne Gap is well-provided with a purpose built segregated cycle path, which was very welcome.  Sadly this does not extend beyond Glyne Gap but heads for the A259, a few hundred metres inland.  In my view this is a missed opportunity – the cycle lane would be so much better if it continued on the seaward side of the main railway line.
St Leonard's

I certainly wasn’t going to proceed along the road when there was a perfectly good footpath initially along the cliff top and then a stretch of shingle past Bulverhythe.  It didn’t make good cycling (and officially I wasn’t supposed to cycle) but at least there was no one around to bother or laugh at my feeble attempts to get the bike through the shingle.  On the landward side of the railway that follows this stretch of coast are the train depots at Bulverhythe, once from competing railways and facing each other.  Since the South Eastern And London Brighton and South Coast Railways fought their turf wars these sheds have been through the joint running of the Southern Railway and then British Rail to find themselves back to the original position of two operators fighting it out for customers.  The trains of Southern and South Eastern are very much kept apart in the two sheds, something I couldn’t help smiling about!
Warrior Square

Getting to the promenade at St Leonards was a relief and before finding my way on to the cycle track I crossed the small stream known as Combe Haven, once a huge inlet to what is now marshland with the former port of Bulverhythe at its entrance.  As I entered St Leonards the first impressions are not great.  The western end is still quite derelict in places and the huge site of what was once the Lido dominates the scene.  It is a sad sight now with only a few remains left of what was once quite an impressive structure (see for a good picture and history).
Marine Court

As I pushed on eastwards towards the centre of Hastings the scene soon changed and I was quite impressed at the facelift that the seafront had had in recent years.  Hastings is a town I have only visited infrequently due to its distance from Worthing (surprisingly its further away than London!).  Although I have always thought that it has a faded charm in my most recent visits it was looking pretty downtrodden in places.  Today though it looked as though many of the seafront properties had been taken on by people willing to invest more money in them.  The promenade looked as if it had also received some investment, with the gardens looking particularly resplendent with the summer bedding out in full bloom.  All the way into central Hastings the cycle lane and pedestrian facilities co-existed side by side, begging the question “why can’t we do this in Worthing?” 
Hastings Pier

As I headed into Hastings I paused to look at two remarkable buildings that have had differing fates in recent years.  First was the phenomenal Art Deco block of flats known as Marine Court.  This was the largest block of flats in Britain when it was opened in 1937 and although it can look quite ugly and slab sided at first viewing, upon closer inspection its inspiration suddenly becomes clear.  The building is said to be modelled on the Queen Mary ocean liner and the view from the eastern end makes it abundantly clear!  Since my last visit the old building has had a lick of paint and looks well cared for, after a few years when it looked decidedly sorry for itself.
Hastings Pier

Sadly the pier in Hastings hasn’t fared so well.  In recent years it has been closed for health and safety reasons as the decking is said to be unsafe.  A campaign has been started to try and save it, with the Council being lobbied to compulsorily purchase it in a bid to save its future.  I wish them well for the current state of it is rather folorn and I can’t help thinking that the problems with the West Pier in Brighton probably started out in a similar way.  At least Hastings Pier still stands; St Leonards Pier was demolished in 1951 after being damaged in a storm.  Histories of both piers can be found at
Carpet Gardens

I cycled through town to the station and managed to get a train within a few minutes over to Eastbourne.  I arrived at about 5.30pm and estimated that I had about 2 ½ hours to cycle back to Bexhill before darkness really fell.  I headed straight for my second pier of the day, another Eugenius Birch designed pier happily in rude health.  Personally I think that Eastbourne Pier is the finest in Sussex, although its future is also in doubt after it was put up for sale in 2009.  The seafront in Eastbourne (odd aberration like the TGWU Headquarters excluded) is also by far the best in Sussex and looked particularly good in the early evening sun.
Eastbourne Pier

I headed out of town on the excellent cycleway to Sovereign Harbour, the housing and commercial development that usurped the former gravel works that used to exist in this area of eastern Eastbourne.  As I headed eastwards the seafront and areas inland were a hive of activity with rollerbladers, other cyclists, dog walkers, a circus and people playing various ball games all in evidence.  Offshore my eyes were also drawn to the supply ship coming back from the Royal Sovereign Lighthouse, which is sited about four miles out to sea.  I wasn’t sure what the ship was doing, for the lighthouse is automated just like all the others around the coast of the UK.
The Crumbles

I soon came upon Sovereign Harbour and faced with the harbour entrance I was forced to head inland along the signposted cycle route through the development.  I was slightly annoyed by this, especially as I really wanted to take a closer look at the Martello tower almost within touching distance on the other side of the harbour.  The section through Sovereign Harbour is a bit soul destroying as it passes through a fairly sterile housing estate, with most properties adopting clichéd nautical themes for external decoration.  The marina was quite eye catching but as with so many of these types of development, the marina is almost hidden by the housing which all looks a bit samey.  Thankfully, being on a bike meant I could escape quickly.  The cycle lane continued on to Pevensey Bay and I was thankful of being segregated from the busy A259.  Across the marshes inland I could see glimpses of Stone Cross windmill and Pevensey Castle but sadly the sea was out of sight.  I caught a glimpse of another Martello tower but there was no possibility of getting any closer to that one either as it was in the middle of a caravan site.
Sovereign Harbour

At Pevensey Bay I got a rude shock when the cycle lane suddenly ran out.  I tried a few of the roads to the seafront but any possibility of heading along the coast were stopped by all manner of private signs and various fences preventing any access.  Clearly the Government are not going to find it easy to open up this stretch of coastline if they get their way to give access to all.
Pevensey Martello Tower

Stymied, I continued on my way along the road billed as a no through road to Normans Bay.  In reality there is a through route although officially the section through Normans Bay itself is private property and I wasn’t sure whether they would allow me to come this way by bike.  I needn’t have worried.  Normans Bay is a big caravan site and there were hundreds of tourists staying, making my presence almost irrelevant.  After passing through Normans Bay ‘village’ I crossed over the railway line and had a look at the rather desolate looking station.  I caught the attention of the crossing keeper, employed to keep people safe crossing this ungated level crossing.  He obviously thought I wanted to catch a train and knew I must be mad for there are no Sunday trains from here!  Actually I was just having a nose, but if he felt better watching my apparent suffering good for him – it obviously whiled away a few seconds on an otherwise boring day.
Martello Tower Coast

There was still no chance of heading along the coast so I took the road towards Cooden Beach instead.  This wasn’t an especially pleasant experience for despite its size it is actually quite a busy road and there were a few anti-social drivers around determined to ‘buzz’ me as they drove by.  It quickly made me realise why on the whole I don’t much like road cycling.
Bexhill Clock

I pedalled as quickly as I could to Cooden Beach, which marks the start of the built up area of Bexhill.  By now the sun was already starting to get quite low in the sky and I was anxious to get back to the car.  The large Cooden Beach Tavern deserved a look as I passed by and just around the corner the official cycle route along the coast started once again.  I was very disappointed by the effort though if I’m honest as it amounted to little more than a few lines painted on the road.  Inevitably it was almost completely parked up with residents cars, begging the question “what was the point?”
De La Warr Pavilion

The western end of Bexhill was very uninspiring with lots of large houses of various 20th century vintages and lived in by people who appear to value their privacy very highly, such were the high fences and hedges.  There was little in the way of sea views to be had by anyone else!  As I got closer into town I was horrified by the slab sided blocks of flats and felt thankful that this section was at the end of my trip when the light was beginning to fail.  I did end on a high note however, passing by a wonderful old clock tower and then finishing at the De La Warr Pavilion, surely the centrepiece of Bexhill (  This is surely one of the most famous Art Deco buildings of all and has gained a new audience of admirers since it was refurbished and reopened in 2005 after £8million was spent on it.  In the late evening sunlight the old place positively glowed and showed there is plenty of life in the place now it has been showed with love once again.  It was a fitting place to end my journey, albeit not where I had planned!
De La Warr Pavilion

This section of the Sussex Coast is fascinating and full of history but sadly blighted by the lack of footpath following the coast and the number of obstacles placed in the way of anyone daring to explore the coast.  My choice of bicycle to make the journey was fully vindicated though – some of the best cycle lanes in the county are through the three main towns.  Perhaps my only regret was not having a few more hours to do it complete justice.  The De La Warr Pavilion in particular demands a visit to have a look at the art – I think that may well be on the cards in the months to come.

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