Brighton might rock, but its mellow neighbour to the east is arguably more filmic. Bella Todd swaps her Lambretta for a mobility scooter.
‘Hale knew, before he had been in Eastbourne three hours, that they meant to murder him…’ It doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, does it? Nevertheless, in Rowan Joffe’s ’60s-set remake of ‘Brighton Rock’, it’s not Brighton’s iconic promenade and pier you’ll see in the majority of the seafront scenes – it’s Eastbourne’s.
Apparently, Eastbourne’s Victorian vistas have a ‘wonderfully antiquated feel’ that bears closer resemblance to mods and rockers-era Brighton than Brighton itself. As our wheely cases trundle conspicuously through the town centre on a Friday night in January, it’s easy to appreciate a still more practical attraction for film crews – out of season, Eastbourne is bloody empty.
Trimmed with chalk cliffs to the west and a modern marina complex to the east, with a reputation for sunny weather that’s only marginally undermined by its sales of electric blankets, this quintessentially English seaside resort has had its famous visitors. But from Sir Ernest Shackleton to Debussy (who wrote ‘La Mer’ here after fleeing scandal in Paris), all seem to have come seeking refuge from the excitement of their everyday lives. As a retirement hotspot, it’s as popular as Bexhill and Bournemouth. Imagine those mopeds replaced by mobility scooters and you get the popular picture.
But not all of Eastbourne’s 4.8 million annual visitors are here to put their feet up. Eastbourne Extreme sports festival (July) and the Airbourne airshow (August) are two big free events that draw a more adrenaline-seeking crowd to the genteel promenade, while Seth Lakeman will bring a more contemporary vibe to the grand bandstand in August.
A Hollywood connection
It’s this youthful potential that’s being tapped into by The Big Sleep, a seafront hotel part owned by John Malkovich (whose recent comments about moving to Eastbourne himself led the council to strategise excitedly about erecting a giant, Hollywood-style ‘EASTBOURNE’ sign on the South Downs). With views of the historic Wish Tower, pier and royal-blue-railinged seafront, it brings a mixed crowd of guitar-carrying twentysomethings, young families and more adventurous-looking older couples. Among its ‘funky’ design touches it sports furry grey curtains that appear to have been made from the skin of a machine-washed Wookie.
To the extent that Eastbourne has a cultural quarter, the streets around The Big Sleep is it. Nearby is the new Towner Gallery, whose bright white curves have for the last two years been bringing the town some much-needed edge. We lounged on cushions in Tomoaki Suzuki’s room of tiny but lifelike figurative sculptures, carved in limewood and modelled on everyday people he encountered on the streets of Hackney. Walking along corridors charged with light, we came across works donated by Tracey Emin and Grayson Perry, as well as a very British view of the Devonshire Park tennis club, which hosts the annual Aegon International tournament (June).
An afternoon tea delight
If you find yourself in Eastbourne out of season, nothing beats afternoon tea in the fire-warmed living room of The Grand. In this vast, white, Victorian wedding cake of a five-star hotel, £22 buys several heady hours’ worth of fresh baking scones and jasmine tea, and the impression of being in an Agatha Christie novel for the afternoon.
To walk off the scones, we set off for Beachy Head, an hour’s walk along a stunning stretch of coast that changes from tree-lined promenade into groyne-ribbed beach, then up narrow steps through landscaped gardens to the wild green rollercoaster of the Downs. The town below may still be half asleep, but there seems to be as much drama in the view from Beachy Head as anywhere in the country as you watch the soft Sussex landscape, like certain characters from ‘Brighton Rock’, come to a sudden and violent end.
Trains run direct to Eastbourne every 15-30 minutes from London Victoria daily, and take around 90 minutes. Return fares from £29.20.
Stay The Big Sleep Hotel (King Edward’s Parade; 01323 72267) The glamour may have faded since this John Malkovich-backed hotel brought a burst of youthful style on a shoestring to Eastbourne’s seafront in 2008 – and some of the decor and staff attitude could do with a spruce-up. But it’s still excellent value for money: big shower, big bed, big sea views, plus a games room and colourful bar. Doubles from £59 per night.
The Waterside Restaurant (11-12 Royal Parade; 01323 646566) Seafood with style and integrity, from scallops with mustard crème brulée to chargrilled bream and artichoke salad. The fish arrives daily from Newhaven, the bread and ice cream is homemade and a bottle of Thai Monsoon Valley will go nicely with everything.
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Seaside: Discover the best of Britain's beaches
Time Out's Seaside guide selects the best beaches in England, Scotland and Wales, up close and personal. Craggy coves and sweeping strands, family favourite and surfers' paradises, sheltered bays and secret islands; here are more than 100 seaside gems brought to life in colour in this gorgeous book.