Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Hastings / Hastengas: A Place in Bernard Cornwell's Saxon Series ****

Hastings is a town and Borough on the coast of East Sussex in England.

Map showing Hastings within Sussex

It includes originally separate settlements, as well as the inevitable growth of the town through the building of new estates.
In historical terms, Hastings can claim fame through its connection with the Norman conquest of England; and also because it became one of the medieval Cinque Ports.

Cinque Ports of Kent and Sussex

Hastings Beach Fishing Fleet

Hastings was, for centuries, an important fishing port; although much reduced, it has the largest beach-based fishing fleet in England. As with many other such places, the town became a watering place in the 1760s, and then, with the coming of the railway, a seaside resort. The Town is sometimes referred to as "the birthplace of television" since the pioneer of television, John Logie Baird, lived at 21 Linton Crescent from 1922 to 1924.
The attraction of Hastings as a tourist destination continues; although the numbers of hotels has decreased, it caters for wider tastes, being home to internationally-based cultural and sporting events, such as chess and running. It has set out to become "a modern European town" and seeks to attract commercial business in the many industrial sites round the borough.

The earliest mention of Hastings is found in the late 8th century in the form Hastingas. This is derived from the Old English tribal name Hæstingas, meaning "Hæsta's people", "the family/followers of Hæsta". Symeon of Durham records the victory of Offa in 771 over the Hestingorum gens, that is, "the people of the Hastings tribe", and the same tribe gave their name to Hastingleigh in Kent. An alternative form of the name, Hæstingaceaster, is found in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for 1050.

Beaufort Park

Early history
There is evidence of prehistoric settlements at the site of the town: flint arrowheads and Bronze Age artefacts have been found; Iron Age forts have been excavated on both the East and West Hills suggests an early move to the safety of the valley in between, so that the settlement was already a port when the Romans arrived in Britain for the first time in 55 BC. At this time they began to exploit the iron (Wealden rocks provide a plentiful supply of the ore), and so the port was useful to them. One of the many local sites where the iron was worked at Beauport Park, to the north of the town, which employed up to one thousand men and is considered to have been the third largest in the Roman Empire.
With the departure of the Romans the town suffered setbacks. The Beauport site had been abandoned; and natural and man-made attacks began. The Sussex coast has always suffered from occasional violent storms; with the additional hazard of longshore drift (the eastward movement of shingle along the coast) the coastline has been frequently changing. The original Roman port could now well be under the sea.

Bulverhythe Beach

Man-made attacks possibly included the Danish invaders, with their harbour in the west of the borough. Bulverhythe, where its original site is conjectured, suggests that: -hythe or hithe means a port or small haven. A royal mint in Hastings was established in AD 928 during the reign of Athelstan.

Medieval Hastings
The start of the Norman Conquest was the Battle of Hastings, fought on 14 October 1066; although the battle itself took place eight miles to the north at Senlac Hill, and William had landed on the coast between Hastings and Eastbourne at a site now known as Norman's Bay. It is thought that the Norman encampment was on the town’s outskirts, where there was open ground; a new town was already being built in the valley to the east. That "New Burgh" was founded in 1069, and is mentioned in the Domesday Book as such. William defeated and killed Harold Godwinson, the last Saxon King of England, and destroyed his army; thus opening England to the Norman conquest.

Ruins of Hastings Castle

William caused a castle to be built at Hastings probably using the earthworks of the existing Saxon castle.
Hastings was shown as a borough by the time of the Domesday Book (1086); it had also given its name to the Rape of Hastings, one of the six administrative divisions of Sussex.

Hastings Coat of Arms

Latin, Rapum.
The Rape was an administrative division of the county of Sussex.
The six Rapes of Arundel, Bramber, Chichester, Hastings, Lewes, and Pevensey were the primary divisions of the county of Sussex, intermediate between the county and Hundred. In this respect, they were similar to the Lathes of Kent and the Ridings of Yorkshire and Lincolnshire.
In other respects, however, they were dissimilar. Each Rape was a castlery, centred on a castle; each was in the hands of a single tenant-in-chief; and each had its own sheriff, who answered to the tenant-in-chief not the Crown: no royal sheriffs are recorded before the twelfth century. The Rapes also had an artificial profile, running in roughly parallel strips between the coast and the northern boundary of the county, each controlling one corridor of communication between London and the Channel. The vital routes between England and Normandy were therefore in the hands of six of the Conqueror's most trusted relatives or lieutenants; but no one or two of them could block his way.
The Rapes were not a Norman innovation since Domesday Book itself refers to their existence in 1066. Their characteristic features in 1086, however, mean that they had certainly been drastically remodelled in the intervening years, with military considerations uppermost in the minds of those responsible for the changes, a fact emphasised by the many references in Domesday Sussex to fragments of manors 'lost' to an adjacent Rape since 1066. Whoever carved out the new Rapes showed a cavalier disregard for the manorial structures of Anglo-Saxon England.
Just how ancient the Anglo-Saxon system had been is unclear. It may derive from the system of fortifications devised by Alfred the Great in the late ninth century to defeat the Vikings. It has also been argued that King Alfred's system may in turn have its roots in an earlier age. If so, the Sussex Rapes, like the Kentish Lathes, go back to the dawn of English history when their main function would have been to provide food-rents and military manpower to the king.
For more detail, see J.F.A. Mason, 'William the First and the Sussex Rapes', in 1066: Commemoration lectures (Historical Association, 1966); John le Patourel, The Norman Empire (1976); Stephen R. Bassett, The origins of the English kingdoms (1990); and Judith A. Green, The aristocracy of Norman England (1997).
Hastings had a corporation consisting of a "bailiff, jurats, and commonalty". By a Charter of Elizabeth I in 1589 the bailiff was replaced by a mayor.

Hastings and the sea


By the end of the Saxon period, the port of Hastings had moved eastward near the present town centre in the Priory Stream valley, whose entrance was protected by the White Rock headland (since demolished). It was to be a short stay: Danish attacks and huge floods in 1011 and 1014 motivated the townspeople to relocate to the New Burgh.
In the Middle Ages Hastings became one of the Cinque Ports; Sandwich, Dover, and New Romney being the first, Hastings, and Hythe followed, all finally being joined by Rye and Winchelsea, at one point 42 towns were directly or indirectly affiliated to the group.
In the 13th century much of the town was washed away by the sea. During a naval campaign of 1339, and again in 1377, the town was raided and burnt by the French, and seems then to have gone into a decline. As a port, Hastings' days were finished.
Hastings had suffered over the years from the lack of a natural harbour, and there have been attempts to create a sheltered harbour. Attempts were made to build a stone harbour during the reign of Elizabeth I, but the foundations were destroyed by the sea in terrible storms. The last harbour project began in 1896, but this also failed when structural problems and rising costs exhausted all the available funds. Today a fractured seawall is all that remains of what might have become a magnificent harbour. In 1897 the foundation stone was laid of a large concrete structure, but there was insufficient money to complete the work and the "Harbour arm" remains uncompleted. It was partially blown up to discourage possible use by German invasion forces during World War II. The fishing boats are still stored on and launched from the beach.
Hastings was now a small fishing settlement, but it was soon discovered that the new taxes on luxury goods could be made profitable by smuggling, and the town was ideally located for that. Near the castle ruins, on the West Hill, are "St Clement's Caves", partly natural, but mainly excavated by hand by the smugglers from the soft sandstone. Their trade was to come to an end with the period following the Napoleonic Wars, for the town became one of the most fashionable resorts in Britain, brought about by the so-called properties of seawater.

New St. Leonards town and Hastings joined by Rail

Since this came about the expansion of the town took place, to the west, since there was little space left in the valley.
It was at this time that the elegant Pelham Crescent and Wellington Square were built: other building followed. In the Crescent is the classical style church of St Mary in the Castle (its name recalling the old chapel in the castle above) now in use as an arts centre. The building of the crescent and the church necessitated further cutting away of the castle hill cliffs. Once that move away from the old town had begun, it led to the further expansion along the coast, eventually linking up with the new St Leonards.

St. Leonards -on -Sea

Like many coastal towns, the population of Hastings grew significantly as a result of the construction of railway links and the fashionable growth of seaside holidays during the Victorian era. In 1801 its population was a mere 3,175; by 1831 it had reached over ten thousand; by 1891 it was almost sixty thousand, and the 2001 census reported over 85,000 inhabitants.

Postcard Views of Hastings

In the 1930s the town underwent some rejuvenation. Seaside resorts were starting to go out of fashion: Hastings perhaps more than most. The town council set about a huge rebuilding project, among which the promenade was rebuilt; and an Olympic-size bathing pool was erected. The latter, regarded in its day as one of the best open-air swimming and diving complexes in Europe, closed some years ago.

The Bathing Pool

The area is still known by locals as "The Bathing Pool". Hastings, it is thought, was a Saxon town before the arrival of the Normans: the Domesday Book refers to a new Borough: as a borough, Hastings had a corporation consisting of a "bailiff, jurats, and commonalty". Its importance was such that it also gave its name to one of the six Rapes or administrative districts of Sussex.

The most notable suburbs of Hastings are Ore, St Leonards on Sea, Silverhill, Bulverhythe, and Hollington


Hastings town centre and the Memorial from an old postcard

Hastings town centre in 2005

Hastings is situated where the sandstone beds, at the heart of the Weald, known geologically as the Hastings Sands, meet the English Channel, forming tall cliffs to the east of the town.

Hastings Old Town

Hastings Old Town is in a sheltered valley between the East Hill and West Hill (on which the remains of the Castle stand). In Victorian times and later the town has spread westwards and northwards, and now forms a single urban centre with the more suburban area of St Leonards-on-Sea to the west. Roads from the Old Town valley lead towards the Victorian area of Clive Vale and the former village of Ore, from which "The Ridge", marking the effective boundary of Hastings, extends north-westwards towards Battle. Beyond Bulverhythe, the western end of Hastings is marked by low-lying land known as Glyne Gap, separating it from Bexhill-on-Sea.


The sandstone cliffs have been the subject of considerable erosion in relatively recent times: much of the Castle was lost to the sea before the present sea defences and promenade were built, and a number of cliff-top houses are in danger of disappearing around the nearby village of Fairlight.

Hastings Beach

The beach is mainly shingle, although wide areas of sand are uncovered at low tide. The town is generally built upon a series of low hills rising to 500 feet (150 m) above sea level at "The Ridge" before falling back in the river valley further to the north. The town also has a large Victorian park, Alexandra Park.


Two of Hastings' beach-launched fishing fleet with part of Old Town and East Cliff Railway in background

Until the development of tourism, fishing was Hastings' major industry. The beach launched fishing fleet, based at the Stade remains Europe's largest and has recently won accreditation for its sustainable methods. The fleet has been based on the same beach, below the cliffs at Hastings, for at least 400, possibly 600, years. Its longevity attributed to the prolific fishing ground of Rye Bay nearby.
Hastings fishing vessels are registered at Rye, and thus bear the letters "RX" (Rye,SusseX).
Near the Royal Victoria Hotel there is the "Conquerors Stone" where William of Normandy was supposed to have eaten his first breakfast in England.

Net "shops"
On the beach near the Old Town are the so-called "net shops", said to be unique to Hastings, but similar buildings can be found in Whitby and Folkestone. These are wooden constructions, weatherboarded and tarred, of various shapes and sizes, used for storage. The buildings were built tall and narrow to avoid payment of ground tax. Net shops were not used for drying nets, instead they were used to store them. Fishing nets were made from natural material. They needed to be dry before being hung in a net shop otherwise they would rot. Nets were dried on the beach or on the piece of land known as the Minnis. The net huts are covered with traditional "clinker" weather-boarding and most of them measure about 25 feet in height by 8 feet square.
During the past 150 years, many net huts have been destroyed by stormy seas, and in the 1950s some of them were demolished by the Hastings Council as part of a clearance scheme for development of the beach. About forty-five of these structures still survive and are regularly maintained


Marine Court

The iconic landmarks, due to their being frequently used in the town's tourist publicity, are almost certainly the castle on its sandstone cliffs, and Hastings Pier. Little remains of the Castle apart from an arch of the chapel, some walls, and underground dungeons. The pier itself is closed due to its being considered in an unsafe condition. Violent storms during mid March 2008 have damaged the structure further.

Battle Abbey

Michelham Priory within one of the 'Rape districts'

In a similar vein, the old town of Hastings is certainly a landmark. Many of the buildings there today date from the time when the Georgians arrived here to "take the waters", although the two churches are very much older. An example of the houses is East Cliff House, designed and built between 1760 and 1762 by Edward Capell, the Shakespearean critic and official censor of plays, at a cost of £5,000. The house was constructed on the site of the old East Fort, with a gun platform that may have been adapted to form the front terrace of the building. The house was abandoned during the Second World War and, from then on, it became a bingo centre and then a seafront cafe.
An important former landmark was "the Memorial", a clock tower commemorating Albert the Prince Consort which stood for many years at the traffic intersection at the town centre, but was demolished following an arson attack in the 1970s.
On the seafront at St Leonards is Marine Court, a 1930s block of flats in the Art Deco style that is said to represent an ocean liner.

Hastings has three museums: the Hastings Museum and Art Gallery; the Old Town Hall Museum; and the Fishermen's Museum. These are all open for the whole year. The Hastings Museum and Art Gallery includes a Durbar Hall representing an Indian palace, donated by Lord Brassey.
There are two places providing a theatrical venue: the White Rock Theatre the town's multipurpose venue; and the Stables Theatre, which shows mainly local productions and acts as an arts exhibition centre. Among other uses to which the main theatre is put is to host the annual Hastings Music Festival. There is a small Odeon cinema in Hastings, however there are plans to renovate an area known as the 'Priory Quarter' in the town centre. Some of the plans include large office spaces, retail units and a new large multiplex cinema. The town has its own independent cinema known as "Electric Palace".
The Hastings International Chess Congress which started in 1882 attracts international players to Hastings. The Hastings Writers' Group claims to be one of the oldest in the country: it was established in 1947.
Hastings has long been known as a retreat for artists and painters. For example, the pre-Raphaelite painters including Dante Gabriel Rossetti (who married here in Hastings) and William Holman Hunt, who painted pictures of nearby cliffs at Fairlight, admired the town for its light and clear air.

Funicular Railway

Visitor attractions
The town has its fair share of "visitor attractions". These are mostly clustered around the Fishmarket, near the dropping-off place for the coaches, and include a miniature railway, fairground rides and amusement arcades; there are also many refreshment places in this area of the town. The nearby cliff railways take visitors further afield: to the Caves; and to Hastings Country Park, an area of 12.67 km² (6.9 miles²) of lightly wooded and open land extending from Hastings approximately 3 miles (5 km) along the cliff tops to Fairlight.

'Firelight' (vegetation make the hills look like they are on fire) Fire Hills along Fairlight clifftops

The Blue Reef Aquarium (formerly Underwater World) is a popular visitor attraction, as is the Smugglers' Adventure in St Clement's Caves.


Hasting Pier at Sunset

Hastings Pier and beach in the Winter

Hastings at Night

The largest annual event is the May Day bank holiday weekend, which features a Jack-in-the-Green festival (revived since 1983), and the Maydayrun, when tens of thousands of motorbikes drive to Hastings.
There is also a yearly carnival, and Old Town Week during August, a beer festival in Alexandra Park, and a Seafood and Wine Festival in the Old Town. During Hastings week held each year around 14 October the Hastings Bonfire Society stages a torchlight procession through the streets, with a beach bonfire and spectacular firework display. In 2007 the World Crazy Golf Championship was held at the Adventure Crazy Golf Course.

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