Having gone to Dover last year we found we missed our usual trip to Hastings that much we just had to return this year. So it was that Heather & I found ourselves negotiating the trains to the south coast rain.
After an uneventful journey we arrived in time to stroll down the hill to the Old Town and lunch in the Hastings Arms, which was as lovely as it always is. We relaxed with good food and drink before heading along to the also still lovely White Rock Hotel and our spacious sea-view room nearly directly opposite the now fully restored pier.
After settling in it was to that pier we headed, though after watching its rebirth over the last few years the reality of the open pier was a bit of a let down. While there are a bunch of little wooden kiosks near the land end other than the food vendors they were colourful but mostly closed. An unexplained large marquee sat centrally, a random mixture of music emerging from its unoccupied cavernous interior. The pier is dominated by the central structure, sloping up a set of steps to a terrace (not exactly the weather to be in use) which sits above what passes as the visitor centre. There’s a small and slightly chaotic shop, a tiny tea/coffee kiosk and another space that is evidently meant as a catch all multi-purpose area. In this case it was hosting a strange and barely explained exhibition of automata. Beyond that room and the pier’s main structure is nothing, a vast expanse of empty wooden boards spreading ever wider as the pier stretches out to the sea. The unbroken plane (and it is so large an area it must be read as making a statement) is large enough to run, and probably play sports, on. There are none of the pier attractions, no rides, nothing, in fact, to drag one there in the wind and drizzle other than to make the pilgrimage to its furthest point from land.
We hastened back, gaining land and the coastline, heading along again until we reached the Old Town once more. There we settled a while in the old friend the Pump House. A quick drink in there was followed by more of a wander, up the hill to All Saints Church, a large structure (or at least made to seem so by the impressive tower) perched at the top of the rise. Unfortunately it wasn’t open so we couldn’t explore the inside but the churchyard is quite big and surprisingly tranquil given the proximity of the not un-busy road.
We took a different route back down the hill and were glad we did so when we stumbled upon and into the Stag Inn, a lovely little pub slightly out the way of the general hustle and bustle of the town. After chilling out we returned to the lights and excitement of the arcades, finding the two-penny coin pusher machines which always give us fun. Now that I’ve introduced Heather to air hockey I get to beat her—the claw machine wasn’t so accommodating though!
Having run out of change, and begun to feel tired from the travelling and the idea of a busy day coming, we headed back towards the hotel. The allure of the Carlisle proved too great, calling to us, so we found ourselves their, rocking out for a while until we finally did make it to bed.
We were up bright and early, despite any hangovers, the next morning for we had a bus to catch. That bus was going exciting places, with both steam trains and a castle! So even I didn’t complain as it took us through the hills away from Hastings and to the village (with a seeming never ending road through the middle) of Northiam.
Kent and East Sussex Railway (Part 1)
On arrival we alighted and headed straight into a railway station. No ordinary station though, but these days a stop on the Kent & East Sussex Railway. After buying tickets we didn’t have long to wait before the level crossing adjacent the station was closing in anticipating of an approaching train. We could see the steam from the locomotive rising in the distance and soon a little American tank engine was pulling in to collect us (travelling backwards as KESR doesn’t have anywhere to turn locos during their runs).
That little engine hauled us off along the line to the next station. As we approached, glimpsed across river, fields and through trees a medieval vision appeared, a castle that might have come from the dreamland of doodling schoolboy pencils. We got off at Bodiam, the end of the line anyway, and, having watched the engine running around for its return journey, headed for that castle.
Bodiam Castle sits, almost hiding, near the River Rother, adjacent what was once marshland but now are fertile fields (more of the changes we’d seen in Rye). Approaching along the road from the station the castle sits strangely low in the land, just peeking out more through than above the trees. Coming up from the modern welcoming huts and cafe it appears as one turns the corner, sitting resplendent in that famous moat, even if the clouds hadn’t quite cleared.
Bodiam certainly looks the part, that thought of school children (or medieval architects) idly drawing a square symmetrical castle isn’t too far off. In form Bodiam is a courtyard castle, sat in a water filled moat, with rounded towers at each corner and a square tower central on each wall. It certainly talks the talk of fortresses, each tower full of machicolations, crenellations and the whole standing behind that (originally) drawbridged moat. And yet…
There is always the thought that perhaps Bodiam is more braggadocio from its builder rather than actual defence. The whole thing is a bit…pretty. It sits low in the landscape, a bit close the river up which French attack may come. The original manor house was up the hill, leaving the castle overlooked (and below a convenient point for siege engines, a literal stone’s throw from its walls). That reflective moat wouldn’t stand up to much of an effort to drain it. The great entrance way, with its barbican and hexagonal island is very impressive but the postern isn’t exactly small and much less protected, with the large windows of the hall piercing the wall beside it.
It’s hard to say one way or the other what Bodiam’s true standing as a fortress is. Standing on that cusps in history between castles to protect and large homes to impress and live more comfortably in (and with gun powder coming to change the military landscape for ever anyway—as evidenced by the gun loops in Bodiam’s walls), the castle was never tested. The War of the Roses saw a quick capitulation (which might say something about what its occupants thought of being able to hold it, or may well not), and it was probably in the Civil War that the internal slighting occurred, again without actual action.
So it is today that Bodiam stands a romantic and undeniably attractive ruin. The outer walls look almost untouched, reflecting in that moat (beside the moat stood a woman walking an owl around—which doesn’t have much to do with the castle, but it pleased Heather). Crossing the modern bridge (now running straight, rather than turning at the island) the remains of the barbican seem slight, giving little hint of what they were. The entrance gate is still there though, flanked by towers and with murder holes above. The interior is harder to picture, the inner walls of the buildings which once formed the courtyard now mainly reduced to footings. Personally I’m reminded of the shaded, almost claustrophobic feel of the interior of Bolton Castle—Bodiam must once have felt similar in that courtyard but it’s hard to imagine it so with the sun shining overhead and so much open space.
We explored the castle, wandering its walls and climbing to the top of the towers for a view over the countryside and down on the ruined courtyard. As there’s no large bailey or curtain walling though it didn’t take as long to get around the castle, or walk the other way around its outside for the views across the moat. There was ample time for some lunch and a visit to the shop, before we waited for our train in the Castle Inn immediately opposite.
Kent and East Sussex Railway (Part 2)
We left the pub and made it down the road in time to catch the last train back out of Bodiam, all the way to Tenterden. This time the engine which arrived for us was a bigger, Scandinavian tender engine. Having watched “The Hook Continental”, as the front plate declared, run around we boarded for the long run down the entire KESR line. It took a while to get there, stopping for quite some time at stations along the way. Who’s going to complain though when enjoying that unique feel of being behind a steam engine (and sticking one’s head out the window 🙂 )
Tenterden, when we eventually arrived, was just about closing up. We watched the loco making its way round and back towards shed, and visited the shop before heading into the town. It’s a pretty place, with a large church and some nice buildings—and a shop to sell Heather far too many thimbles. Sadly the workings of bus timetables meant we couldn’t explore as much as we’d have liked, as the last bus back to Hastings was far too early. So we found ourselves leaving, and arriving back by the seaside.
After a bit of a rest in the hotel we headed out in search of food. We contemplated eating in the Hastings Arms before settling on a nearby steakhouse. That probably did us a bit too well, as we were stuffed by the end. Stuffed and indeed tired, worn out by the excitement of the last couple of days, so off to bed it was for us.
The morning brought the rare sight of me going to breakfast—though it is always pleasant to sit in the White Rock Hotel’s dining area with the view of the sea outside. I needed fuel, for we had planned a bit of an excursion. Filled and ready we turned right out of the hotel, heading away from our normal haunts.
The plan was to walk along the seafront, towards St Leonards, until we got bored. It started immediately next to the pier with a look at Bottle Alley, basically a lower deck to the promenade, the rear wall of which is inset with thousands of glass shards. While Heather decided to walk through the lower length I returned to the upper, roadside portion to enjoy the sun rather than go through what looked like a dingy underground alleyway. As I tend to walk a bit quicker than Heather there was time to stop around halfway and admire the sailing boats which seemed to be having a little race a bit down the coast.
The upper and lower decks combine once more opposite Warrior Square Gardens, an elongated patch of green with large houses surrounding three sides, probably best known in the name of a railway station.
From there it was a lovely sunny stroll down the beach to the interesting Marine Court. A large construction dwarfing anything else around, the end is curved and stepped to resemble an ocean liner, as indeed do many details of the overall design. It was half covered in scaffold as we passed, but the ground floor shops seemed a little dilapidated—it looked like it needs the care the scaffold implies it’s receiving.
Just down the road from the ship building we found the impressive looking Royal Victoria Hotel, complete with coat of arms above the entrance way. We took a wander around the rear of that to find a very nice park. St Leonard’s Gardens was originally laid out by James Burton as a subscription park for the wealthier residents of the surrounding town he was also developing. It stretches out, rising up the hill away from the sea. At the lower end a pretty lake sits, with grass plateaus rising to look down on it and over to the sea. The whole is surrounded by quirky villas of varying design, put in place by Burton as part of the original scheme and still standing out today.
As it was Easter Sunday the park was busy with little activities; a group played stringed instruments, their music gently wafting through the park. As we climbed a hill we had to suddenly evade the eggs being rolled down it, an Easter tradition I haven’t actually seen performed in years. It all certainly put a smile on our faces as we sat to rest in the sun at the top of the hill.
We poked our head’s out the top of the park, finding an interesting church on the corner of the approach road and, just outside the park entrance, marked with a blue plaque, a house where Alan Turing spent much of his pre-pubescent years. From there we headed back down the side of the park, returning to the seafront.
Opposite the grand hotel we stopped off to examine William’s Table, a sandstone block on which the invading Norman conqueror is reputed to have dined on landing in England he almost certainly didn’t of course; and it turns out that it used to sit in the area of the gardens we just visited, possibly moved by Burton. We weren’t dining though so we left the table behind to go further down the coast.
We passed a surprisingly huge looking church front, looming over the road from a position set a little up the hill. From there it was a gentle and pleasant stroll along the sea, past a strange little ’60s feeling fountain, to the grass triangle of the grander sounding than it is Grosvenor Gardens. Through that brought us to the far end of our little walk, a welcome rest in the Bo-Peep pub (there wasn’t any sign of sheep though).
After being refreshed we had, of course, to walk back again. Out in the gardens we found what has been described as a statue of a woman strangling a man, but is actually Harold and Edith—a piece showing Harlod’s common-law wife comforting the dying and defeated king after the infamous battle something else that never happened. That was the last new sight, as we went by the landmarks we’d seen going, only with less diversions. It was still a lovely walk though, until we found ourselves passing over and through bottle alley once more and back at the pier and hotel. There was still energy to clamber to the top of the steep sided White Rock Gardens to enjoy the view down to the pier before a rest however.
We hadn’t by this point had any lunch (that breakfast keeping us going) so it was along to the old town and the Pump House, who it turns out do excellent baguettes with wide choice of fillings). That certainly recharged us, which was good because there were three rounds of crazy golf to fit in! It seems I do still have the knack for winning a free game on the bonus hole too (well, two out of three times isn’t bad).
Finally for the day there was time for another Hastings tradition, fish and chips from the Blue Dolphin (who didn’t have any scampi, but Heather was happy with her fish) taken back to the hotel room to eat.
We had one final day to enjoy and were determined to do so. Leaving the bags in the ever accommodating hotel we headed for the quirky gift shops of the old town—always worth a wander around even if not buying anything. It certainly occupied us for a good while until we headed up to the station (well, the nearby Royal George pub) to meet Gemma. That led to more wandering the shops until a return to the Pump House for more lunchtime baguettes.
Following on from lunch there were more meetings, as Emma, Josh, and Henry arrived on the coast. That was the call for more wandering around, culminating in a ride up the still too steep for my liking East Cliff Railway. Still the views from the top are good, looking out across Hastings and beyond below, where we could see where our last day’s adventures had taken us along the coast.
Back down the cliff it was time, of course, for some more crazy golf, playing around a somewhat waterlogged course (which just added to the hazards). After that mad and crazy fun we left people in a cafe while Heather and I retrieved luggage from the hotel, stashing it in Emma’s car.
There was time for dinner in old favourite The Italian Way with food and laughter before we all had to head off home again 🙁 Definitely missed, and definitely worth the return, we shall see Hastings next time.
Oh yes, lots of photos