Kevin Boorman loves Hastings, and his enthusiasm is infectious. He was born here, he’s lived here all his life and his family have lived here for generations. He shows me a photo of his great-grandfather, who manned the local lifeboat. His parents met on Hastings Pier. Kevin works for the local council, and today he’s taken some time out to show me round. I can’t remember the last time I met anyone with such a fierce affection for their hometown.
Of course it’s Kevin’s job to spread the good news about Hastings, but I wouldn’t be here to meet him if I didn’t have a soft spot for this place myself. I used to love coming here when I was a kid, when nothing was more thrilling than a trip to the English seaside. But when British holidaymakers started going to Spain instead, Hastings went downhill. Guesthouses became seedy bedsits, and the town became synonymous with the ‘Costa del Dole’.
The thing that brought me back again a few years ago was the opening of the Jerwood Gallery. This new seafront gallery caused a big kerfuffle. Some locals were worried it would make the town too gentrified. The fact that it attracted arty-farty types like me proves they had a point, but there’s nothing arty-farty about Kevin and he’s a big fan of the Jerwood. The surrounding seaside stalls still seem refreshingly kiss-me-quick, too.
Kevin grew up in the Old Town, which used to be the poorest part of town. Now it’s on the up and up, and it’s easy to see why. Full of beautiful half-timbered buildings, Hastings is quite different from any other English seaside town. It’s far older than Brighton or Eastbourne. Architecturally, it has much more in common with medieval towns like Rye and Lewes.
Poverty and bad publicity has kept housing cheap in Hastings, and now the DFLs (Down From London) and the OFBs (Over From Brighton) are moving in. Like the Jerwood controversy, whether you think this is a good thing or a bad thing is a matter of opinion. I happen to think it’s just what Hastings needs, but then I’m a DFL. In fact, a lot of newcomers aren’t DFLs or OFBs. Brendan McDonagh, who runs Swan House, Hastings’s finest B&B, is from Belfast. Up and coming artist Becky Beasley is from Portsmouth. And not all DFLs are here to make a killing from cheap house prices. Jess Steele from London converted an old office block into rent-controlled flats and studios. This isn’t a get-rich-quick scheme. It’s about putting something back.
There’s no denying this influx has livened up the town. Norman Road in St Leonards has become a bohemian enclave. Lucy Bell’s gallery showcases work by some of Britain’s best photographers. Kino-Teatr, run by DFL Russell Baker and his Russian wife Olga Mamonova, doubles as a theatre, cinema and gallery of Russian art.
I finished my day out at Hastings Museum. The collection is a delightful mishmash: fine art, local history, archaeology, ethnology. One of the curators, Catherine Harvey, gave me a guided tour. I couldn’t have come at a more inconvenient time — there was a private view that evening — but Catherine had loads of time for me.
Hastings is a pretty place, but it’s the people who make it special. Not just natives like Kevin, but all the DFLs and OFBs as well.