It’s been a very busy and stressed week, so my w.wezen and I decided that time off at the coast would be tonic. We needed to make a stop southeast of London, so decided to continue on to the Southeast coast, choosing landfall at the historic community of Hastings.
The town is home to the UK’s largest beach-launched fishing fleet and is one of the medieval Cinque Ports (an association of military and trade villages, comprising Hastings, Hythe, Dover, Sandwich, and new Romney). It has a famous shingle beach (actually round red stones rather than flat grey ones that I expected) and a historic pier (rebuilt after a fire in 2010).
The town, and especially peripheral Rock-a-Nore are a delight. Still infused with working fishermen and trade stalls, it is a working town that takes enormous pride in its trade and history. The beach is lined with tall black huts that were used for drying the nets (today they sit in bags alongside the boats) and with stalls where the fishermen sell their catch. Family diners line the main street, serving jellied eel and smoked fish. (ironically, the woman behind the counter said she’d never tried the eel so couldn’t comment; gelatinous and salty is other’s advice).
There is not a McDonalds nor Starbucks to be seen along the historic town center. Instead there are local pubs, family B&Bs, candy-rock shops, and antique stores. It’s really refreshing not to see the chain stores, nor too see the local tradesmen and traditions reduced to props and plays for the tourists.
The best sense of the place comes from two sites.
One is the Fishermen’s Museum, an attic of memorabilia and photographs from centuries of work. There is an honesty to the faces and the stories, a connection to the people and the beaches, that is really rare: this is a memorial that the town has set up for itself to remember its own people.
The other is the Rock-a-Nore beach itself, littered with working boats ready to put to sea. Brighty painted and hand lettered, they are home and office to their workers. The trim is flacking and the fittings a bit rusted, but there are people in coveralls tending and mending each boat, preparing for the next trip out.
I really like the local sense of place and continuity across generations, and the local pride in work and product that globalization advocates are too quick to dismiss. One might argue that the place is economically inefficient or that the way of life may vanish: that Hastings is ripe for Something Lost. But I see it as Something Gained: character emerging from community, and from the social foundations of work and family.