Hastings — The Stade and the Fishermen

Park your car and gaze over the English Channel for a moment — picture bloodthirsty Normans landing their ships here in 1066, the last time that England was successfully invaded.

You are now on a working beach. Unlike other fishing towns, Hastings no longer has a natural harbour. In 1287 the Great Storm blew in, filling the water with silt. Since then, the boats have had to park on the beach. In fact, Hastings has the largest beach-based fishing fleet in Britain. Weather-beaten sheds contain winches, and there are plenty of rusting yellow bulldozers. Though they look as dead as dodos, these vehicles are actually very much alive, and they’re used to push the boats into the sea.

Fishing doesn’t follow a fixed timetable: the men leave or arrive at various times, depending on the time of year and whether they’re netting or night trawling. Just ask one of the workers in this area when a boat is due in or out, or nip back to one of the fish stalls on Rock-a-Nore Road and ask there.

You will also notice building bags full of stored nets; lobster posts, slack winch cables; and, more than likely, bits of dead fish. See if you can spot an old, clinker built wooden boat – they are gradually being replaced by steel and fibreglass. And once they’re gone they’re gone. Painted on the vessels is RX, which stands for Rye, our nearest proper harbour.

East Hill Lift oversees The Stade


View of The State from the top of East Hill

In the 1850s a total of 85 fishing boats, varying in length from under 18ft to more than 34ft, were registered in the port of Hastings. Now there are between 20 and 30 who bear the RX registration letters. Hastings has shared the registry with Rye since 1850 when the port of Hastings was officially demoted to the status of  ‘Creek’ and the size of the customs office reduced to a single officer. Despite all the tribulations of the last century, the Hastings fishing fleet still exists and, although it is tiny compared to it’s historical size, it is still the largest beach launched fleet in Europe. Bigger by far than the fleet of the ‘Port’ of Rye just up the coast.

The vessel on the left is the fishing boat ‘Edward and Mary’, the first fishing boat in Hastings to be built with an engine. In 1919 the Edward and Mary (RX 74) was built in a shed on the beach, like so many other fishing boats from Hastings.

In Edward the Confessors reign Hastings provided a sixth of the vessels for the Royal Navy. In consquence of this the fishermen of Hastings were awarded, by Royal Charter, the use of a portion of the beach, known as The Stade, exclusively and in perpetuity. Much to the local planning departments chagrin.  In 1937 te fishermen set up the Hastings Fishermen’s Protection Society to defend themselves against attempts by Hastings Council to force the fleet to move to Rye, so that their beach could be used for amusements.

On May 9, 1947  a legal agreement – called the ‘Deed of Compromise’ – was signed by Hastings Council and the Hastings Fishermen’s Society giving the fishermen certain limited rights to occupy some of the Stade, but in return they allowed the Council to do what it wanted on the rest of the beach. The east end of the Stade became Rock-a-Nore car park and an open-air amusements centre opened near the Lifeboat House.

These wooden buildings are the historic net shops that are unique to Hastings. They were used as stores for nets, ropes and other fishing gear that had to be kept dry to prevent it from rotting. They are believed to date from the early Victorian period. The reason that they were built high and in orderly rows is because there was a lack of space on The Stade at this time as the beach was much narrower. This is because the large groynes and harbour arm which prevent the natural easterly flow of the shingle were not present.  The sea was closer then, and the land tax was high so they were built upwards instead of outwards. In the 1870s, there were well over 100 of these Net Shops.

The stern of the Golden Sovereign

Fishermen caught smuggling would have their boats confiscated. After one boat was found to have a false bottom, every boat seuzed was ‘sawn asunder at midships’. This new custom probably accounted for the many little shacks or shanties consisting of half boats, which sprang up on the American Grounds and other places on the beach.

The “Golden Sovereign”, in five years time built by Stanley Curd by in his back garden near Turnbridge Wells for his son Robert, was launched at Rye in June 1970.

The bow of the Golden Sovereign

 In 1998 the Golden Sovereign was bought by Hastings Borough Council and donated to the Fishermen’s Museum. The lugger was cut in half and on the 8th November 1999 the two halves were moved into position. The stern became “The Half Sovereign Cottage” and the bow was converted into a netshop. Nowadays the bow is used as Tush Hamilton’s fish shop.

 Inside The Fishermen’s Museum, which used to be a fishermen’s chapel,  you will find the ‘Enterprise’, built in 1912. This is a great example of how to fit a ship into a bottle, or in this case a museum. She was actually brought into this former mission church by knocking down a sizeable section of the southern wall and then rebuilding it. Surrounding this old lugger are some lovely black and white photos of wrinkled fishermen, bearded and burned by the sun. 

The Enterprise inside the museum. Her heavy counter stern helped her ride the waves bow on to the beach. It is typical of the luggers, a style of wide boats with thick bottoms designed to be beached in these harborless waters. Like most of the Hastings luggers, she ferried men back from Dunkirk in that heroic rescue of 1940. The Hastings lifeboat Cyril and Lilian Bishop also took part in the evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk. The larger fishing boats went to Dover but were not used.

Entrance to the East Hill lift, a funicular railway which provides access to Hastings Country Park via the East Hill, which overlooks the Old Town and Rock-a-Nore, an area to the east of Hastings.  The East Hill Lift opened to the public on August 10, 1902.


View from the East Hill Lift

Following the closure of lines in Broadstairs and Margate, the East Hill Cliff Railway is now the steepest funicular railway in the United Kingdom. It is complemented by the West Hill Cliff Railway, giving visitors access to Hastings Castle and the Smugglers Adventure in St. Clements Caves.

This French truck from Boulogne-sur-Mer arrives to pick up a load of sole.

The majority of sole landed into South East English ports is exported to the continent. Many of these ports are dealing directly with French wholesale fish importers and exporters based in Boulogne. Bass product flows mirror those for sole, but in smaller quantities, with the majority being exported to France.

Most sole landed to the South East is supplied to an agent by prior arrangement – a local agent / wholesaler, or a continental wholesaler. In some cases prices are fixed at the time of transfer from boat to agent, but often they are set in arrears, based on the prices the agent is able to achieve at market – either selling on the phone, or placing on an intermediate market. In this latter case, fish are typically placed on the port markets of Brixham or Plymouth in England, Boulogne-sur-Mer in France, Zeebrugge in Belgium, or Urk in Holland. Various UK and continental wholesale businesses operate their own refrigerated trucking services where lorries move along the south coast picking up fish.

The UK operated services typically start in the South West and use ferry routes from Plymouth and Portsmouth – so rarely collect further east than these ports.

One Boulogne-based wholesaler operates a regular pick-up service along the South East coast, and in so doing does business with most wholesalers / vessel agents in the South East.

The Hastings fleet are beach launched. Market building provides chilled storage, ice provision and crab pens. Sole dominates the catch along with plaice and cod for this fleet of netters. Scallops are also targeted by dredgers and cuttlefish are taken in pots.

2006 landings: 396.2 tonnes; £863,449 in value. The Hastings fishing fleet consists of  26 active vessels, on which 55 full time fishermen are employed, along with several part-time fishermen.

About Jack Vanderwyk

Hey! What am I like! :-)
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