Sussex towns nearly all have something special about them, but I have particularly fallen in love with Hastings Old Town. There are so many great things to do in Hastings but more than that, the Old Town sways to its own unique rhythm. With its fishing culture, smuggling heritage and a history that dates back to the 8th century, it’s got a slightly bohemian feel and an eclectic charm.
Hastings Old Town sits between two cliffs imaginatively called East and West Hill. The Old Town is a labyrinth of narrow, higgedly piggedly streets and alleys dotted with Tudor and Medieval buildings that climb West Hill and wind their way to the foot of East Hill.
As you stroll east away from the Old Town, you come to Rock-a-Nore which has a line of tiny houses and clapboard buildings as well as the late Victorian East Hill funicular. This happens to be the steepest funicular in the UK and takes you up to Hastings Country Park. On the opposite side of the road are the distinctive fishermen’s huts, fishing boats, fisheries and the beach.
Hastings was around long before the Normans arrived and evidence of Iron Age forts were found on both hills along with some Bronze Age artifacts. The Romans came this way too and exploited the area’s iron. Hastings even had its own identity for a while (distinct from the South Saxons) but it was William the Conqueror who really put the town on the map – although of course, he actually landed in Pevensey and the Battle of Hastings was fought at Battle.
Nonetheless, William the Conqueror built a castle here and over the following centuries, the town became a Cinque Port, was invaded by the French, was home to many a smuggler, and became a popular Victorian seaside destination.
Things to do in Hastings
Arrive early, and there should be plenty of space in the Pelham Place car park just off the A259 or in the Rock-a-Nore car park at the end of Rock-a-Nore Road. Then, to help you get your bearings, and get a feel for the town, start by climbing both East and West Hill (although of course, you don’t have to actually climb them as both hills have their own funicular).
If you decide to walk up East Hill, from Rock-a-Nore Road there is a footpath that takes you up steps between the clapboard fisheries to a road called Tackleway. From there you can climb the steps all the way to Hastings Country Park. It’s quite a climb but well worth it for the views. You can see the castle on the opposite hill and the Old Town beneath you, as well as the coastline and fishing huts, and the harbour wall of the harbour that was never actually finished.
The park is a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Special Area of Conservation and the 853 acres provide stunning cliff top views, narrow and steep woodland paths and open grasslands. It has a visitor centre, some helpful information boards and lots of footpaths.
Rock-a-Nore and The Stade
When you eventually descend, Rock-a-Nore is where you’ll find the Hastings Aquarium, Hastings Fishermen’s Museum, a miniature railway, the distinctive fishermen’s huts, Hastings fishmarket, Hastings Contemporary (an impressive art gallery) and a large open square called The Stade Open Space (and when I visited, a rather splendid duck).
Hastings has the largest UK beach-based fishing fleet here and when you have purveyed the morning’s catch, you can head on down to The Stade Beach. There are also lots of places to eat in this area, like Undercliffe House, The Dolphin Inn, Eat@TheStade or you could just buy your cockles and welks straight off the beach.
When you are ready, head to Winkle Island (you’ll see the winkle sculpture) at the junction of Rock-a-Nore Road and the A259.
Then when you see the distinctive London Schooner building, you’re at the start of the Old Town.
The Old Town
The next stop on your travels is actually West Hill. You can catch the funicular up to West Hill but it’s much better fun to walk and explore the muddle of streets and twittens of the Old Town first. Find the house where DCI Foyle lived in Foyle’s War (it’s St Just in Croft Road), admire 15th century St Clement’s church (which also featured in the series) and grab an Instagram-worthy shot of the tiny blue house in its little hidden courtyard.
See if you can find Mouse House (you’ll know it when you find it because it looks like a slice of cheese) and walk up the Hastings Old Town High Street home to quirky shops, art galleries, pubs and bric-a-brac stores. Wiggle and wind your way slowly upwards and eventually, you should come out at the top of West Hill.
Take a moment to look back at East Hill and the coastline beneath you before you head to Hastings Castle. Built by William the Conqueror in 1067, it’s a significant landmark in Sussex and English history albeit it now mainly stands in ruins. You can get combi deal tickets to the castle which include the Aquarium and Smugglers Caves. Once inside the walls, there are some helpful information boards and spectacular views (you can see Marine Court – the huge ship-like building to the west). It also has its own little cinema which shows a short film about the history of the castle.
While you’re up on West Hill, a visit to the Smuggler’s Caves is also a must-do and takes you on an interactive underground tour during which you learn about the incredible history of the caves and some of the details of the notorious smugglers who hid here.
Whichever way you travel back down West Hill (by foot or funicular), make your way to George Street. Restaurants and cafés spill onto the pavement here and you’ll see a serpent climbing a wall and find an octopus playing chess.
The latter is one of a series of sculptures in the town by Leigh Dyer and is in a little square called Butler’s Gap. His other works are The Winkle on Winkle Island and The Landing on the beach. George Street is where you’ll also find a bookshop that turns into a Thai restaurant at night and the wonderful British Tea Museum, as well as lots of independent shops.
For those with children, head to the part of the seafront that stretches from The Stade to The Pier. You’ll find a little lake with pedal boats, miniature golf, a Ferris wheel, karting, and amusement arcades. Further along the seafront towards The Pier is Source Park, an underground skate park and there is also a large cinema opposite The Pier.
Then, of course, there is The Pier itself. Originally built in 1872, it closed in 2008 following storm damage and was almost lost due to fire in 2010. A redeveloped pier was re-opened in 2016 and it’s modern and impressively spacious with brightly coloured beach huts, a restaurant and rides.
Hastings museums and galleries
Hastings is stacked to the rafters with museums and art galleries. Apart from the Fishermen’s Museum and Hastings Contemporary, there is also the Shipwreck Museum, the True Crime Museum, and Hastings Museum and Art Gallery.
I can’t claim to have visited them all (yet) but I did visit the Fishermen’s Museum, the Shipwreck Museum and the True Crimes Museum. The latter was a little gruesome for me but must be a big hit with crime lovers.
Hastings has a personality that is a fantastic blend of old and new and is a town that surprised me again and again with its beautiful buildings and great sense of self. You certainly need several days if not a week to do it justice, and I’m conscious that I barely scratched the surface. With a full range of year-round festivals and quirky events (like Pirates Day and the Jack on the Green festivities), I’m already planning my return.
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You can also find out more about Hastings and the surrounding area here: www.visit1066country.com