I woke a minute before my mobile phone alerted me to the fact that it was 6.30. Last night Mirinda wondered if I’d be starting my walk in the dark and I blithely assured her that the sun would be well and truly risen. Yeah right! The suspected sea-view from my window was still shrouded n black. By the time I’d dressed and repacked my bulging pack, a glimmer of light had appeared on the horizon glowing an ominous red. When I left the hotel lobby at 7.10 a grey overcast morning had started to dawn.
I set off along the chilly waterfront, accompanied by council workers and dog walkers – who the hell gets up to walk a dog at 7 on a Saturday morning? Insanity. I stopped at a handy bench and unsealed my sausage and tasty pickle sandwich (which wasn’t) and ate breakfast while watching the only fragment of sun vanish behind the fusty clouds. Suitably sated, with taste-buds unsullied, I started walking towards Hastings Old Town.
Anyone who knows their history will realise this is where Bill the Bastard landed in 1066 and had Harold shot in the eye to eventually become King. There’s a theory that he only landed here because a massive storm prevented his landing at Southampton. Otherwise British history could be very different! He took over a Roman palace, making it a castle and so Hastings grew.
The French burnt it down twice. Once in 1339 and then, trying to finish the job, in 1377. In Saxon times it was a sizeable harbour and the most westerly of the Cinque Ports but it lost its harbour in the Middle Ages and became the beach that is there today. Even so, quite huge ships were still built on and launched from the beaches. Today the only boats are for fishing and they launch from the Old Town end every day.
I walked through an odd assortment of summer attractions, ghostly and forlorn in their winter clothes; a small gauge railway snaking through it all. Standing by the fishing boat end are tall, black towers. These are Tudor net drying towers used to hang the wet herring and mackerel nets after a good days fishing. They are no longer used but add a certain charm to the beachfront.
Across the road were the Tamarisk Steps, my first ascent of the day. The steps commemorate the profusion of tamarisk which once grew all over the side of East Cliff. These steps wind up between a few buildings via narrow lanes and lead onto the main steps leading up to the start of the Hasting Country Park. The funicular laughed at my exertions as I passed by its Victorian housing.
Looking back from the eventually gained summit, Hastings spread out, giving an idea of how big it really is. The country park is 660 acres of ancient woodland, heathland and grassland which wind along the top of the cliffs, and was declared a country park in 1971 and is home to many animal and insect species including dormice. There’s also regular sightings of stoats, weasels and dolphins.
Container ships sailed slowly along the horizon and a few fishing boats dotted the sea closer to shore as I walked along the cliff edge. The Saxon Shore Way begins in Hastings and follows the cliff, though a low fence and shrubs screen the drop.
I saw a lot of dog walkers in the country park, taking full advantage of the empty, open space. Many ‘mornin’s were exchanged. A series of glens populate the valleys between the cliffs, full of oak and beech. They appear to be heavily managed climax woodland, to me (thank you, Lalage).
Climbing up and down the valley’s was a LOT of hard work! The steps are cut quite deep and attempted to ruin my knees. I was forced into indulging in a few rests, I have to admit.
Eventually I arrived at Fire Hill. I have no idea why it’s called Fire Hill. Apart from the huge Fairlight Coastguard Radar Station, it just looks like all the others I’d climbed this morning.
From Fire Hill I began a descent into Fairlight. A couple of interesting facts: Vervain, Fairlight has a petrol bowser in the front room and Hastings best kept secret is ‘Oxtober 1’.
Lots of the coastal paths are closed due to the ever-weakening cliff tops and ever-decreasing land. I had to backtrack a few times, ending up in a small National Trust field which rose steeply to a ridge and narrow path which took me down to the road to Pett Village. After a slight wrong turn and complete change of direction, I ended up at the Smuggler’s, Cliff End.
A few pints of the glorious Harveys later, I was off down the Royal Military Canal, heading for Winchelsea, the pronunciation of which I am a bit hazy on but I settle for Win Chelsea, as this is what I wish all the time. It was about this time that the rain started, drizzly and annoying.
These days the canal is a slight, miserable affair, slicing through the pastures of the Pett Levels in straight lines as if designed by a Roman engineer. This odd stretch of man-made river has a funny history. In the late 1700s, the British government was a bit concerned about Napoleon and felt sure he’d try and attack England. The military geniuses of the time considered the South Coast a likely target and faered that the lack of defences made it an easier target than it already was. Then a bright spark suggested a canal. Yes, I know it’s the obvious answer.
So work commenced in 1804 and took 2 years to dig about 30 miles of canal. The idea was that it would hamper an invader making an army either stop and build bridges or get very wet – not something you’d want to do on England’s south coast, as I was finding out in my non-waterproof waterproof. Amazingly the canal was built on time and on budget – a feat rarely managed – and it stood waiting to defy the French army.
Of course, by the time it was completed, Napoleon had decided to attack the canal-less Austria instead.
As William Pitt was the prime minister at the time, the canal was quickly dubbed ‘Pitts Ditch’ and sat meaninglessly idle. It was variously used for transport and pleasure for a while but, as usually happens to canals, eventually the railway put an end to any usefulness it MAY have had. It all looks pretty much silted up now and unnavigable, watched over by cows, sheep and dog walkers. It has been described as the longest folly in history.
One fantastic thing about any canal is the flatness of the towpath and my feet and knees almost cheered at the easy going. Ignoring the rain, I soon covered the miles to the Bridge Pub, on the outskirts of Winchelsea. I was sorely tempted to wet the old whistle but a train was due soon (with an hour wait for the next) so I set off for the short walk up to the station where, alone on the tiny single platform, I stripped off my wet layers and sheltered in the shed. Having 20 minutes to wait (damn, I could have had that beer!) I spread out my gear, hoping no-one else would want to use the one man shelter. It helped…a little.
Winchelsea, as the name implies, was once a sea port. The whole level area I was walking over made up the harbour in Medieval times but then, in the 14th century, it silted up. When it was a port it was THE major port in Sussex, being regularly raided by the French. Huge storms in King Edward I’s reign destroyed most of it so he ordered it rebuilt on Iham Hill, where it now sits.
The train, when it came, was the loveliest I’ve ever seen. It was so new I was surprised the plastic wasn’t still on the seats. The guard was very friendly and couldn’t have been more helpful, even telling me what time and platform my train to Waterloo would be at Hastings. And then, from the sublime to the ridiculous…my train to Waterloo was a prehistoric slam-door. When it was announced as arriving 3 minutes late, a man exploded at his wife, furious at this – obviously NOT a seasoned rail traveller – and snapped and snarled all the way to High Broome.
A very well dressed couple on their way to a charity ball, joined the train and gradually became more and more agitated as the train was diverted because of engineering works. When we finally arrived at London Bridge, the guard announced “My apologies but I’ve just been told we’re terminating here. The next train to Charing Cross will leave from…” but we didn’t hear anymore as the totally packed train rapidly emptied.
I didn’t have to wait long for my ONE STOP train and then a quick hop to Waterloo for a nice train home to Haslemere. Managed to get home at 8 to Mirinda’s wonderful tuna casserole and some lovely ice cream.