Hastings — Town Centre

Hastings Town Centre

Hastings is a town and Borough on the South coast of England, in East Sussex. In historical terms, Hastings can claim fame through its connection with the Norman conquest of England; and also because it became one of the medieval Cinque Ports. Hastings was, for centuries, an important fishing port; although much reduced, it has the largest beach-based fishing fleet in England. As with many other such places, the town became a watering place in the 1760s, and then, with the coming of the railway, a seaside resort.

From the 6th century AD until 771, the area around modern-day Hastings, as the territory of the Haestingas tribe, considered itself to be a separate Kingdom from the surrounding Kingdoms of Suth Saxe (“South Saxons”, i.e. Sussex) and Kent, and attempted to retain its separate cultural identity until the 11th century.

The start of the Norman Conquest was the Battle of Hastings, fought on 14 October 1066; although the battle itself took place eight miles (13 km) to the north at Senlac Hill, and William had landed on the coast between Hastings and Eastbourne at a site now known as Norman’s Bay. It is thought that the Norman encampment was on the town’s outskirts, where there was open ground; a new town was already being built in the valley to the east. That “New Burgh” was founded in 1069, and is mentioned in the Domesday Bookas such. William defeated and killed Harold Godwinson, the last Saxon King of England, and destroyed his army; thus opening England to the Norman conquest.

By the end of the Saxon period, the port of Hastings had moved eastward near the present town centre in the Priory Stream valley, whose entrance was protected by the White Rock headland (since demolished). It was to be a short stay: Danish attacks and huge floods in 1011 and 1014 motivated the townspeople to relocate to the New Burgh.

In the Middle Ages Hastings became one of the Cinque Ports; Sandwich, Dover, and New Romney being the first, Hastings, and Hythe followed, all finally being joined by Rye and Winchelsea, at one point 42 towns were directly or indirectly affiliated to the group.

In the 13th century much of the town was washed away by the sea. During a naval campaign of 1339, and again in 1377, the town was raided and burnt by the French, and seems then to have gone into a decline. As a port, Hastings’ days were finished.

Hastings was now a small fishing settlement, but it was soon discovered that the new taxes on luxury goods could be made profitable by smuggling, and the town was ideally located for that. Near the castle ruins, on the West Hill, are “St Clement’s Caves”, partly natural, but mainly excavated by hand by the smugglers from the soft sandstone. Their trade was to come to an end with the period following the Napoleonic Wars, for the town became one of the most fashionable resorts in Britain, brought about by the so-called properties of seawater. Once this came about the expansion of the town took place, to the west, since there was little space left in the valley.

It was at this time that the elegant Pelham Crescent and Wellington Square were built: other building followed. In the Crescent is the classical style church of St Mary in the Castle, now in use as an arts centre. The building of the crescent and the church necessitated further cutting away of the castle hill cliffs. Once that move away from the Old Town had begun, it led to the further expansion along the coast, eventually linking up with the new St Leonards.

In the 1930s the town underwent some rejuvenation. Seaside resorts were starting to go out of fashion: Hastings perhaps more than most. The town council set about a huge rebuilding project, among which the promenade was rebuilt; and an Olympic-size bathing pool was erected. The latter, regarded in its day as one of the best open-air swimming and diving complexes in Europe, closed some years ago.

Hastings is situated where the sandstone beds, at the heart of the Weald, known geologically as the Hastings Sands, meet the English Channel, forming tall cliffs to the east of the town. Hastings Old Town is in a sheltered valley between the East Hill and West Hill (on which the remains of the Castle stand). In Victorian times and later the town has spread westwards and northwards, and now forms a single urban centre with the more suburban area of St Leonards-on-Sea to the west. The Old Town area of Hastings retains several streets of mostly medieval half-timbered houses, some of which, although privately-owned, are opened to the public during ‘Old Town Week’. Roads from the Old Town valley lead towards the Victorian area of Clive Vale and the former village of Ore, from which “The Ridge”, marking the effective boundary of Hastings, extends north-westwards towards Battle. Beyond Bulverhythe, the western end of St Leonards-on-Sea is marked by low-lying land known as Glyne Gap, separating it from Bexhill-on-Sea.

The sandstone cliffs have been the subject of considerable erosion in relatively recent times: much of the Castle was lost to the sea before the present sea defences and promenade were built, and a number of cliff-top houses are in danger of disappearing around the nearby village of Fairlight.

The beach is mainly shingle, although wide areas of sand are uncovered at low tide. The town is generally built upon a series of low hills rising to 500 feet (150 m) above sea level at “The Ridge” before falling back in the river valley further to the north.

Hastings Railway Station

For many decades Hastings has tried to compete with Brighton as a holiday resort and as a (second) home for people who work in London. But it didn’t quite work out the way they wanted. Hastings still hasn’t got a fast railway or motorway connection to London, which doesn’t make it a desirable place for commuters.

Interior of the Hastings Railway Station

In my opinion Hastings tries too hard to get a “big city” look.

Station Approach

    Let’s face it: Hastings isn’t a city; it’s a town. Here at Station Approach different styles are used — modern buildings, surrounded by Victorian ones, while in front of the station you can find the RX 53, the Dorothy Melinda, from the Port of Rye. It’s a good thing to remind visitors of the fishing history of the town, but the RX 53 should be where it belongs: on The Stade, near Hastings’ Old Town. It simply doesn’t belong in the modern architecture of Station Approach.  

Priory Meadow Shopping Centre

However, the attraction of Hastings as a tourist destination continues; although the number of hotels has decreased, it caters for wider tastes, being home to internationally-based cultural and sporting events, such as chess and running. It has set out to become “a modern European town” and seeks to attract commercial business in the many industrial sites round the borough.

Priory Meadow Shopping Centre

The modern Priory Meadow Shopping Centre, near Hastings Station. It’s there, we can’t replace it with something more styleful, so we have to live with it, but please, no more modern projects in Hastings town centre!

Robertson Street, seen from Harold Place

This is how we want to see Hastings.

Priory Street, from the Station to Harold Place

There’s just no continuity in architectural style. Such a pity!

Waterfalls

Coffee Lounge Waterfalls in Robertson Street, built in 1851. Projects like this should be rewarded and stimulated in every possible way.

Robertson Street, seen from White Rock RoadSmiffy's Chippy in Roberston Street

Smiffy’s Chippy. The finest fish and chips in Sussex. Hastings did never have any class, no matter how it tried. The history of the town is a history of pirates, smugglers and fishermen. Let’s keep it that way.

Harold Place

Yes, you will find homeless people and alcoholics in the town centre, but they’re usually completely harmless, and even polite. They belong in a town of pirates, smugglers and fishermen.

Middle Street

 

The Clarence, Middle StreetThe JD (Jack Daniels) Bar, Claremont

Another example of fine renovation: the JD Bar in Claremont. I love it what they’ve done with these beautiful old buildings.

Claremont, seen from the Promenade

 This area in Hasting’s Town Centre is called the America Grounds. The roots of the America Ground lay in the weather. Back in 1287 a series of terrible storms wreaked havoc on Kent and Sussex, submerging forests, shifting the course of rivers and dramatically reshaping their coastlines. Hastings was badly affected. Once the south’s best natural port, the storms blocked the town’s harbour with silt and pebbles, forming a huge shingle bank.
This new piece of land, which comprises the area now bounded by Robertson Street, Trinity Triangle, Carlisle Parade and Harold Place, fell just outside the boundaries of Hastings Borough – effectively making it a no-man’s land.

The locals soon realised that they could live on this land free from taxes and rents. Consequently, many moved in, building a thriving but ramshackle community of shops, houses and workplaces.

By 1822, an estimated 1,000 people lived on the bank, forcing Hastings Borough into action. Taking inspiration from the recent American Revolution, the residents reacted defiantly, declaring themselves independent from Hastings as the ‘twenty-fourth’ US state and hoisting the Stars and Stripes flag. The famous America Ground was born. B
efore being declared the America Ground, Hastings’ shingle bank was a hive of activity. In her 1919 book ‘Tamarisk Town’, novelist Sheila Kaye-Smith described it as having been “free to any beggars, gypsies or other undesirables … a mock city of shacks, huts and tents.”

 

Robertsons Passage

 

The main thoroughfare was a level stretch called ‘Rope Walk’, which largely corresponded with Robertson Street. Due to its flatness it attracted rope-makers who erected upturned boat hulls along it as makeshift shelters.
While Hastings Borough decried it as a lawless den of iniquity, the facts suggest a fairly well organised community. Research reveals that much land was occupied by lodging houses, pig-keepers, carpenters, limekilns, warehouses, tallow factories and small farm holdings. There was also a school and gin palace, but no church.
By the 1820s, the dark clouds that triggered the declaration of the America Ground were gathering. Squabbles arose between the Hastings Corporation and the Earl of Chichester over who officially owned the land. In addition, Hastings was turning into a fashionable resort, attracting new construction and affluent middle classes fascinated by the town’s ‘quaint’ poor communities. The spirit that fuelled the America Ground was about to be lit, but also quickly extinguished.

 

Shop of americaground.co.uk in Robertson Street

 

The storm clouds that forced the establishment of the America Ground also destroyed it. In the early 1820s, Hastings Borough made several attempts to impose control on the area, prompting the declaration of independence. However, the problems for the residents grew when it was found that no title deeds existed for property on the land.
The matter was referred to the Crown Authorities, who called for a Crown Commissioner’s Inquisition. Two other claimants of ownership also came forward – Lord Cornwallis, holder of the Priory Estate, and Battle Abbey Estates.
The death knell came on 6th December 1827, when five Commissioners and 12 jurymen met at the George Hotel in Battle. Without consulting with or referring to the land’s residents, they ruled that the Ground should be seized on behalf of King George IV.
By 1834, the Ground was cleared, with many residents having already moved to St. Leonards. In 1849, a new chapter opened when the developer Patrick Robertson leased the Ground area from the Crown.
The America Ground may have gone but the spirit behind it is still celebrated in Hastings today, nearly 200 years on.

White Rock Road, along the PromenadeHastings' Beach, low tide

Hastings is Hastings. It will never be Brighton, it will never be Blackpool, but it will always be Hastings. And that suits me just fine.

St. Mary in the Castle

About Jack Vanderwyk

Hey! What am I like! :-)
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