The end of the line
By Katharine Luke
Hastings, East Sussex, is a town firmly at the "end of the line". Only 60-odd miles from London, but it might as well be a million miles. On the south coast approximately half way between Brighton and Dover, Hastings lies in what the local tourism people have reconstructed as "1066 Country", in deference to William the Conqueror, Harold and the arrow in that eye ... and their power to bring income to the area, over nine centuries on. But the battle of Hastings didn't even take place at the town itself, but several miles north close to the town which now marks its past with the name Battle.
Hastings is surrounded by picturesque Wealden scenery and villages, but seemingly cut off from the considerable affluence of rural Sussex and Kent. Ruralites venture into Hastings only if they absolutely can't avoid it and hold their noses whilst doing so. People who live a little way along the coast take care that you should know that they live in Bexhill-on-Sea or St Leonards, but definitely not in Hastings. Since Victorian seaside splendour started to fade - whenever that was - the town has carved out a reputation for itself as one of the Dole-on-Sea resorts, to which unemployed people, mainly young, came in search of sunshine and the possibility of seasonal work. Somewhere along the line, the town also offered itself as a haven for London's social outcasts: people with special needs for whom metropolitan life was not doing any favours. The ideal was of rehabilitation and integration into the tolerant seaside community, and there has been success on this front. But many now point to the downside of this socially responsible approach. The murder in February 1997 of a 13-year-old schoolgirl in broad daylight in her back garden prompted the national press, notably the tabloids, to descend en masse to Hastings and give the town a thorough drubbing. Hastings was portrayed as a "haven for junkies and perverts", home to a "roaming army of alcoholics and beggars" and a town "plagued by crime" ... all in all, "Hell-on-Sea".
To its credit, the borough council is determined to make the best of a bad job. Under a campaign with the slogan, "Hastings is looking up", they do what they can to put the town back on its feet. If you say it often enough, and believe in it, it will happen. A new shopping centre opens in March 1997, as part of an attempt to attract investment to the area. There are moves to clean up the dodgy seawater along the beach and despite this, Hastings has remained a popular seaside resort. In summer, weekend traffic queues stretch to and from the coast, bringing car and caravan loads of south Londoners for a good bit of beach relaxation. And relaxation is exactly what's needed after a couple of hours on the snail trail: the excruciating A21 to London that is Hastings' main link to the outside world. There are very few places now in the south east that have such poor communications. Slam-door trains are still a feature of an archaic, shabby train service that can take 1h45 to reach London. And the south coast road is still slow and unimproved, as it passes Hastings. In summer visitors from France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands also take their place on the roads; and routine local journeys become a nightmare.
You either love it or you hate it. It's strange to live in a town where the antics of a big Lottery winner preoccupy the local paper week after week. In the early days of the Lottery, Hastings man Mark Gardiner shared a £22 million jackpot with a business partner. Money is power and in the land of the not-very-wealthy the man with £11 million is king. Happily, Mark seems content to plough some of his dosh directly or indirectly into the community; and the local paper have themselves a story that will run and run (at least until the money runs out).
On the nightlife front, it's not a great scene. According to the local paper, parents would rather their offspring went to Eastbourne rather than risk a night out in Hastings. A few clubs, a lot of pubs, a 3 screen cinema and a couple of theatres are what's on offer. Anyone crying out for something a bit more specialised, will just have to cry ... or make the trek to Brighton or London.
Moving swiftly on to matters football (sorry if the first bit was boring), there's not a lot of local action. The menu of available fare is topped by Hastings Town of the Dr Martens League Premier Division (Hertfordshire's Baldock Town also play in this division). Currently they are bouncing along the bottom together with Chelmsford. Curiously (I don't know the history to this), the other major local team, St Leonards Stamcroft - who play one level lower in the Dr Martens Southern Division (e.g. Buckingham) - have a ground right next door to Hastings Town's stadium. This begs the question, why don't they combine to create some higher force? The closest league team is Brighton, and the only other league team outside south London is Gillingham.
Which brings me to the realities of following Watford from deepest Sussex. A couple of weeks before I wrote this, the Golden Boys were away at Gillingham. Aha, I thought, a local game - a welcome change from the two hour trek to Herts. But all in, including parking a million miles from the Priestfield stadium, it took that long to do the trip. When Watford drew Ashford (Kent) at home in the FA Cup 2nd round, if a replay had been needed I would have appreciated the 40 minutes travelling time from Hastings. But no, their stadium would have been too small to accommodate the marauding Golden hordes and the replay (which in the event wasn't needed) would have been at Vicarage Road. However, the most gutting experience for me so far was my attempt to see the home FA Cup 3rd round tie with Oxford United. Historical annals will show that the match was first postponed outright because of snow/frost, then ten days later postponed minutes before kick off because of frost. On the third occasion the floodlights failed before kick off but were coaxed back into life in time for the game to start an hour late. What the annals will not show is that I was there each time. I donÕt get to see very many games each season, but that was quite a saga (although some people travelled from much further afar than Hastings). Evening games are a lot less ideal than Saturdays, involving leaving work early and getting back late. After the delayed game, my partner and I caught the last train home from Charing Cross by the skin of our teeth. ItÕs dice with the trains or crawl round the M25. Anyway, itÕs possible, but not ideal, to follow the Golden Boys from down here. If any fellow Horns from the local area read this, and are interested in sharing transport, please get in touch at the email address below.
These are just a few impressions. I still haven't lived here very long, so don't know the place inside out. If anyone reading this would like to add their impressions or put me right on anything, please get in touch with me: firstname.lastname@example.org.