I often joke that when I’m too old and mad to live in London – ie in about a week’s time – I will go and live by the sea. Possibly Broadstairs, possibly Folkestone, but most likely Hastings. I absolutely love Hastings.
I first visited Hastings about 4 years ago, just after the May Bank Holiday and the famous Jack in the Green festival
when the whole town turns into something out of the Wicker Man.
I’d missed the festival the first time I arrived there, although the town was still festooned with slightly wilting green foliage. There was a witchy vibe to the whole place and I am convinced that child no.2 was conceived shortly afterwards. I have been back there countless times since and am planning to go back there again later this summer.
We went to Hastings this weekend for Pirate Day on Sunday – a slightly curious event which saw thousands of people dressed as pirates converge on the sea front. The idea was to break a record
cruelly snatched from Hastings by Penzance last year, for the number of people dressed in pirates in one spot. It was scorching hot and slightly scary on the beach and I must confess that the toilet needs of child number one seemed more important than our participation in the world record – even though we were wearing pirate gear. My husband looked the best – he’d snaffled the choicest bits of pirate gear I’d found in a fancy dress shop before leaving London and also bagged the parrot I’d bought for myself in Hastings (it seemed better designed for a male than a female shoulder).
A lot of the adult pirates looked like Goths – there were lots of long haired guys with piercings and tattoos working a faux Jack Sparrow look and lots of rather buxom lady pirates showing quite a lot of bosom and bottom.
I was too overwhelmed by heat and small children to take any decent photos yesterday but google away and you will find thousands more of the event. As I’ve already said, dressing as a pirate seemed to unleash something slightly saucy in the adults present – but then sauciness and the seaside go together like dirty weekend and Brighton. There was lots of thigh slapping, posing and many an inappropriate comment – I’m sure quite a few children will have been conceived on Pirate Day. An event like this – largely marketed at families with small children could have been twee – but it was very much the opposite. As with the Jack in the Green Festival, the Lords of Misrule were definitely out and about in Hastings yesterday.
There’s also the thought that dressing as a pirate also nods to a tradition of anarchy and sticking it to the man. Pirates were basically groups of thieves who worked together to steal gold off government or big business and then divided up the spoils amongst each other. Pirates worked collectively – the bands of brigands were lacking in hierarchy – and most importantly had a Robin Hood like quality, robbing from the rich and sharing out the proceeds of crime in the local community. I’m not barmy enough to suggest some sort of putative socialism, but I do think that the aura of anarchy surrounding pirates is why both children and adults find them so exciting – and why Hollywood has made so much money from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise
I’m not sure who organizes the Pirate Day – or for that matter any of the quirky festivals that take place in Hastings – but I guess the local council must have some say in it, or the local tourist board. Events like this definitely help draw visitors into Hastings – it took a lot of phone calls to get a hotel room (but then it’s never that easy to get a hotel room for five people!!!). And let’s face it, British seaside towns need all the help they can get; walk through any of the towns on the South coast and you are basically walking through a monument to a previous age.
The Royal Victoria Hotel at St Leonard’s (on the edge of Hastings), where we stayed, is a fabulously grand Regency building, dating from 1828 and bursting with marble and stained glass. It was designed for Imperial glamour – reflected in neighbouring Warrior Square, with its triumphant bust of Queen Victoria facing out towards the sea front.
These days the hotel is a destination for families having a few days at the coast and mid-ranking wedding parties – nothing wrong with that and I would definitely stay there again. Weird as it may seem now, places like St Leonard’s were where the rich came to party in the summer – in the days before Marbella or the South of France or Miami were just a few hours flight away. Once places with better weather became accessible for everyone – and not just the super rich – the death knell was soon sounding for the British seaside, charming and wonderful as I think it is.
Obviously Hastings tackles the perennial problem of attracting visitors with lots of quirky events, while other seaside towns host food festivals and the arts. Margate – possibly one of the grimmest seaside towns I have ever visited – now has the Turner Contemporary Gallery – http://www.turnercontemporary.org/ – a truly fantastic space. The town has a genuine arty connection in the form of Tracy Emin
and it is lovely – we were particularly grateful for it when we visited the area at Easter as it provided a fantastic shelter from a vicious storm that whipped in off the Channel. I’ve noticed there’s a fancy new art gallery in Hastings as well – the Jerwood – which has a collection of Stanley Spencer paintings in it (love them) – http://www.jerwoodgallery.org/collection – while Folkestone, which we visited during the Jubilee weekend, is chocka with small arts and crafts galleries. A good friend of mine, who now lives there, says this was an initiative started by a local businessman who’d bought up a lot of property in the area and decided it was best way to stop the local high street becoming a waste land. It kind of works, but the real business in Folkestone is done in a grim shopping centre containing such joys as Poundland, Primark and Asda.
I guess what I’m driving at is that these seaside towns need more than just a few festivals and art galleries to become places where people can put down roots and earn a living – for example, on the train home we chatted to a nice man from Hastings who was going to Aberdeen to work as a rigger as the local employment opportunities were so limited. The high speed train from St Pancras makes Broadstairs, Folkestone (and also Ramsgate and Margate) into viable dormitory towns for London, but I’d rather see incentives to create industries that revive the towns and provide employment for the inhabitants actually in the local area.
As I’ve written before, the New Labour fantasy that the ‘creative industries’ or the ‘knowledge economy’ could save the day is a little bit crackers – I’d like to see industries that employ more people encouraged to take root in the seaside towns of the South Coast (just as I’d like to see this in the post industrial towns of Northern England). Places like Hastings, Margate and Broadstairs are relatively close to London and within spitting distance of Northern France – in other words they are in a great location. It seems nuts that they have been left to rot, but sadly that seems to be the fate of much of our country.