During lockdown, many of us made the pilgrimage back to our family homes – and rediscovered them through fresh eyes. Part guide, part love letter, “Home towns” is a new series in which we celebrate where we’re from.
If I had a penny for every time someone had responded with “I thought only old people lived there” after I’d revealed my hometown, I’d have a porker-size piggy bank fit to burst. Despite gritting my teeth (all my own, by the way), the opening gambit has now worn tissue-paper thin.
Admittedly, some of its charm passed me by when I was growing up in Eastbourne. I dreaded enforced downland walks during days spent with my aunt and uncle, longing to be back at home with my nose buried in a pony book. In my teenage years I wished I could head to the discos in edgy and exciting Brighton, a then-unattainable 19 miles away, rather than having to make do with what I perceived to be the boring counterparts in its genteel coastal cousin.
But Eastbourne doesn’t deserve the ‘God’s waiting room’ rap. Brighton University has a campus in the town and, as more families with young children are lured to a life beside the seaside, the latest figures from the National Office for Statistics show the average age is 45.8 (the median age for the whole of the UK is 40.3).
Since 1993 yachties have been drawn to the town with the opening of Sovereign Harbour, northern Europe’s largest marina complex with a waterfront lined with restaurants and bars. On a fine day (and with a bit of imagination) you could be in the South of France. And in 2009 the Towner Art Gallery relocated to a striking new building, the largest purpose-built gallery in the southeast. Numerous accolades include winning prizes for its bold architecture along with the 2020 Art Fund’s Museum of the Year award. Round the corner, at Devonshire Park, the annual Eastbourne International tennis tournament, the traditional warm-up for Wimbledon, is back this year in a socially distanced format.
The seemingly endless blue sky summers we all nostalgically remember from childhood were actually a reality in my case
Some things, however, remain reassuringly the same. Strict covenants put in place by wealthy land-owning families when the town was developed as a resort in Victorian times mean no shops are allowed on the seafront, so the grand mansions lining the promenade, now hotels and flats, are pretty much unchanged. In fact, the film company behind the 2010 remake of Brighton Rock chose Eastbourne as a stand-in because Brighton had changed so much since the original classic was shot in 1948.
Like any decent seaside town, there’s a pier. Opened in 1872, some of the pavilions have come and gone – the latter most dramatically through devastating fires in 1970 and 2014. There were mutterings when the domes were painted gold by the new owner, a local hotelier with a penchant for bling, but I love the way they vie to out-glitter the sea sparkling below.
The seemingly endless blue sky summers we all nostalgically remember from childhood were actually a reality in my case, as Eastbourne consistently tops the chart for having more sunny days than anywhere else in the UK. And I certainly enjoyed the benefit of that again during last year’s hot lockdown summer, with both the seafront and Downs within walking distance of my front door.
The tired old perception that Eastbourne is for the elderly – usually voiced by people who have never set foot here – is way past its sell by date. Here’s how to enjoy a visit, no matter what your age.
Little Chelsea Antiques Emporium (which advertises “time wasters welcome”) and Camilla’s Bookshop, with second-hand volumes filling every inch of space, are among the idiosyncratic shops in conjoined Grove Road and South Street. Close by, the Eastbourne Enterprise Centre has all manner of eclectic outlets inside a former Victorian railway shed.
Giving omnipresent big chains a run for their money, a host of independently run cafes have sprung up in and around the town centre. Skylark showcases local produce and has great veggie and vegan options, and at nearby DOC former GP Elif Serdar prescribes all manner of treats, including an all-day breakfast. For the purrfect dining companions, the 1940s-themed Mad Catter Vintage Cat Cafe offers 50-minute times slots for cakes and cuddles with its cute feline residents. And make a call at one of the newest, quirkiest – and smallest – coffee shops housed in an old telephone kiosk by the pier.
Have a pint
Tucked away in the Old Town, a 12-minute walk from the railway station or leafy stroll through Gildredge Park, the black and white timbered Lamb Inn has been slaking thirsts since 1240 (with original cellars dating back to 1180) and is the oldest watering hole in town. In the 1830s, Charles Dickens used to drop by to host theatrical events. It’s an atmospheric spot to sup a pint of Sussex Best or seasonal cask ale from local Harvey’s Brewery and tuck into a Harvey’s-flavoured steak pie or burger.
Walk this way
Established in 2010, the South Downs National Park is the county’s newest national park. Eastbourne marks the start (or finish) of the 100-mile South Downs Way. Although I’m not suggesting you go all the way to Winchester, it’s well worth the lung-bursting pull from Eastbourne to take in stupendous, far-reaching views from 530ft Beachy Head, Britain’s highest chalk sea cliff, with the red and white lighthouse nestled below. Perching on top of the cliffs is the old Belle Tout lighthouse, built in 1832 and now a B&B with a view for guests with a head for heights. Carry on to Birling Gap, with a well-earned break at the National Trust cafe, and you’ll meet the sibling rollercoaster cliffs known as the Seven Sisters. Helpful hint: For an easier option catch the hop-on hop-off bus from the pier.
Dominating the western end of the seafront, The Grand is the only five-star hotel on the British coastline. Since 1875 it’s been hosting illustrious guests such as Winston Churchill, Arthur Conan Doyle and Claude Debussy, who composed his seaside symphony La Mer in Suite 200 in 1905. Today it combines old-style grandeur and modern luxury, with a lovely outdoor pool and suites overlooking the sea. Restaurants include the serene Mirabelle with sophisticated seasonal dishes and a seven-course tasting menu. Doubles from £165, B&B.