By Nick Pelling

One might think that anyone who set up new business in Hastings in the last 18 months, given the serial lockdowns, might now be feeling the truth of a dubious witticism, ‘buy in Hastings, repent at leisure.’ But this would be to misjudge the mood of the new breed of entrepreneurs who have taken a gamble on this most unguessable of seaside towns.

PICTURE: Dave Young

Charlie Crabb, the owner of the lively new Hastings Bookshop in Trinity Street, has managed to maintain sales by moving online, offering a click-and-collect service or home delivery. In counter-intuitive mood, Charlie says that “we have had a relatively positive experience as people have found more time to read.” There has been “a move towards people supporting local community shops and businesses”, rather than the global corporate outlets.  Having said that, Charlie also observes that in terms of literary taste, “readers are looking for escapism”. It seems that appetites have moved away from anything that smacks of gloomy realities towards fiction, cookery and Mother Nature. This shift has meant that The Seaweed Collectors Handbook by the extraordinary Dutch female writer, translator and poet, Miek Zwamborn, has become a surprise bestseller.

PICTURE: Dave Young

In Western Road stands another of the new attractions in the town: The Three Faces of del Parc. This is a little gem which has built up a glowing reputation as a haunt for foodies. It is run by Alan and the exceptional chef ‘shy Steve’ and is combatting coronavirus by opening 15 hours a week, offering take-aways and a delightful range of delicatessen goodies, such as Spanish chocolates or local chutneys. 

Alan is very far from downcast: he says that he and Steve “fell in love with the town” after what was apparently a “rather messy” end of their affair with North London. They now see the move here as “a blessing in disguise”. The pandemic has certainly not dented their enthusiasm nor the appreciation of St Leonards locals for Manchego cheese or Baba ganoush.

PICTURE: Dave Young

Another new jewel in the Hastings crown is the undoubtedly chic little café on London Road by the name of SugarPie HoneyBuns. The charming owner, Ray Manning, has made the café into an oasis for thoughtful types -and those with an eye for a quietly intriguing menu –  but he does admit that being shut down has tested his ability to fend off boredom (at present he is pondering returning to his old passion for knitting) Nevertheless, despite the slow-down, he has instituted a so-called ‘regular one-off’ – a Friday night, fortnightly supper club which has offered beef bourguignon or chicken tarragon in recent weeks plus fabulous veggie options. These have included mushroom bourguignon or pinto, cannellini beans infused with grilled fennel with button onions, and leeks topped with fricassee of fungi and a tarragon creme fraiche. Ray’s partner Lou Biggs is the culinary creator behind all of this. The dessert menu is equally appealing – provided by Sophie from The Chocolate Shop – and features such beguiling wonders as Galette des rois or exotic chocolate mousse with crepes dentelles. 

But even in shops which cannot adapt very easily there are hints of a spirit abroad that will pull people through. Mike Willis, proprietor of the Ramshackle Shoppe in Norman Road perhaps captures it nicely when he says that the business community on the road have “really bonded, whether it be with a smile through the window or an encouraging note through the mail slot”. He may not be selling many antiques, but he still has faith that there is, as they say, a future in the past.

It might be said that uplifting attitudes are all very well but in the end it all comes down to money. It is certainly true that the government has been throwing it around – Rishi Sunak has now borrowed more than any chancellor since 1945 in order to fund such projects as ‘bounce-back’ grants and business rate holidays. Some businesses, such as The Piper in Norman Road, have been particularly agile in this field –  successfully winning an Arts Council England cultural recovery grant of £237,000 – but money isn’t everything: confidence is also vital. It seems from this most unscientific of conversational surveys that Hastings risk takers are in a mood to accentuate the positive.

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