In the fourth of our series looking at the UK’s smaller and quirkier towns, Abbe Bates visits the East Sussex seaside resort of Bexhill-on-Sea to reveal tales of Napoleonic wars, motor racing moguls, Art Deco earls and an Indian maharajah.
Although the East Sussex town of Bexhill-on-Sea may seem just another sleepy part of the south coast more suited to retirement, the well-manicured and pleasant resort hides an intriguing history that includes the development of the first motor car races, and boasts the iconic 1930s architectural gem that is the De La Warr Pavilion, built by the town’s first socialist mayor as a ‘people’s palace’ and now a nationally-recognised artistic venue.
Bexhill grew up around the railway, which first came to the area in 1846. Before this, it was a manor owned by the church, and was later acquired by Elizabeth I, who granted it to Thomas Sackville, Earl of Dorset, in the 17th century. You can still find remnants of this period, mainly on the site of Manor Gardens, in the small Old Town and in the names of streets such as Sackville Road in the town centre.
During the defensive Napoleonic Wars, 12 Martello towers were erected along Bexhill’s coastline, one of which survives at neighbouring Norman’s Bay, and the town became the base for King William IV’s German Legion (the king hailed from the country).
In 1813, Elizabeth Sackville married the 5th Earl De La Warr and it was their grandson, the 7th Earl, who began the transformation of Bexhill from a small country village into a seaside resort, along with his son the 8th Earl.
Their inspiration for the new Bexhill came from time spent in Monte Carlo and Nice in the Riviera, and they aimed to recreate this opulent style on the Sussex coast. The De La Warr’s building efforts culminated in the opening of the De La Warr Pavilion in 1935 by the 9th Earl as an entertainment venue for the people. Today, it is one of the finest examples of Modernist architecture in the country, and its art exhibitions, concerts and terrace cafe remain the town’s biggest draw for visitors.
For those groups travelling by coach to Bexhill, there is free coach parking on East and West Parades on the seafront, and five free coach bays in Wainwright Road, as well as space in Brockley Road next to the Polegrove Recreation Ground, home of Bexhill Town FC and to a clubhouse built by the author’s grandfather! By train, there are regular direct services from London and along the south coast to Brighton in the west and Hastings and Rye in the east.
Like many small towns, Bexhill is best explored by foot, either on a guided or self-guided walk. An ideal place to start a visit is at Bexhill Museum in Egerton Road, close to Brockley Road, which has benefitted from a £2 million renovation project, re-opening in February 2010. The museum has still retained its original 1903 building but has welcomed the addition of a modern extension and the merger of the Costume Museum, which was formerly at a separate site at Manor Gardens. There are three galleries to explore; the Sargent Gallery contains some of the museum’s founding collections including stone age, bronze age and Egyptian finds, an impressive insect and butterfly collection. The Motor Racing Gallery is devoted to Bexhill’s role as the birthplace of British motor racing and three vehicles are on display; a reproduction steam driven 1902 Serpollet or ‘Easter Egg’, a 1958 mk III Elva sports racing car and the 1993 world record breaker Volta electric car.
The Costume Gallery, meanwhile, displays the collection of the former Costume Museum. Exhibits show the evolution of clothing styles from the 17th century to the present day and the social history of each era is brought to life alongside the outfits with examples of everyday items from the period. Only about 10% of the collection is on display but groups are able to arrange special workshops to view other examples of the collection not on view. Group rates are available on entry, but for a really indepth look at particular aspects of the museum, it is well worth booking a private talk and tour, along with tea and coffee.
Directly behind the museum is Egerton Park, created in 1888. The park offers pleasant walks, a boating lake and tennis courts, and has just opened a new play zone as part of a £1 million facelift, which features a ‘hamster wheel’, zip wire and climbing unit for younger group members, as well as new landscaping and a cafe area.
Making your way from the front of the museum towards the seafront down Park Avenue, you will come to the landmark Clock Tower, which was built to commemorate the coronation of Edward VII in 1902 but wasn’t actually finished until 1904.
Slightly further west on the promenade is the Sovereign Light Cafe, a small cafe selling food and drink that has been a fixture on the seafront since the 1960s and has recently been immortalised in the title of the new single by Keane, the hugely successful pop band that originally hail from nearby Battle.
West Parade, the part of the promenade stretching from just past the Sovereign Light Cafe in the west to the De La Warr Pavilion in the east has recently had an extensive £5 million makeover, dubbed the New Wave. A controversial project at first, now it has been finished it has managed to complement well the existing Edwardian East Parade, with the old 1970s faux-Victorian shelters being replaced by more natural timber structures, pretty plantings selected by noted gardening expert Dr Noel Kingsbury, and added quirks for kids and adults to enjoy, such as a water jet fountain, semi-circular bowl-like seats and horns that magnify the voice when spoken into. A new restaurant in the 1911 Grade II-listed King George V Collonade on West Parade is also being built as part of the project.
Walking east to the end of this new section of the promenade brings you to the jewel in Bexhill’s crown, the De La Warr Pavilion. The vision of the 9th Earl De La Warr, the first hereditary peer to represent the Labour Party and Bexhill’s first socialist mayor, it opened in 1935 after a design competition won by Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chernayeff, and is now widely regarded as one of the best examples of modernist Art Deco architecture in the country and is Grade I-listed. During the last years of the 20th century, the pavilion was in need of significant repair works and funding was eventually secured for an £8 million refurbishment project, with the building re-opening in 2005. Along with an eclectic mix of theatre, music and comedy, a cafe and a roof space often used for events, the venue also houses an art gallery with a significant annual programme of exhibitions. Currently, the artist Richard Wilson has balanced a full-size replica coach over the side of the roof, recreatingthe final scene of the classic 1960s British film The Italian Job. ‘Hang On A Minute Lads, I’ve Got A Great Idea…’ will be in situ until 1st October. The project has been sponsored by one of Bexhill’s most high profile former residents, comedian Eddie Izzard, who grew up in the town and who is a patron of the De La Warr along with sculptot Antony Gormley. Exhibitions coming up next year include displays from Australian artist Shaun Gladwell (February to June) and Turner Prize-winning artist Mark Leckey’s ‘The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things’ (July to October). Groups of 10 or more are able to book private tours of the iconic venue and catering packages can be arranged.
Crossing the Marina in front of the De La Warr brings you to Sackville Road, with its smattering of vintage shops including the Second Spin record store.
On the corner of Sackville Road and Western Road on the right, look out for a red brick building that has been home to the town’s Library since 1951 but was originally opened in 1893 as St Barnabas’ girls school. Western Road also hides one of the town’s best kept secrets, the Curzon Cinema. The only cinema left in Bexhill, the venue was independently-run for several decades and dates from 1921 when it was opened as the Picture Playhouse. There is currently a campaign underway to save the site, which has since been sold to property developers who want to demolish it in favour of new housing, meaning Bexhill could soon be saying goodbye to a unique part of its history.
Turning left at the end of Western Road into Devonshire Square, you will pass the 1930s Post Office on your right. Crossing the railway bridge opposite the Post Office brings you out onto Station Road, at the bottom of which is Town Hall Square. Look out for the imposing Town Hall, which was opened in 1895, by the then Lord Mayor of London. Across the road from the town hall on Amherst Road stands the equally impressive building of the London and County Bank, completed in 1898. It is now used for offices. You can still clearly see its original title on the outside of the building and the initial ‘LCB’ can be picked out on the weathervane.
To the west of Town Hall Square, along Terminus Road, you will find the old West Bexhill Station, which ceased to operate as a railway stop in the 1960s after the Beeching reforms. It is now an impressive antiques centre called Eras of Style, which moved here in 2011. The centre sells a quirky mix of ephemera mainly ranging from the Georgian period to the 20th century, including oddities such as vintage fairground items. There is ample parking at the site and coaches can be accommodated with prior warning, with a cafe welcoming groups for a tea or coffee before or after exploring the wares.
To the east of Town Hall Square, along Buckhurst Road and turning left into Upper Sea Road brings you into Bexhill’s Old Town, which features a mix of Georgian and 16th century buildings. As you come to the top of the hill, to your left is the small High Street, featuring Hanover House where German soldiers were once housed in the Napoleonic Wars, whilst to the right stands Quakersmill with its rather grand exterior clock, now a beauty salon, but once a warehouse and grain store dating from the early 1800s.
Opposite Quakersmill is Manor Gardens. This was once the site of a 14th century manor house – home to the Sackville family – which became derelict and was partly torn down in 1968. Plans to develop an insensitive block of flats were thwarted by an enlightened Superintendent of Parks and Gardens, who decided to create a series of gardens around the ruins in the 1970s, which can still be enjoyed today.
Crossing from Manor Gardens into Church Street brings you the picturesque St Peter’s Church, built on the site of a former Saxon building, and parts of which date from the 12th century. It also features an 8th century reliquary stone and can be visited as part of a local history walk organised by Bexhill Museum.
The motoring connection
Bexhill can claim a place in history as the ‘Birthplace of British Motor Racing’. It all began on 19th May 1902, when the 8th Earl De La Warr encouraged the Automobile Club of Great Britain and Ireland to organise the ‘Great Whitsuntide Motor Races’. Having business interests in the tyre making firm Dunlop had led the Earl to create a Bicycle Boulevard on the seafront in 1896, which stretched from the Sackville Hotel in the west to Galley Hill in the east. He turned this bicycle track into a one-kilometre motor racing course in 1902 as, being his own private land, it was exempt from the national speed limit of 12 miles per hour. The races helped bolster his attempts to put Bexhill on the same level as Monte Carlo as a seaside resort for the jet set, and was the first motor racing seen in this country. The 1902 races were won by French driver Leon Serpollent in his steam car Easter Egg, which reached a speed of 55 miles an hour (a replica can be seen at Bexhill Museum). The motoring events lasted until 1907, when the Brooklands motor racing circuit was opened in Surrey, co-inciding with Bexhill residents finally getting fed up with the noise of the infernal contraption engine!
A Motoring Heritage Trail in Bexhill was inaugurated this June, 110 years after the first motor racing time trials were held. The self-guided trail explains the history of motor-racing in Bexhill and has five information boards at regular intervals along the sea front, from Galley Hill to Cooden. The five panels are situated at the bottom of Galley Hill, outside the Sackville Hotel, by the Bexhill War Memorial (at the bottom of Sea Road), at Bexhill Museum and next to the Cooden Beach Hotel. A walk from one end to the other would be a distance of three miles, but parking is easy for coaches and groups could be dropped at Galley Hill and picked up at Cooden.
The Maharajah of Cooch Behar
One of Bexhill’s quirkier links is also worth a mention. Cooch Behar was an Indian state under the government of Bengal at the turn of the 20th century and its Maharajah at the time was a great proponent of sports. He created strong links between Britain and India, particularly by bringing British wrestlers over to the sub-continent and helping to develop the game of snoooker in the UK. He came to Bexhill to try and recover from poor health in 1911 but died in the town that September. Although he had not long been a resident, he received perhaps the most lavish funeral Bexhill has ever seen, with full military honours bestowed by King George V. A memorial fountain in Bexhill was dedicated two years to the day after his death and stood on the site that the De La Warr Pavilion now occupies. The memorial was moved to Egerton Park to make way for the De La Warr Pavillion and taken away for restoration in the 1960s. It never re-appeared and its final resting place remains a mystery.
Tours and Trails
The author was taken on her tour of Bexhill by her father, Neil Bates, a very knowledgeable volunteer at Bexhill Museum. The museum celebrates its centenary in 2014 and, in preparation for this, there will be a series of four heritage trails available from next year, to be walked in various areas of the town, which will focus on points of historical interest. Each trail will have an accompanying leaflet and, if booked in advance, groups can be taken around by a museum volunteer. The museum’s local history group also organises six regular walks annually, which groups can book onto, and is also able to offer private guided walks to groups of 20 or more on a subject of their choice.
To book contact Julian Porter, curator of the museum. Tel 01424 787950, email firstname.lastname@example.org, web www.bexhillmuseum.co.uk
A web-based interactive Keane Trail is also in development featuring key points in the local area, such as the Sovereign Light Cafe, which relate to the band’s experiences of growing up in the area.
For those who prefer two wheels to two feet, a new cycle path, the Bulverhythe Coastal Link opened in January and stretches 1.4 miles from Hastings Promenade to Galley Hill in Bexhill. There are plans to extend the route onto Bexhill seafront, with cyclists sharing the route with walkers.
If you are thinking of visiting Bexhill for a tour, why not coincide it with a visit to the Bexhill Sea Angling Festival. The inaugural event is to take place between 15th and 23rd September this year, and it is hoped to become an annual fixture in the town. The festival aims to promote angling as a past-time, highlight the fishing opportunities along the Sussex coast and emphasise the link between sustainable fishing and healthy eating. As well as fishing matches, it will feature an extensive exhibition and food area, where groups can purchase fresh seafood dishes and watch top chefs at work. It will be based on the Metropole Lawn, West Parade, next to the De La Warr Pavilion.
Groups wanting further information on Bexhill-on-Sea can contact:
Group Travel, Marketing Department, Hastings Borough Council, Aquila House, Breeds Place, Hastings TN34 3UY
Tel 01424 451113