I have a confession. I’ve spent much of my adult life avoiding Bexhill on Sea. I don’t really know why other than memories of teenage jokes about God’s waiting room back in the 1980s when I was in Eastbourne. But, on a recent (and somewhat accidental) visit, I rather fell in love with this seaside town.
It was a gorgeous autumn day, and the white gazebos of the De La Warr Pavilion gleamed against a blue sea as gentle folk strolled along the promenade. And as filling in the many different forms required to travel overseas these days is quite frankly prohibitive (if you haven’t wasted four hours of your life trying to upload to Eurotunnel recently then you really are lucky indeed), it’s actually a wonderful place to go for a long weekend away!
The site at Bexhill dates back to pre-Norman times, although was largely destroyed during the Norman conquest. Like much of Sussex, Bexhill was then gifted to Robert, Count of Eu, as a reward for his loyalty to the king, although in due course it was given back to the church. Ruins of a manor built in about 1250 can still be seen in the Old Town.
From then forwards, the town has had a fascinating journey. In 1804, soldiers were stationed in barracks at Bexhill as part of the army there to defeat a French invasion. The town is also famous for its smuggling community back then which included a notorious and bloody battle between smugglers and the “Coast Blockade” at Sidley Green in 1828.
The Sackville family had been given Bexhill Manor by Queen Elisabeth I and in 1815, Elizabeth Sackville married the 5th Earl De La Warr, starting what was to become a Bexhill dynasty of De La Warrs. Subsequent De La Warrs transformed this sleepy backwater into a stylish and sophisticated seaside resort including much of the interesting Victorian and Edwardian architecture which you can still see today.
The railway arrived in Bexhill in1846 and in 1902 Bexhill became an Incorporated Borough by Royal Charter delivered by motorcar – the first time this had been done by car! To celebrate the town’s new status, the 8th Earl De La Warr organised the country’s first-ever motorcar race along De La Warr Parade in May 1902 and so began a motoring legacy for the town. The Earl had been inspired by a visit to Nice where he watched racing along the Promenade des Anglais. Over 200 vehicles turned up to the first race along with 30,000 spectators! In 1994, the RAC finally acknowledged Bexhill as the “Birthplace of British Motor Racing”!
It was about this time that the risqué town of Bexhill also permitted mixed bathing and it was the 9th Earl De La Warr who was responsible for the opening of the De La Warr Pavilion in 1935. For a diehard lover of reggae, it’s a delightful but little-known fact that Bob Marley performed at the De La Warr Pavilion in 1972 – his first ever UK gig.
Things to do
The De La Warr Pavilion
Described as a “pioneering centre for the arts” no visit to Bexhill is complete without time spent in this iconic Art Deco style building which is now Grade I listed. Right on the seafront, the De La Warr is a creative and arts hub with an ever-changing programme of events that includes exhibitions, workshops, comedy, theatre, music and more, along with established and emerging artists. From the Pavilion, it’s a few feet to the stylish King George V Colonnade with its cafés and gift shops.
Soar Tour is a Virtual Reality experience that takes you on a sky high ride “above the 1066 Coastline … [with accompanying] musical score, special visual effects – and a thrilling swoop or two!”. It’s not open all year so you may have to wait until spring but do book in advance!
Bexhill Museum was opened in 1914 and its current patron is none other than Eddie Izzard. Again, it has a diverse and ever-changing programme and an eclectic range of collections which includes, costume and motor racing, dinosaurs and fossils. And on the subject of Bexhill’s motor racing heritage, there is also a five stage Motoring Heritage Trail along the seafront which reveals the story of “early motoring pioneers” in a series of panels.
Carr Taylor Experience
Not in Bexhill, but a reasonably short drive away, is the Carr Taylor vineyard, one of our county’s oldest vineyards which was first planted in 1971. They offer a number of winter and summer experiences which include tasting, tours, lunch, high tea, and Christmas events.
Of course, you don’t have to go hell for leather on a visit to Bexhill and you could just play a round of golf at one of their two golf courses – Cooden Beach and Highwoods. Or stroll from Galley Hill in the east along the promenade, past the De La Warr Pavillion, and on to the Bexhill Clock Tower (built to mark the coronation of King Edward VII but not actually completed until 1904).
Places to eat
There’s no better recommendation for somewhere to eat than from a local, so we caught up with our man on the ground in Bexhill, Stefano Morrelli. Here are his top recommendations:
The Cinnamon Café
Breakfast for us is always here because it’s not a full English and feels so much healthier. My breakfast today consisted of hummus, scrambled eggs, olives, cornichons, tomatoes, cucumber, pitta bread and my all-time favourite, Khalid’s home made makdous (aubergines, walnuts, chilli).
Run by a lovely family (parents and their children) they do some wholesome goodies.
There are plenty of restaurants on the seafront but the Trattoria Italiana is one of our favourites and great quality.
Kerry’s Wine Bar
The best way to have fish and chips is to get a table at Kerry’s Wine Bar (more a café than a wine bar) and then pop next door to Minnie Bertha’s fish and chip shop. Tell them you’re in Kerry’s and they bring it to your table!
Places to stay
Cooden Beach Hotel
Built in 1928, in my mind this hotel is synonymous with Bexhill. Right on the beach, these days, it’s award-winning with its own beach terrace. They offer retro bikes for hire and the hotel has been recently refurbished (some works are ongoing). They also have a Balinese Pagoda on the lawn overlooking the sea, yoga classes, and massage to ease you into the weekend. The hotel is about 2 miles from the De La Warr Pavilion.
In a classic Victorian building, The Driftwood is a minute’s walk from the De La Warr and has “six eclectic and beautifully designed boutique hotel rooms, each with its own distinct character, offer a wonderful balance of contemporary and traditional comfort”.
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