As any creative or creativist knows, life moves in mysterious ways. A year ago, I’d never heard of this place called St Leonard’s on Sea. Now we’re getting ready to call it home.
Last October, we came down to Hastings for a weekend, for their 1066 celebrations. Being us, we booked late and so stayed out in St Leonard’s instead of the town center. The moment we arrived, we loved it and though we’d no thought of ever moving from London, epilepsy was making us rethink whether city life was best for us.
The moment we arrived, we loved it. Although we’d no thought of moving from London, epilepsy had us wondering whether city life was best for us. Next thing we knew, we’d lent our London house to our daughter, and were trying out the seaside for six months.
Though it looks like we’ll be returning to London shortly, as our six months rental finishes at the end of the month and we haven’t managed to find a house that suits, we now know enough to continue our search from London.
Open, Welcoming, Creative
The place has a unique confluence of conditions that suit us so well. Firstly, there’s no sense of being a “foreigner”, as I’ve experienced in other rural English towns. In his “History of St Leonards“, blogger Jack Vanderwyk, explains why.
St. Leonards is a ‘New’ town, built some 190 years ago from almost nothing. This means that it has always welcomed, and depended on, incomers. The flow of new residents continues and most of them become part of the community and participate in what St Leonards has to offer – the sea, the parks, the architecture, but also the artistic freedom, the quirkiness, the tolerance, that characterise the ethos of this place.
Our landlord, Blue Marsden, the author of Soul Plan: Reconnect with your True Life Purpose (sooooooo St Leonard’s), said the same thing to us, in different words, when we first rented his house: “Here, you can be yourself.”
That has been our experience. Individuality and creative buzz are all around, and as well as enjoying the vegetarian and vegan cafés, the art galleries and independent shops, the radical and innovative community, and of course the sea (the sea!), we hope to be part of this beautiful town’s creative renaissance, once settled back down here again.
Below I share a map of the route I took for my create date, and a link to a website that will tell you more about the route. But first, a few words about the history of St Leonards, to give you some idea of why we’ve come to already love it so much.
19th CenturySt Leonard’s was born as an exclusive seaside development at the very end of the Georgian period.
James Burton (1761-1837), probably the most significant builder of Georgian London, responsible for parts of London that I adore, like the imposing terraces at Regent’s Park, the squares of Bloomsbury, visited this seaside valley to the west of Hastings and fell in love with its beauty.
It is very beautiful, with wooded glens, steep rising cliffs, with dips and valleys sheltered from the winds, and a piercing quality of light from an expansive sea and sky. He started to build here in 1826, at the age of 65.
Before he died, just over ten years later, he’d completed the South Colonnade; several tall seafront houses; various parks and gardens; and the St. Leonard’s Hotel.
(Now known as the Royal Victoria Hotel, as Her Vickness stayed there in the autumn of 1834, and having a royal pop by is always a renaming event in England ).
In 1837 Queen Adelaide, widow of King William IV, did more than that, making St Leonard’s her permanent place of residence, and St Leonard’s was made. Decimus Burton, James’s son, also a builder, purchased more land to further develop his father’s project.
St Leonard’s was marked by two world wars, especially bomb damage during the Second World War that yielded some ugly and unsympathetic post-war rebuilds.
But what marked it most was, again, the vision of one man, engineer Sidney Little. Before interviewing for a job as Borough Engineer for Hastings and St Leonard’s in 1929, Little took a walk around the town and was dismayed by the old-fashioned, declining Victorian seaside town.
In his interview he told the panel that, if appointed, he would bring Hastings and St Leonard’s up-to-date. And so he did, ripping up the tramways to make way for a completely new promenade built in reinforced concrete, with upper and lower levels, the lower walkway covered in to give shelter on inclement days.
It was built in a very functionalist style, the lower deck relieved by a decoration of colored broken glass set into the concrete. This was “found art”, long before the concept became common, using broken bottles Little discovered on a rubbish tip, set into place in the wall, piece by broken piece, by unemployed laborers.
The result, known locally as “Bottle Alley” looks more 1960s than ‘30s.
Other Little constructions included Britain’s first underground car park; various futuristic concrete shelters along the promenade; and an enormous swimming pool.
Also linked to him was Marine Court, the tallest block of flats in the UK, constructed in art-deco style to resemble the superstructure of the Queen Mary cruise ship. In the 1960s it became home to a club called The Cobweb, later the Witch Doctor, which hosted Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie and other musical luminaries.
For these developments, amongst others at Hastings, Little was crowned “The Concrete King” by locals.
Half way through the 20th century, holiday making by the sea in Britain fell out of fashion and St Leonard’s suffered. A slow (it’s one hour 20 mins from London, at best) meant it was too far to attract commuters. Instead, the inexpensive housing attracted slum landlords and successive governments clearing out South London estates exported the people to Hastings.
By the 1980s, the 21st century the central St Leonard’s ward, where we’ve been living and which comprises much of the walk below, was one of the very poorest in the country.
The late 1990s and the millennium began an upswing in St Leonard’s fortunes.
Social problems haven’t disappeared. Broken people turn up in seaside resorts like Hastings because, in all sorts of senses, there’s nowhere further for them to go. Much of the accommodation is still sub-standard flats run by landlords who care nothing for their tenants.
But a new level of community engagement, facilitated by the internet, is making a huge difference and more people with money and energy to spend are moving into the community.
And community spirit is strengthening. The best example of this is probably Hastings Pier. Closed to the public in 2008, the Grade II listed pier was saved by a passionate local campaign. Even when a devastating fire virtually destroyed the pier in October 2010, the community refused to give up.
A Community Share Scheme attracted over 3,000 shareholders and raised close to £600,000, and the pier was reopened in April 2016 as a sustainable, flexible platform for all sorts of community events and uses. They created what seemed impossible out of nothing but grassroots creative spirit.
Until the 1970s, when local landlords and agents moved into the homelessness business, St Leonard’s was a high-end seaside resort. Its present, like that of its neighbor, Hastings, is decidely mixed. And its future…?
And its future…? Well, that depends on who decides to live and visit here and their motives for moving.
Come And Walk
St Leonard’s is a great place to visit for a day or weekend, so for those of you who might be able to come and sample its charms, I’ve commandeered the services of Sussex walker supremo, Chris Smith, from his website, Travel Log Lewes.
This is his map and I followed it for my create date (see green lines below). You can find fuller details on his website, together with his take on the sights and history of St Leonard’s On Sea.