This year has seen another influx of home movers to Hastings, many of them arriving in the summer, in between lockdowns. One of them, travel writer Martin Dickie, arrived in August. Here are his reflections on being new in Hastings, the stresses of a competitive rental market,
and doing all of it during a pandemic.

“John Logie Baird is from here, isn’t he?” I ask the barman in the Wetherspoons named after the famous inventor. “He lived here, yes,” he replies. Smugness spreads across my face. “So why is there nowhere in Hastings to buy a TV?”

I’d been marching around the town centre for an hour looking for somewhere to buy a telly for our new flat, becoming mildly irritated at Hastings’ lack of electrical retailers. But, being new in town, it still felt like I was on holiday. I wasn’t going to lose sleep over it (save that for the soul searching to follow). After finally giving up, it was time for a drink. Needless to say, my punchline in Wetherspoons did not elicit the reams of laughter I’d hoped for. Not a titter. The barman uttered something about an electronics shop on Norman Road. I quietly took a seat with my pint.

Later, paranoid, I realised not only was my joke not funny, it was borderline arrogant. Who was I to brazenly call into question Hastings’ proud history, at the same time as flaunting the fact I was buying a new TV? Forgetting, momentarily, that it’s quite normal to want to buy a TV when you move house and that a pub is a fairly standard location for making such small talk, I started to panic. I convinced myself it was the unmistakable gormlessness – not to mention the flashy disposable income – of the archetypal DFL. I might as well have popped a miniature dachshund on the counter and demanded a flat white with oat milk. Naïveté hangs over newcomers like a cloud. Mine, I feared, had taken on monstrous proportions.

I moved here with my partner in August, well aware that the coronavirus had turned the trickle of DFLs into a deluge. In July, Rightmove and Zoopla reported record-breaking numbers of house buying and rental inquiries. When we visited Hastings in early August with the view to rent a two-bedroom flat, some estate agents had such backlogs they weren’t taking contact details. There was no wriggle room on viewings, either – we had to be in town on the agreed day or not at all; deals were being finalised the same evening. 

Undeterred, we headed down on a work day for a spate of viewings that often saw us up against seven other couples. After our four-minute tour of the property, we smiled courteously at a queue of rivals as we exited the building. I’m sure they were all lovely, but who knows what filtering system the landlord would be using against us? Were you to smuggle us a dossier on these couples, we’d have gladly made some anonymous calls, maybe smeared some reputations. We guiltily spent an hour over lunch imagining what sort of dirt we could dig up on our adversaries.

With all this competition, was it even worth leaving London? Well, our landlord hiked our rent just as the virus broke in March 2020. Then the company I work for sold its London office, and remote working became indefinite. Like so many people, we’d been idly dreaming of escaping the capital for years. In July, our chance came. After first being a cage, the coronavirus suddenly became the key to leaving the city.

Naïveté hangs over newcomers like a cloud. Mine, I feared, had taken on monstrous proportions

So why Hastings? It was one of several towns on a shortlist with other coastal delights: Folkestone, Deal, Worthing. But it was testimony from friends who’d already made the move that put Hastings to the front of our minds. They told unanimous tales of improved lives: woodland walks to nudist beaches; wild, green-painted processions; contemporary art galleries overlooking idyllic fishing fleets; three crazy golf courses. When we arrived for a recce in mid-July, we fell in love – even though lockdown had put paid to the much-lauded events calendar. Did we know it was a key battleground in the gentrification debate? Umm, yes. But with our financial future and mental health at stake, that more opaque discussion took a back seat.

Now we’re here, ‘fitting in’ is more of a pressing question. We tried to prepare by jotting notes from the Hastings episode of Radio 4’s Mark Steel’s in Town, followed notable locals on Instagram (howdy, Obie of fish-hut fame), and swotted up on the Hastings Independent Press. We needn’t have worried. Every shopkeeper, dog walker and pub owner we’ve met has been inordinately friendly – something quite jolting when, for the past decade, interaction with ‘locals’ amounted to tutting tube passengers and monosyllabic Uber drivers.

I can’t deny the fact that our coming here contributes to rising rental prices. I’m sure, too, that there are Londoners with eyes trained on buying second homes in Hastings – a fact that makes us queasy. Natives may feel we should be lumped in with that type of DFL. Perhaps they’re right. All we can do is make a commitment to buy local and support our new community as best we can.

As for my John Logie Baird faux pas, it was probably nothing of the sort. Besides, being by the sea – away from the commute and the mayhem of London – has meant that sort of overthinking has subsided. We don’t need to dial down our ‘London-ness’, if that’s what it is. There are plenty of people here who’ve made the same choices as us. I’d like to think you earn respect from people when you’re true to yourself. The DFL debate will rage on, I’m sure. Perhaps we can tackle it over a pint down the pub.

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