Beside the Seaside
As soon as seaside getaways hit the steam train timetables of 19th-century England, smog-choked Londoners began escaping for a breath of fresh air to coastal towns like Hastings, Margate and Brighton. Although low-cost overseas package vacations later dampened this homegrown holiday romance, many of these unpretentious beach communities have risen again in recent years, blending British seaside nostalgia with a frothy wave of nifty new lures.
It’s lunchtime at Maggie’s Fish & Chips in Hastings and the pine tables are crammed with chatty diners feasting on piled-high plates of golden-fried cod and haddock. The sharp aroma of malt vinegar splashed on thick-cut chips and tartar sauce slathered on butter-soft fish sends scented invitations along Rock-a-Nore Road, hooking the hungry in a way that hasn’t changed in decades.
“This has always been a traditional fish and chip café,” says Maggie’s co-owner Lindsay Wright, adding that local-caught plaice and skate are also popular with regulars. Moving from London 17 years ago, she took over the beloved beachfront ‘chippie’ in 2016 and hasn’t looked back. “Hastings is a special place and I’m very proud to call it my home.”
Just 88 km southeast of London and with a story stretching back centuries—1066’s famous Battle of Hastings was fought nearby—the town serves a fudge-thick slab of vintage seaside customs. Stripy deckchairs can often be hired on its lengthy sand and pebble beach, while nearby shops bristle with shell trinkets and neon-pink rock candy sticks.
There are also many reminders of a rich fishing provenance, especially in the Old Town area where Maggie’s sits. Home to the Shipwreck Museum and Fishermen’s Museum – the latter in a former church – rows of tall, black-painted net storage huts (called ‘net shops’ here) face a gaggle of scuffed boats balanced incongruously on the pebbly shore. Britain’s largest beach-launched fishing fleet still operates from here, as it has done for centuries.
Historically, Hastings’ fishermen lived along the cobbled streets nearby. But these days its gabled buildings are home to browse-worthy bookstores, vintage shops and wood-beamed bars. There’s also a 1902-built funicular railway, which shimmies up the adjoining cliff like a pair of misplaced garden sheds, providing panoramic views over the town and its wave-licked waterfront.
Back at beach-level, a more recent addition has been hooking visitors since opening day in 2012. The striking Jerwood Gallery – encased in shiny black tiles that echo the net huts – specializes in modern, mostly British art. “We’re a cultural hub hosting high quality contemporary exhibitions,” explains gallery director Liz Gilmore.
The Jerwood, she adds, isn’t the only new spot to check out. Hastings Pier reopened in 2016 after being ravaged by fire, and it’s since won a national Pier of the Year award and – more surprisingly – the UK’s prestigious Stirling Prize for architecture. It’s very popular locally, says Gilmore, adding that it’s a wonderful place to stroll and let the briny air blow away your stress.
Grand piers were once obligatory seaside attractions. But Margate – 106 km east of London – went further to entertain its Victorian visitors. Steps from the beach, its Hall by the Sea pleasure gardens delivered roundabout rides, circus performers and a menagerie of exotic animals, including lions and elephants. Later becoming a fairground-style park, Dreamland faded and then closed in 2006—only to be reopened in 2015 after a sparkling transformation.
Glorying in British seaside nostalgia – you can still see the old menagerie cages – the recreated park offers sideshows, ice-cream and seafood stands and dozens of restored rides from different decades. There’s a 1930s motorcycle carousel, 1970s dodgem cars and the Scenic Railway, an undulating, heritage-protected wooden rollercoaster that’s been here since the 1920s.
But the restored attraction isn’t stuck in the past, says Rebecca Ellis, Dreamland’s director of events and programming. “We’ve also got live music, pop-up entertainment and interactive art installations here – it’s all the fun of a festival with unexpected twists.”
It’s not the only reason to hit town. Turner Contemporary – a landmark gallery near the spot where watercolourist JMW Turner once lived – opened to great acclaim here in 2011. Steps from several clamorous slot machine arcades, it’s next to Margate’s much-loved beach. “If you haven’t stepped on the sand, you haven’t been to Margate,” says Ellis of the golden crescent often seen as the town’s top attraction.
Also facing the beach is the Two Halves, a small, ever-busy storefront bar. Opened by Shaun Smethers in 2015, it’s a leading light of Kent’s effervescent micropub scene: an array of diminutive watering holes dedicated to great beer and a friendly welcome. “We have real ale from here and across the UK but our line-up changes weekly – up to nine casks and 15 ciders on summer days,” he says.
Savvy sippers should aim for an early evening visit. “We have the best sunsets in the world right outside our door,” says Smethers, adding that he’s never thought of living anywhere else but Margate. “It’s always been a friendly place with a great beach – and besides, my great-grandfather had the first bathing hut here!”
These traditional huts – where you can change into swimming costumes or just hangout in comfort at the beach – sometimes sell for more than $30,000 in Brighton, 77 km due south of London. Despite the town’s infamously pebbly beach, there’s a bulging bucketful of reasons to visit – including the eye-popping Royal Pavilion, a turreted, onion-domed confection with a unique seaside story to tell.
It was built more than 200 years ago by George IV as his party palace escape from London, says Rob White, a Brightonian working in the Pavilion’s marketing office. “It’s unlike any other UK historic house. Its exterior is inspired by Indian designs and its interior by Chinese designs – it’s massively extravagant and flamboyant.”
The result – from gilded ceilings to dragon-encircled chandeliers – is the ultimate seaside house museum. “Ever since it was built, Brighton has had a reputation as somewhere to escape for fun and relaxation,” says White. “These days, the town is lively, laid-back and open-minded, setting us apart from other UK beach places.”
It’s an attitude that helped establish one of Britain’s oldest LGBTQ scenes, including a giant celebratory pride parade staged here every August. It also underpins the huge popularity of Brighton Palace Pier, a boisterous fairground-on-stilts jutting 525 metres over the water. On bright summer days, thousands flock to its dodgems, rollercoasters and seafood stands, while greedy gulls coast alongside watching for carelessly dropped chips.
Shopping, though, runs a close second for Brighton pleasure-seekers. Hundreds of eclectic independent stores line the labyrinthine Lanes and North Laine areas, including busy Brighton Books, cool clothes shop Wolf & Gypsy Vintage and record store favourite Resident Music. But visitors with sweet treats in mind head straight to Choccywoccydoodah.
The bohemian chocolate shop’s red-walled interior is like a well-curated art gallery lined with tall baroque cakes and tables of decadent confectionary. And as salivating fans circle the fruit creams and chocolate popcorn lollies, most eventually leave with some decadent treats to-go, pretending they’ll be packing them home to share.
Spending her days designing, making and selling these “crazy chocolates and cakes,” cofounder and die-hard Brighton fan Christine Taylor thinks the town is the perfect spot for an inventive enterprise like hers. “I don’t think we could do this anywhere else: this is such an artistic city with tons of original thinkers.”
It’s that sugar-rich seam of creative energy that appeals to many Brighton visitors – and ensures there’s always something new to discover here. You have to give yourself plenty of time to explore the hidden gems, says Taylor. “And when you’re done exploring, make sure you stroll our seafront and meet some of the great people who live here.”