The year was 1066. Sound familiar, or did you doze through school history lessons? It ought to catapult marauding Normans to your mind’s fore. That landmark year heralded Britain’s invasion by the bloodthirsty William the Conqueror.
His landing in Hastings sparked an infamous soldier-culling skirmish, piercing King Harold’s eye with an arrow. Or so they say. Usurping the crown, William built Britain’s first Norman castle – atop the West Hill – in the following year. Now little more than a clump of stones, it overlooks the English Channel, once sentinel against pugnacious frigates. Confusingly however, the Battle of Hastings was fought six miles yonder – in Battle.
A nautical theme runs through Hastings. Nestling beneath vertiginous sandstone cliffs, the town has always relied heavily on the fishing industry. But during the Great Storm of 1286/7, the natural harbour silted up, vanishing forever. Boats have languished stoically on the shingle ever since. This is Europe’s largest beach-launched fishing fleet, and one of Britain’s oldest.
The “boy ashore” mans the winch. Oilskin-clad colleagues trudge up the pebbled shore with staunch resolve, diligently placing “troes” (wooden planks) under the weathered vessel as she inches up the stones. Chip-fed gulls wheel overhead, cawing deafeningly, and beadily surveying today’s catch. Then they swoop, adopting octogenarian posture against the scything offshore gale. Timelessly, the salt-weathered crafts wait in serried ranks, looking incongruous as amphibians. Tomorrow, rusting bulldozers will push their hulks into the sea once more.
‘Not worth opening,’ complains the miniature railway’s weathered owner. He furrows his brow, shrugs resignedly, and gazes over at the fish markets. ‘Nobody here, look,’ he adds, in an expansive gesture. He puffs dejectedly on a cigarette and throws seed to resident pigeons. Licking salty lips, I continue to look as his despondent frame shuffles off. It folds itself into a white van. Hastings attracts some quirky types.
Behind the town’s dilapidated façade, amusement arcades and chip shops, lies creativity. The tapestry of characters here is rich: some gregarious, others aloof. From the pub that brews its own beer, to eclectic live music, Hastings is packed with artists and musicians. One particular artist is so creative actually, that, at seventy years old, he has a three-year-old daughter. ‘Sorry, she’s four,’ he added. ‘Must remember that.’ Exiting the gallery last year, I remember nodding at his wife, assuming she was a daughter.
Heading home, I come to The Smugglers Caves. In the early eighteenth century, iniquitous transactions flourished throughout these dank subterranean caverns. Pious denizens slept; nefarious activities ran amok. My nose wrinkles as I pass the haunted entrance, but a waft of fresh halibut is the culprit. ‘Remember to unwrap it when you get home,’ the saleswoman had said. ‘And it’ll only need a few minutes grilled on each side.’..