Seaside Special - Lockdown dodging: East Sussex Part 1

2020 wrecked a lot of things. Lives, families, jobs, businesses, mental health, trust in an inept, crony-powered Government. And holidays. Which is how we found ourselves in Peacehaven, East Sussex rather than the Bay of Kotor, Montenegro.

That isn’t a moan. Our family endured a Covid-ravaged year with only a few grazes. Minor abrasions in comparison to the havoc and misery visited upon thousands of others. In the circumstances we were thrilled to grab a holiday at all.

Particularly so as I sat on the terrace of our rented bungalow, swigging bottled West Coast IPA, observing a few small craft plying a remarkably quiet English Channel. The dog at my feet was rolling in the gravel and panting after our substantial walk over the coastal South Downs. Mrs A was pouring a large splash of something red and French. Julie was joining me in a well-deserved beer.

The hike had been an unalloyed joy, setting out by bus from our base in Peacehaven to the River Cuckmere and on towards Beachy Head before swinging a wide 180 to return through the Seven Sisters Country Park, Seaford Head and Newhaven. 

Hot weather demanded a number of refreshment stops and The Old Plough in Seaford got our collective vote as the best en-route. Seaford had a bit more about it than I was expecting. Its modest wares tend to be overshadowed by the brighter attractions of Brighton, Eastbourne and Hastings. But there was a lot of history here – the town was a cinque port before the harbour silted up and the river migrated west. A few remnants of the medieval past remained, together some modern independent shops and pubs, an absence of tat, a decent stretch of beach and good landscapes around…In my constant quest to convince Mrs A of our need to move to the seaside, the town elicited from her an almost respectful “Yes, I could probably live here. At a push”.

Newhaven, tucked back from the coast resides around where the river Ouse now hits the Channel, after its Medieval shimmy down the coast. It is a port town dealing in freight and passengers, with a twice daily cross-channel ferry service to Dieppe. The town is less obviously attractive to the casual visitor than its neighbours. Car breaking yards, aggregate depots and metal box warehouses lined the eastern estuary, whilst the western side was dominated by a Napoleonic fort and a lighthouse on the headland.

The town didn’t seem to have made very much tourist capital out of its military, maritime or geographic assets. For instance, the fort was not very lovingly maintained; and we could see the lighthouse at the end of Newhaven’s western harbour wall from our terrace, but we couldn’t get there. The area was fenced off, closed to the public, making it difficult to explore the harbour short of diving off the Dieppe ferry. Or hang-gliding above it, possibly. This appeared to be a very popular pastime, with a dozen or so enthusiasts zipping along the coast, riding thermals and landing just west of the fort.

Before I’d finished my beer, Daughter No 1, her boyfriend Alex and friend Laura returned from the beach looking pink and windswept. I say beach, but rock-and- shingle-feet-slicer would be a more accurate description. They had been swimming off the foreshore between a set of groynes underneath a concrete sea wall that prevented any more of the cliff face disappearing into the briny. I’d swum off there earlier in the week and collected a few scratches and bruises to go alongside my refreshing dip.

Daughter No 2 and her boyfriend had joined us for the previous weekend and together with DN1 and partner they had bussed over to Brighton, masked up and hand sanitised, for a night out. I’m not sure exactly how much social distancing was observed in the seafront bars and pubs, but they had a scream anyway. They were late back, despite clubs still not being allowed to open, and had spent at least some of the early morning at the bottom of the cliffs outside our bungalow engaging in pissed-up rock pooling. Later, DN2 opened our bedroom door and in a hoarse whisper-shout said ‘Sorry if we are being a bit loud. Hope we didn’t wake you up.” Well if we weren’t awake before…

It’s hard to overstate the restorative qualities of that break. The weather helped. The cliff-top location helped. More than these, it was that the sense that everyone needed and wanted an old school holiday. Our friends, our offspring and their mates dropped in and out again during the week, which brought a relaxed feel.

Mrs A and I managed to hook up with a couple of her long-standing music business mates. We walked over to Rottingdean with the dog and met Clive and Cookie for a pub lunch and some welcome pints of Harveys.

Cookie said that apart from one journey into London he hadn’t been anywhere outside his immediate vicinity since March. We were now in July. We could sense the stress peeling off him with every swallow of ale and every yard of beachfront stroll. 

Clive grilled us about why we had chosen Peacehaven above other more obviously attractive towns on the south coast. Feeling ever-so-slightly defensive, I listed peak season availability, dog-friendliness and that all important sea view. Clive claimed that one of my rock heroes, Phil Mogg vocalist and founder of the band UFO had briefly resided in Peacehaven, claiming we’d picked it in some king of rock homage. In fact Mogg’s residence in the settlement was news to me. Clive’s label had been doing some work on a back catalogue reissue and he had planned to meet the legendary front man there.

I was left wondering why Mogg, who fronted a reasonably successful band selling plenty of units in the 70s and 80s and who had a serious Spinal Tap reputation, would end up in Peacehaven. The town had hosted a top holiday for our gathering and I liked it. However, its chucking-TVs-out-of-hotel-windows credentials appeared pretty thin. For one thing, there was no hotel. Nor were there any music venues, clubs, trendy hangouts or flash restaurants. Indeed the town had no historical heart or architectural splendour at all. Even the Council’s Character Assessment didn’t dress up the place. This section made me chuckle: “Arguably, it is the main South Coast Road, with its thin straggle of shops, the 1916 pylons, and occasional boarded-up windows, that retains something of the frontier-town feel of the pre-war settlement, and it is only this that most non-residents see as they speed through”. If only all Council documents could be written with such compelling language! The post-Covid environment merely added to this fantastic image.

The place was thrown up as a speculative coastal development in the wake of World War I by an entrepreneur called Charles Neville (who also built bits of nearby Saltdean and Rottingdean). The houses were nearly all low rise, simple affairs, originally designed for ex-service families and salt-of-the-earth working folk. The town became a by-word for bad planning and dodgy land-dealing. Little of note has survived from the 1920s and 1930s. Its few fine buildings - the Bastion pool, the Hotel Peacehaven, and the Pavilion Theatre - have all been lost. Some of the cliff top houses had recently been tarted up with wrap-around concrete balconies, floor-to-ceiling glass windows and rooftop terraces. No self-respecting hard rocker would surely be seen dead in such a rag-tag town. Nevertheless, we felt honour-bound to check out all of the pubs and eateries. Just in case. But no. Mr Mogg was not sighted anywhere.

That holiday was after one of the lockdowns but before one of the others… I lose track. As we sizzled nicely on the south coast in July, none of us guessed that there would be another two to come. So far. As I write this in August 2021, cases are 26 times the level of August 2020!

My next visit to East Sussex was on the eve of the second national lockdown. Also the eve of Bonfire Night. We used to call it Mischief Night when I was a kid. A couple of hours of traditional petty vandalism and minor lawlessness to mark the anniversary of Guy Fawkes and his mischief-making with a barge-load of dynamite under the House of Commons. This cultural bookmark has been long-erased by the imported Trick Or Treat shenanigans a week earlier. On that night in 2020, it was clear that Boris Johnson and his cess-pit of cronies, advisors and ministers had been making  plenty of mischief of their own. This lockdown had been the subject of much confusing speculation for a few days, followed by a leak which had finally forced our brave PM’s hand. This was the time of the infamous ‘let the bodies pile high’ quote that he has furiously denied uttering.

I was determined to wring some final escapism out of the Autumn before the shutters came crashing down again. A flying visit to Hastings was hastily bolted onto a work meeting in London.

The trip was all too brief and I barely did the town justice. My main aim was to take some sunset photos having gambled that the crystal sharp Autumn afternoon would yield to a glorious orange sky out in the Channel. I got that bit right. I can hardly remember a more vivid, colourful sunset spread out across a giant cloudless firmament.

I shot the harbour from West Hill after navigating a network of switchback alleys and lanes in the old town. I nodded to a bloke stood in a 1st floor bay window who seemed to be paying me close attention. Breathless from the climb, I snapped a few frames of the gathering sunset and headed back to sea level, passing the bloke in the window again, in exactly the same position. He was in fact a mannequin and I probably wasn’t the first to be caught out. A few moments later I laughed out loud (that’s lol for our younger readers) at a blackboard outside The Pump House that proclaimed ‘drinking rum every day makes you a pirate, not an alcoholic’.

Enthused by the vivid skies I skirted in front of the castle, across the beach, onto the prom, past the pier and out towards Bulverhythe. All the while drawn west as if pulled by a current into the sunset, with my overworked camera clicking out a double-time route march. I wish I’d taken more time to explore the harbour, the castle, the cliffs. But I couldn’t do everything. And those precious golden hour rays wouldn’t photograph themselves, would they? The walk became a series of framed sunset silhouettes, shadows and seascapes racing against the ticking sundial.  

Where the coast path meets the railway, at the Bulverhythe nature reserve, I finally drew breath. Sat on the top of steps above the groynes I snapped the last rites of a purple and apricot sky picking out pools of salty water trapped on the beach… and called it a day.

I was over half way to Bexhill by then, though it took me a little time to work out where I was, having chased the sunset for a couple of miles. So I carried on in that direction, still marvelling at the perfect sky graduating through an entire swatch book of cleverly named Dulux blues and reds.

At ground level it was dark though. There were no street lights for much of the path that was wedged between the railway line and the beach. I had to shift smartly out of the way of oncoming mountain bikes on more than one occasion. Apart from them, and a couple of dog walkers, that section was pleasantly, absorbingly quiet.

Only when I arrived at the Coastguard Station atop Galley Hill did real life start to intervene in my private world. A few cars were parked up at the viewing platform back round to Hastings and as I walked down the hill, camper vans parked at the beach margin became more regular in number. Soon I was on the long run in to Bexhill’s seafront. Much as I had wanted to see the De La Warr Pavilion in all its Art Deco glory, it would have to wait another visit. My feet ached and my camera blinked a low-battery warning in sympathy. I gave up and submitted to the comforting embrace of an expensive cappuccino and cheap cheese ‘n’ pickle bap on the train home.

Series navigation: Introduction: Excursions to the Coast

Previous episode - South East Kent

Next episode - East Sussex Part 1




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