Exploring our East Sussex Coast

Exploring our East Sussex Coast


One of our most popular speakers, Dr Geoffrey Mead of the School of Global Studies, University of Sussex—and a Rye Museum trustee – returned on Thursday, February 8th to regale a full  audience with stories behind the resorts on our Sussex coast.  All who came will look at any of our seaside towns with new eyes on future visits – and probably decide to explore some new ones, using the multi-layered vision acquired during the talk with its myriad images presented via word and screen.

What all of our seaside towns have in common is obvious: they all face the same body of water.  Less obvious are all the geographical features and historical events  which make each one so different from the others:  rock and soil types;  chalk cliffs, beaches – of pebble, shingle, sand;  storms, coastal erosion, silting up of rivers;   changing patterns of fishing and agricultural and seafaring activities,  trade (or lack of it), visits of royalty and celebrities, ease of transport from London, types of accommodation needed or wanted . . . . .  As we dipped in and out of Sussex coastal towns (with occasional forays to others elsewhere in Britain for comparison) we became more and more aware of the interplay of multiple influences shaping each town’s history and present day appearance and life.

With Londoners wanting to escape pollution and adulterated food for some sea, air and sun without spending 10 hours on bad roads to get to Brighton, roads and transport improved. By the end of the 18th century 40 coaches a day made the trip, and then came the railways, and Brighton Station which became that town’s biggest employer.  A time of agricultural depression coincided with a need for workers to service the increasing number of seafront hotels; the workers needed accommodation too. And to bring in more visitors meant adding more attractions:  bathing pools and Punch  and Judy shows, water sports and boat tours, plenty of eateries and shops and even a racecourse or the biggest acquarium in Europe. . 

We appreciated anew the contrasts among the grandeur of Victorian seafront hotels in Eastbourne, Europe’s largest beach-launched fishing fleet whose wooden huts and drying nets have been part of the Hastings shore for centuries, and next to these  the award winning Jerwood Gallery featuring 20th and 21st century British art;  the elegance of Regency Hove;  Brighton’s Pavilion — its 18th century oriental palace —  and the views from Brighton Pier;    the cobbled streets of Rye which is no longer right on the sea;  beachside settlements of bungalows, shacks and railway carriages;  museums telling tales of the region’s sunken ships and seafaring history from the times of William the Conqueror and then the Cinque Ports to today . . . .  

But such comparisons point up something else many of the towns share in common besides the sea, and that is their aptitude for reinvention.  An outstanding example is Hastings pier, first opened in 1872,  fire damaged in 1917, rebuilt,  a popular away-day from London in the 1930s, a landing place for WWII Belgian refugees,  periodically derelict and revived, victim of arson in 2010,   and  thanks in large part to local people- power again reborn to be voted people’s pier of the year in 2017 and then win the year’s prestigious Riba Stirling architecture prize for the UK’s best new building pavilion  (though it still needs people power to keep it going).    

We were treated to scores of examples both of multiple influences and of reinventions.

Next time you visit – or just pass through – a Sussex seaside town,  look around you, think, and start listing the  influences of geography and history you can see that make it what it is today.  (You might even want to fact check to find out how right you are – and what you’ve missed.)

Jean Floyd

Photo of Hastings Pier © Paul Lawrenson of Lawrenson Photography, with special thanks from the Museum.

First posted in Featured on 13th February 2018
Last updated: 11th May 2018