Walking the four-minute stretch from Bexhill station to the sea is less like stepping back in time, more like shuffling forward into your own default future. The south-coast town where Eddie Izzard spent his childhood, Spike Milligan his first war years and Fanny Craddock her final days is known as God’s Waiting Room, and not without good reason.
We pass a shop that appears to sell only coffee creams and mantelpiece ornaments, another with a lovingly assembled window display of Tom Clancy novels, and four Scottie dogs, one with its own knitted scarf. The headline of a newspaper flapping in the bitter coastal wind reads: ‘Tai chi group barred from church hall’.
But turn right along the promenade and you reach the De La Warr Pavilion, the modernist icon whose clean white curves have been pepping up spirits since 1935. Reopened in 2005 after a £8 million refurb, the building is reason enough to visit. Now, alongside some fantastic exhibitions, it’s developing one of the most exciting music programmes in the south-east.
On July 10 2010, Heritage Orchestra (www.theheritageorchestra.com) will be collaborating with UNKLE here for the second exclusive event in the cutting-edge orchestra’s residency, which began back in November with scratch aficionados and juvenile ravers thronging to hear Beardyman rap the immortal words, ‘De La Warr, De La Warr, De La Warr Pa-vil-ion make some noiz-z-z-z-ze!’
In town for another one-off show (Speech Debelle, The Invisible and Micachu), we decide to make a weekend of it and book into the town’s first ‘boutique’ B&B, Coast. It’s now just as likely to take bookings from young music fans as from tourists wanting to walk the South Downs Way.
A substantial part of Bexhill’s appeal is ironic. As well as paying homage to the town’s motoring history with a room of vintage cars, for instance, the local museum is home to a Nokia 3310 and a (undeniably big, if entirely random) giant crab of Japan. Meanwhile the richly stocked charity shops that crowd the town centre (a positive if morbid consequence of the ageing population), offer a cheap alternative to the over-sung vintage scene of nearby Brighton. Record shop Second Spin is a treasure trove of golden-greats vinyl where signed photos of Hinge & Bracket grin down from the walls.
But there are signs of new life, too. Next Wave, a £5 million regeneration project for the seafront, including the Grade II-listed Colonnade building, is due to start this autumn. There’s been loud resistance from some of the older residents, and in a sense you can see why: there’s something rare and wonderfully relaxing, for the Londoner especially, about sitting in the De La Warr’s restaurant, with its uninterrupted view of lawn, sea and sky, and knowing there isn’t really anywhere else you should be. If Next Wave can bridge the gap between the town’s well-preserved Edwardian calm and the Pavilion’s aspirations to being a Southbank Centre by the sea, Bexhill could be making more noize as a tourist destination yet.
Where to eat
The De La Warr Pavilion
The De La Warr Pavilion’s superb British and European seasonal dishes are served by a young, speedy waiting team. The menu changes daily, but delicately flavoured fish dishes such as lemon sole with ginger roast potatoes, steamed pak choi and lemongrass, are winners. Enjoy magnificent sea views while you eat.
Seafront, Bexhill (01424 229 119, email@example.com). Lunch noon-2.30pm Mon-Fri; noon-3pm Sat, Sun. Pre-concert dining for some events, two courses £14.50, three courses £17.50
Where to stay
Chris and Linda Wain opened Coast last September to give Bexhill a more boutiquey take on the B&B – and, with its airy but private rooms, minutes from the seafront and De La Warr, it’s a godsend for younger visitors. The large, top-end Crimson Room has an extremely comfy superking bed and rolltop bath. Free wi-fi access, flat-screen TV and your choice of hearty or healthy breakfast come as standard. When Bat For Lashes played Bexhill in February, Coast’s phone rang off the hook.
Bexhill is served by three railway stations, Cooden Beach, Collington and Bexhill. Visit www.nationalrail.co.uk for information.
Things to do
South Downs National Park
You may have missed the news – lost amid all the pre-election windbaggery – but on April 1 2010, the south-east got a new national park: the South Downs, the tenth to be created, and the closest for Londoners. There are 15 national parks across the UK, with ten in England, three in Wales and two in Scotland. On the original list of potential national parks drawn up by the 1947 Hobhouse Report, the South Downs got left out, mainly because the area was, and is, so heavily populated (approx 110,000 residents today) and because most of it is farmland.
The area receives no fewer than 39 million leisure visits a year – a figure expected to increase with its new status – so it’s far from being a forgotten idyll. Still, being a national park means the South Downs will be protected by stricter conservation regulations and increasingly opened up for walkers and wildlife watchers.
The park, essentially the 100-mile South Downs Way, and a swathe of green space on each side, stretches from Winchester in Hampshire to Beachy Head in East Sussex. The highest point is Blackdown Hill, Sussex at 919 feet (280 metres). An estimated 10 million people live within an hour’s travel time of the new park.