I pre-planned this now-late lunch for Café des Arts, having stumbled across them on the Internet. Perhaps it was their tagline that got me: “Satisfy Your Coffee, Art and Food Passions”. Perhaps it was their social concern. According to the intro in their menu, the “café was opened by Autism Sussex in 2009 as a social enterprise to provide training and work experience for people with Autistic Spectrum Condition. The aim is for trainees to learn transferable skills which will enhance their chances of future employment in the wider community.”
I order a cappuccino and look around. Large, comfy-looking armchairs encircle low tables in the front windows. Stained glass windows and wooden panelling line the back of the café area. Shelves display works by autistic artists. They’re all for sale, another way Café des Arts seeks to support and empower those on the autistic spectrum.
The café is also directly across the road from Holy Trinity, which appears to be the church of the parish in which my great grandmother’s birth was registered. “Where was she baptised?” I wonder idly. Was it in the beautiful though unusually-shaped church I was now looking at? I make a mental note to ﬁnd out…
Holy Trinity Church, Hastings, was built on a triangular piece of land formed by the intersection of Robertson and Trinity Streets in the 1850s (about the same time Hastings Station came into being). To my uneducated eye, it seems the site may have been ideally suited to the eccentricity of the church’s Victorian architect, one Samuel Sanders Teulon, a great character, by all accounts. Hastings itself had, of course, been around a lot longer, with its ﬁrst documented mention in 790. Historically a Saxon settlement, market and ﬁshing town, and port, it later became a popular seaside resort, and remains a tourist destination today.
A Brisk March up Castle Hill
By the time I’ve devoured a delicious goat’s cheese, pesto and salad sandwich, it’s just after half past three. If I’m to make it to Hastings Castle at all, it needs to be today and I’ll need to hurry – last admission is at 16:00. I pay my dues and turn right out onto Robertson Street, marching hurriedly in the general direction of the castle. I appear to be on track by the time I reach Castle Hill Road but it shows me no mercy. It’s a steep climb and, within minutes, I’m gasping for breath and it feels as though molten iron is searing through my calf muscles. Just when I think I’ll never make it on time, I round a bend and see a sign for the castle.
I reach the entrance, barely able to speak, at 15:57 – just in time to buy a ticket and stumble into the last audiovisual presentation of the day. Afterwards, I wander round what remains of the castle, though much of it has long since collapsed into the sea or fallen prey to ruin, decay and disrepair. With its majestic vantage point high above the town and overlooking the sea, it’s easy to see why William (the Conqueror) ordered the building of a fortress here, a few days after the Battle of Hastings.
As with any castle worthy of the title, Hastings Castle has a few ghost stories to tell. One belongs to the structure itself: it is said that 18th century sailors out at sea were occasionally able to look back and see the castle whole, in all its former glory. Ghosts said to wander the ruins include that of a nun, a lady in white, and a woman carrying a baby (who is thought to have ended her own life and that of her child following desertion by her lover). The phantom of murdered Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, is also thought to hang out here. Fortunately for my constitution, I saw none of these, although this creature could be seen wandering around:
Middle Street Today
I have no number for the Middle Street location where Great Grandmother Kate was born and, even if I did have, I doubt the building would still be there. Nevertheless, I make my way back down Castle Hill Road and into the “New Town” again. Middle Street is easy to ﬁnd. It feeds into the shopping district and, today, The Body Shop occupies one corner and a pub the other, at that end. Behind these, the backs of shops are housed in newish-looking buildings. Further up, there’s a university parking lot and then a couple of ramshackle, rundown houses on either side. At the top of the street, grafﬁti covers a garage door.
If I had more time here, I’d be hitting the museum and archives, ﬁnding out more about this street in the late 1870s. For now, I simply get to walk where my ancestors walked, about 137 years ago. I savour the experience and then, as the sun begins to set, I head for the beach and the Old Town.
Walking the Town Flat and Reaping a Reward
It’s a gorgeous evening but the beach is quiet. I meet a seagull who’s very friendly until I try to photograph him. I wander along the pebbles.
I pass the miniature golf course and railway, the amusement park, and then the net shops. The information boards tell me, “These Tall Black Wooden Sheds are unique to Hastings.” They were used by ﬁshermen to store their ﬁshing tackle and keep it dry and prevent rot.
I’m now striding down Rock-a-Nore Road in search of Rock A Nore Kitchen, a tiny restaurant earning quite a name for itself, judging from the commentary on the Interwebs. With only about ﬁve tables and a reputation which is both glowing and growing, I suspect they may be fully booked this evening. They are.
Not to be easily outdone, I have another evening meal option up my sleeve. I am in England, after all, and on the coast. Fish and chips is pretty much mandatory, and I’ve done a bit of homework: Life Boat Restaurant is the place to go. It’s back a little, in the hustle and bustle of the Old Town, which I’m already wishing I had more time to explore.
While waiting for my order, I notice conﬁrmation of popular Internet opinion taped to the counter in the form of an article from the Hastings Independent Press. It shows Life Boat Restaurant voted the top ﬁsh and chip restaurant in Hastings, by the locals, in February this year.
It’s almost 20:00 now and I’ve put in a pretty decent power-walking effort today. I feel I’ve earned my meal but nothing could have prepared me for the size of it.
They offer a medium and a large cod. I chose the medium and shudder to think what the large would have looked like. The pics do not do it any justice at all but I feel it would have fed at least two and a half people!
Exhausted, but sated and grateful, I eventually fall asleep in the town where my great grandmother would have done the same, as a baby, over a hundred years ago.