By Paloma Lacy
Right outside Hastings railway station proudly sits a vessel emblazoned with the ‘RX’ code, a nod to the town’s illustrious fishing heritage, which remains at its heart.
Fish delivered straight from the boats that morning forms the cornerstone of restaurant menus, from fish and chips, to hot smoked salmon and the more modern cockle popcorn.
All sea life is here. If you’d rather take fish home, head down to the seafront in the Old Town, to the many fishmongers dotted along the pavement, next to the fishing huts on Rock-a-Nore Road.
This street is the beating heart of Hastings, with the quirky George Street shopping district located just off it.
Evolving into a cultural hub in the past decade, the Old Town is home to Hastings Contemporary Gallery.
But don’t worry, you’ll still find all the fun of the fair, which suits families with little ones drawn by the bright lights of the teacups.
There are lots of rides for bigger kids, too. Hastings seafront is family-focused, with enough to entertain all ages, including Adventure Golf and a play park that was a particular hit with our toddler.
There’s also a larger playground in the New Town, complete with pirate ship – Alexandra Park.
We spent a significant portion of time walking on the beach and skimming pebbles, jumping on the vintage-looking Hastings Miniature Railway, which was lots of fun, and popping by Blue Reef Aquarium.
Open daily from 10am until 5.30pm, booking for the aquarium is essential in these changed times. Ensure you don’t miss scheduled talks and feeding times.
Purchase a ticket to visit three of the biggest attractions – Hastings Castle – the first built by William The Conqueror in 1066 Country, Smugglers Adventure, set in underground caves, and the aquarium.
Hastings Contemporary, which opened in 2012, continues to attract visitors to the Old Town, and is currently showing a body of work by famed book illustrator Quentin Blake.
I must confess, I’d hoped to see some of his best known work, particularly his collaborations with Roald Dahl. Sadly, this was not to be.
The other reason for my visit – we had a table booked at Boatyard – located on the first floor of the gallery, with outstanding sea views.
It’s the second restaurant from Ben and Kate O’Norum, a couple championing seasonality, sustainability and natural wine.
They also run the much-talked about Farmyard, down the road in St Leonards. Boatyard was without doubt the culinary highlight of our trip to Hastings.
A tough call, given that, “everything we ate was so good,” as my mother-in-law said, but nonetheless true. Small plates, beachside alfresco dining best describes the experience.
The ambience is unrivalled and we thought it couldn’t get much better than this, but then the food arrived.
We ordered pea hummus, anchovies, goat’s cheese with honey and walnuts, and cockle popcorn to share, which we did with great gusto.
A fine array of wonderfully fresh dishes, bursting with flavour, it’s easy to see why Boatyard is the toast of Hastings.
Open Monday lunchtimes and throughout the weekend, it recently introduced a Saturday evening service from 5.30pm until 10.30pm, no doubt to capitalise on the beautiful autumn sunsets.
No break in Hastings would have been long enough to eat at all the best family restaurants, but we managed to try a fair few.
Maggie’s played host to our first dinner, fish and chips high up in a converted fishing hut on the front, a firm reminder that we’d arrived at the seaside.
We found great food, fast service and top marks for atmosphere – you can hear the seagulls flying high above.
Lunch at the Crown in All Saints Street one afternoon illustrated nicely that modern pub culture is alive and well here, serving a small but rather inventive menu, served with home-baked bread and pints of local brew.
Lastly, we dined at Webbe’s – my first fine dining experience in Hastings during my first visit 11 years ago. Little has changed here and standards are as high ever.
Drop a napkin and another is delivered to your table before you have time to catch the eye of a member of waiting staff.
Fish lies at the heart of the menu, trays of oysters, seafood platters and tapas – which at five dishes for £17, represents great value for money in such impressive surroundings.
The best views of Hastings are from the Country Park, accessed by scaling East and West Hill, or jumping on the funiculars that serve both.
There are a lot of hills in Hastings but also a lot of flat, making it great for walking around.
Travelling without a car, we didn’t see so much as a taxi or a bus during our visit.
Home for a few days was the White Rock Hotel, just opposite Hastings Pier, revamped and reopened four years ago, now complete with restaurants and fun fair.
White Rock is family-friendly but most noticeably dog-friendly. In fact, we seemed the only ones without one.
The restaurant is open all day and offers room service for the truly weary traveller.
My husband was most impressed to find the hotel bar listed in the CAMRA guide, it usually has four cask ales on at any one time.
The good news is that visitors are back, according to hoteliers Catherine and Laurence. After an understandably slower July, August has been a good one, and long may it last.
When the couple arrived many years ago, the hotel’s location was at the edge of town, but with the recent development of St Leonards, White Rock is now very much in the centre of town life.
Having heard all about the Londoners making their way down in their droves for a slice of coastal life, we headed for Bottle Alley – a 250 metre covered walkway to the right of the pier, connecting Hastings with St Leonards.
London types were the only ones visible – new residents or soon-to-be residents? We had no way of knowing.
The St Leonards of today is a far cry from the one we met decade ago.
The shops and restaurants in main thoroughfares – Norman Road, King’s Road and London Road – wouldn’t look at all out of place in the big cities.
Farmyard and Tommy’s received mentions as lunching hot spots.
We decided to stop for our lunch on the walk back – the Goat Ledge fish burger is legendary, and with good reason.
Where to stay White Rock Hotel – 1-10 White Rock, Hastings TN34 1JU
Where to eat Maggie’s – 8-9 Rock-a-Nore Road, Hastings TN34 3DW.
The Crown – 64-66 All Saints’ St, Hastings TN34 3BN
Webbe’s – 1 Rock-a-Nore Road, Hastings TN34 3DW.
Boatyard – 1st Floor, Hastings Contemporary, Rock-a-Nore Road, Hastings TN34 3DW
Farmyard – 52 Kings Road, Saint Leonards-on-sea TN37 6DY
Goat Ledge – Lower Promenade, Warrior Square, St Leonards TN37. 6FA
For more information on this part of Sussex – www.visit1066country.com
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