Hastings Town Centre Heritage Trail

Published by Hastings & St Leonards Society, 2022, pamphlet, rrp £4
Available at Bookbuster, 39 Queens Road

Review by Tim Barton

Sometimes Hastings New Town seems to get a raw deal, with the Old Town and Pier noticeably favoured. The recent book on the America Ground by Steve Peak was a welcome addition to our published local history, and now we have a tourist-friendly short heritage trail for Hastings town centre. This gives some insight into the architectural history of the centre and introduces some of the characters and businesses that built, inhabited and later took over various sites. For example, we get perspective on the complex architectural history of the now defunct department store Debenhams, as well as a short history of its previous ownership. There is also a very useful account of the Brassey Institute (pictured on the cover, and always somehow reminding me of 1970s children’s shows Trumpton and Camberwick Green) and Parsons Steam Printing Works.

I’ve used the word ‘short’ twice, and it is. The stapled pamphlet runs to 40 pages, including cover and a double-spread map in the centre. It is also profusely illustrated, reducing the volume of text even further. The information density makes up for this and it is surprising how much punch the pamphlet packs. As such, it is a great little walking guide for tourists and recent blow-ins. It also, of course, necessitates hard choices on what to leave out. At the back are two appendixes, on the architect Henry Ward, and the builders John Howell & Son. These are not the only characters mentioned while on the trail but a fuller treatment would yield a more unwieldy volume.

IN MODERN TOWN CENTRES, ‘LOOK UP!’

That said, I will comment on a few things I would have liked to see more about, not as a criticism of the pamphlet but rather because it was effective at arousing my interest. Thus, it is a great addition to the pocket of any visitor new to the town with a couple of hours to spare before hitting the beach, Old Town pubs, or art galleries.

Rule number one, in modern town centres, is ‘look up!’ Modern shopfronts hold our attention at eye-level but surprising riches lurk above. This is as true in Hastings as on Oxford Street.

The current or very recent change of use of some buildings are discussed here, for example the changed use of the Town Hall or the introduction of a nightclub into the seafront-facing basement of the old Debenhams. This naturally made me think about other recent changes that aren’t featured. For example, the former entrance to the Orion Cinema (now Yates) has for a while housed a small bar: when I first arrived in Hastings this was ‘The Street’, and alongside a few still extant interesting external architectural features, also, in the 2010s, featured as interior decor two walls of collaged album covers which were later, sadly, painted over.

The Observer Building’s usage as a venue and art gallery gets no direct mention, which is a shame, though its planned conversion into a ‘hub’ is acknowledged. The Printworks use as a venue in recent years is overlooked,
but more importantly for tourists, no mention is made of the superb new gates at the top of ‘Gotham Alley’ which cleverly commemorate the building’s days as a – you guessed it – Printworks. These are the work of local artist and ironmonger Leigh Dyer. Also not mentioned is novelist Robert Tressell, who a shade over a century ago contributed high-end murals and gilding to both the Brassey Institute and, I believe, Holy Trinity Church. Both Holy Trinity and ‘His Place’, incidentally, are very well served here, which again, should leave you wanting more.

Check out Hastings local history group

The Townhouse is also skipped, which is a puzzle as it too has architectural interest. And cultural interest too, as it spent a number of years as ‘Harpers’, a bar run by the brother of Charlie Harper from the successful punk band UK Subs. In fact another whole ‘heritage trail’ could probably be produced to cover music celebrities. More likely though would be one based on famous writers, a surprising number of whom have resided in Hastings & St Leonards over the years: on the heritage trail, for example, you’ll discover where Dickens read passages of a Christmas Carol to a large audience.

There are, suffice to say, dozens of things one could add

Naturally, those whose interest is piqued may investigate further. Those with time to enter the Brassey Institute will find it houses our Library, and you could do worse than check out the local history materials available there. Hastings Local History Group produces a series of books and pamphlets, with a few publications each year, including the periodical Bygone Hastings. These are available at Bookbuster, and at their premises in Courthouse Street in the Old Town. I imagine that one day the information published here as a heritage trail may emerge expanded as a book. It would be good to see one, as perforce only the surface can be scratched in a conveniently proportioned walking guide.


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