When I said I was moving lock, stock and barrel to the south coast, most of my friends (all dyed-in-the-wool Londoners) thought I had taken leave of my senses.
I was moving down to St Leonards-on-Sea, near Bexhill, blue rinse home of Zimmers and care homes. In other words, a place we go to retire; the first step on to the Stannah stairlift to heaven.
To be fair to them, they had a point. I had lived in London for 35 years and was a dedicated urbanite, always dressed in black, with an Oyster card permanently in my back pocket and a geographical knowledge of the back streets of the city that drove cab drivers mad.
Then a divorce and my only child off to university, ergo a lonely empty nester doing, as they say, “a geographical” to escape the harsh realities of middle age.
I’d be bored. I’d be lonely. What would I do?
Walk by the sea. Eat sparkling fresh fish every day (nearby Hastings is still a working fishing port, where you can buy fish straight from the boats). Have barbeques on the beach. Indulge my passion for antique shops and vintage furniture. As for work, as a writer and journalist, I can live anywhere with a high-speed broadband connection. But it was the sea, really, which was the draw. I spent my childhood in the Middle East and Africa and if I was to grow old anywhere, it had to be by the sea.
“Well, you can always change your mind and come back,” they said.
I could, except I had a secret – one of which is fast being discovered – and that is the glorious architecture of St Leonards, built by James and Decimus Burton, who designed houses around Bloomsbury and Regent’s Park, the layout of Hyde Park, and the Palm House at Kew, to mention but a few.
I wasn’t downsizing to a bungalow; I was upscaling to a four-storey Georgian house, in a terrace of candy-coloured houses overlooking communal gardens; Notting Hill meets Hampstead (before the yummy mummies, designer shops and madly expensive restaurants throttled all the life out of it). And where else could I live with two roof terraces looking directly out to sea, for the price of a tiny one-bedroom London flat?
Then there is the thriving artistic community of journalists, writers, designers and photographers, many of whom I already knew (I am not so mad, or brave, as to move to a place where I knew nobody). They were drawn here, as I was, by the shimmering light and huge skies. One photographer, ex-Vogue and Saatchi’s, borrowed a flat for a few months and discovered he couldn’t leave. Every night, there is a private view of photography or art (no invitation needed) and every summer, hundreds of artists open their studios to whoever wants to wander in.
Hastings old town, with its winding streets, medieval cottages and Victorian villas, is a five-minute drive away, and far from being sleepy, is abuzz with jazz bars, cafés and boutiques where, deep breath, people actually talk to you. This cynical Londoner spent two months in a state of shock every time somebody smiled. I can wander into my local pub, the Horse and Groom (known affectionately as the Doom and Gloom) and be greeted by name. It takes me half an hour to walk down the main street. As in most small communities, there is the usual gossip but, as a friend puts it, “Down here, everybody knows your business, but nobody gives a fuck.”
In high summer, Hastings seafront, with its usual jumble of lurid amusement arcades, fish and chips and crazy golf is to be avoided. But the promenade at St Leonards, with its shabby, faded, grandeur, is wonderfully peaceful. Sure, there are boarded-up shops and carpet discount stores (secrets come at a price) but scattered among them are bars and cafés where you can sit and watch the herring gulls wheel across blue skies stretching above a shimmering sea.
As for my London friends who come to stay (there’s nothing like a seaside home for scoring high on the popularity stakes) they either say “now I understand why you moved” or hotfoot it to the local estate agents. They love the place, as much as I do, for its Bohemia edge and laid-back atmosphere and the simple fact that I can step out of my front door and be on the beach two minutes later.
Local folklore has it that nobody can leave St Leonards unless they find a pebble with a hole in it and chuck it into the sea. The other day, I found one, right next to the Banksy painted on the sea wall, and dropped it safely back on the beach. Somebody else might want it but I am forever happy by the sea.
The best bars, restaurants, pubs and hotels
Pier Nine at the Zanzibar Hotel: 01424 460109
Horse and Groom: 01424 420616
St Clements: 01424 200355
Bar Blah: 01424 444481
Smiths: 07526 718432
The Love Café: 07782 198906
The Little Larder: 01424 424364
The Post Office Tea Rooms: 01424 718985
Azur: 01424 752449
Taj Mahal South Indian Cuisine: 01424 431501
The Dragon Bar: 01424 423 655
Webbes: 01424 721650
Jenny Lind: 01424 421392
The Old Rectory hotel: 01424 422410
Swan House hotel: 01424 430014
The three best luxury B&Bs
The Old Rectory, Hastings: 01424 422410
Swan House, Hastings: 01424 430014
Zanzibar Hotel: 01424 460109