Monday, 18 May 2015

© Hastings - A town with History.

        May has been a month of changeable weather. Clear, calm, blue days and then rough seas suddenly rising with near gales the next. Frontal systems have barrelled across the North Atlantic sending their weather spinning across the British Isles. We arrived in Hastings under invitation from a long time friend who had just moved into part of the 'old town'. The stay was short but very sweet. This part of the ancient city oozes history from every narrow street with their old residences displaying crooked leaning walls and interesting old roof lines. We travel back in time, as far as the year 771 where records record 'a tribe' that lived here on the south coast of England. Artefacts from prehistoric times such as flint arrowheads from the Bronze Age have been found. Forts from the Iron Age have been excavated on both the East and West hills of the city.


        When the Romans arrived in 55BC a settlement already existed in the port region. Iron ore was rich in the rocks here just north of the town, giving employment to over a thousand men and shipped out by boat making Hastings the largest mine in the Roman Empire! Departure of the Romans and closure of the mine saw a decline within the town. Weather, even back then, played its part by battering the Sussex coast with an occasional ferocious storm and also vulnerable to the added hazard of a longshore drift; the eastward movement of shingle along the coastline causing drastic change over time. The original Roman Port is more likely to be underwater long ago.

         History shows us that back in the 6th Century, Hastings was a separate 'kingdom' from that of 'Suth Saxe'' (meaning South Saxons, that is now 'Sussex') It appears to have stayed this way until King Offa of Mercia invaded Southern England and a battle ensued near the city defeating the 'tribe' of inhabitants. Records show that in 1011 the Vikings overran all of Sussex, Surrey and Kent. On October 14th 1066 the famous Norman Conquest battle was fought just 8 miles to the north of the city. William the Conquerer defeated King Harold, the last Saxon King of England. A castle was built but eventually succumbed to erosion of the sandstone cliffs. (*an interesting note here from my Bahama history: that one of the most successful groups that compete in the Annual Junkanoo Parade in Nassau are called 'The Saxons'!)

          Hastings became an important fishing settlement but the imposition of taxes on luxury goods soon brought the trade of smuggling to the city. On the West Hill the soft sandstone made it possible to carve caves by hand for the smugglers to use. Their trade disappeared after the Napoleonic Wars where the town became a promising seaside resort owing to the fabled health giving properties of the seawater and local springs and Roman Baths.

         Hastings has economically suffered much during the centuries having lacked a substantial natural harbour. Attempts were made to construct a stone harbour during the reign of Elizabeth 1st but once again terrible weather took away all the efforts leaving a fractured stone wall as all that remains.

        In Victorian times the town spread westwards forming the urban area of St. Leonards-on-Sea. Hastings became a leader in the fishing industry and boasted the largest beach-launched fleet in Europe. The fleet has been based on the same beach below the cliffs of the East Hill for possibly as long as 600 years; all due to the prolific fishing grounds of nearby Rye Bay. Most vessels having been registered in Rye bearing the letters 'RX' on their hulls. R for Rye and X for SusseX.


       The town has grown as a popular beach resort town. Famous for quaint streets with shopping for everyone. 

      During the 2nd World War Hastings took some direct hits from German bombing. Places are still marked today where there was significant damage and loss of life. Many of the Hastings fishing vessels were ready for use in the evacuation of Normandy.

Seafood can be bought readily on a daily basis from the fish shops on the waterfront where 
we were staying.

      A visit to the Maritime Fishermans Museum where all the records from the infamous fishing fleet can be seen along with artefacts and photographs. Walking outside one can compare yesteryear to present day.

         Hastings town is host to many well known events. The famous May-Day, Jack-in-the Green Festival brings thousands of visitors to the town. Old Town Week in August and in September Wine and Seafood festivals keep the town alive. The Dolphin Pub was next door to us and has won the 'Best Pub Award' two years in a row known for its hospitality and fine selection of local musicians who play there.


A walk through some streets one finds well preserved buildings with plaques displaying their estimated dates and origins of use such as the first Court Hall dating back to 1450, nearly 200 years before the Pilgrims Landing in America!

Saturday, 9 May 2015

© Cornwall. The picturesque southwest of England!

     Springtime takes us on a 'writers retreat reunion' being held over 200 miles from where we are located. A group of seven to meet again after being together on an Arvon Writers Course a year earlier. A beautiful five hour drive from East Sussex along the southern shores of England to the town of Looe in county Cornwall. The stunning contours of the coast where the Gulf Stream ocean current that passes The Bahamas and south Florida has traveled across the Atlantic Ocean to taper out along Cornwall's shores. The waters are familiarly blue and so much clearer than anywhere in England. The town of Looe being a classic small Cornish fishing town which caters to thousands during the summer tourist season.

The harbour entrance faces south east and just around the corner more westward lies Looe Island less than a mile managed by friends Mary & Patrick working with The National Trust.

The narrow harbour offers great protection to the fishing vessels and private yachts moored within. Tides are quite extensive here and boats lie hard aground at dead low water leaving an expanse of beautiful beach on the outside.

Vessels of all makes can be found within Looe Harbour. Classic clinker built wooden hulls to modern sailing yachts. A landmark bridge joins East Looe where the main road enters the town over to West Looe.

The old town offers fun narrow streets to explore with all the shops catering to every need along with some fine seafood dining. Threaded in between one can find many different accommodations in small hotels and B & B's. 

One of the highlights of our visit was a boat trip over to Looe Island as guests of Mary & Patrick with their Golden Lab 'Skip' as guide! We are to meet Captain Ernie down at the harbour quayside where he loads his guests for the first of two visits.

A friendly seagull that always stops by on Ernie's transom to say hello and be treated to a morsal of sandwiches stored aboard.

We set off for the 20 minute journey across the channel to Looe Island with Ernie and Mary pointing out the sights as we make way.

Arrival at the island we are greeted with a floating platform and then a walk through the woods to the managers housing and future guest accommodation cottages. Their stately stone home perches on the hill overlooking the ocean and Mallard ducks as companions on the lawns.

Island guests arrive here regularly after springtime has arrived. They are given a map of the island with explanations of the natural phenomena that they will encounter along the way, even the occasional mermaid!

The walk can take up to an hour depending on the frequent stops one needs to make to admire the scenery and bird life that uses this coastline as their nesting grounds.

The pathways travels around the circumference of the island through woodland, grasslands and cliff edges.

One knows when back at the beginning of the trail when seeing the blossoms of fruiting trees and the vegetable gardens that the managers use to grow their own produce. Machinery that succumbs to the tough environment tends to stay exactly where it stops sometimes adding to the ambience of island living.

The view from Looe Island back toward the mainland of Cornwall is gorgeous showing the clarity of the ocean and colours of the fields behind with the south shore of Looe in sight.

The second visit that week with Ernie is an invitation to go Mackerel fishing for a few hours. While some of the group stay at the house on writing projects or exploring the town, three of us venture back down to the quay to meet our boat. Capt. Ernie & I get chance to catch up on some 'yarns' about life on the ocean as he was a merchant seaman and I a dive-charter captain all those years ago!

With enough fish for a meal that night we headed back into the harbour. Thanks to our Captain, hosts and the 'writing crew' for a week to remember. One last treat coming back in would be to take the tiller for the first time in three years and dock the boat perfectly first attempt. Ernie kindly added to me, 'the old salt still has the touch!'

A last evening get together the group read pieces that were accomplished by each writer that week and one from our guest author Miranda France from here newly published novel 'The Day Before the Fire' which she signed and gifted to our deserved lovely host Mary.

The drive home the following morning was easy going with a stop in county Dorset to shop at a local butcher and again along the way to capture the magnificence of a rapeseed field in full bloom.