Take the Challenge of the Coastal Culture Trail

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For many years, traditional seaside resorts have been in a state of crisis, but there are signs that they are springing back into recovery. There is life in the old dog yet.

"eastbourne pier along the coastal culture trail"

The glory days of old-style seaside resorts – in Italy and France but particularly in the UK – was a time when nearly everybody, kids in tow, went on a family vacation for two or three weeks in the summer. Folks expected to have fun during their holidays, of course, but if there was a day or two when there was little to do, this would not necessarily have been classified as “boredom”: having nothing to do was a welcome break from tedious daily routines. Holidaymakers were looking forward to playing board games, having a few nice dinners, coming home with a bit of a tan.

Those were the days. Nowadays, holidays are expected to generate non-stop-excitement, every day being packed to the brim with edgy sports activities, cultural challenges and culinary explorations. For a long time, traditional seaside resorts were badly equipped for a battle on this turf.

"beach house in Bexhill-on-sea along the coastal culture trail"

More recently, however, they have developed a counter-strategy. As they say in the military: when you come under heavy attack, it is often best to retreat, regroup and re-engage. This is when seaside resorts began to discover the short break market.

More and more people, after all, are taking a “tapas approach” to holiday-making: rather than one big holiday meal, they opt for four, five short breaks over the course of a year.

An excellent, ground-breaking example of the way in which things are moving is the Coastal Culturea Trail from Eastbourne to Hastings via Bexhill. This 29-km-long trail can be experienced by bike or by hike, or a mix of the two aided by trains or buses (public transport in the area is excellent).

When the sun shines, which is more often than you think (not all of Britain hangs under a permanent blanket of fog), you can even spend some time on the beach. If not, there is loads of other stuff to do.

The Coastal Culture Trail Starts Here

Ideally, you base yourself in one town, buy a day ticket for the bus (route 99 follows much of the trail) and combine short coastal walks with short rides. You can easily spend three, four days in the area for a short break which is as varied as a trip to Stockholm or Seville, and – for the 12 million people in London at least – much nearer by.

"beachfront of Eastbourne along the coastal culture trail"

As for the trail itself, there are many options and few musts. One of those is the Beach Parade in Eastbourne, perhaps the grandest coastal promenade in all of the UK.

On its southern end, the Parade merges into the most glorious stage of the South Down Walk, the walk to Beachy Head. This experience is well worth the trip to Eastbourne alone (Watch our video of our Beachy Head hike here), but we have covered that before, so this time, we will concentrate on walking in the opposite direction.

You can start your hike at Helen Gardens and move along the Parade past the King’s Chalet (where George V spent a seaside holiday in 1935) or, for a shorter walk, at the foot of the statue that Eastbourne erected for the Duke of Devonshire (whose family owns a large estate near-by).

"George V statue along the coastal culture trail"

Right next to the statue, you will spot Eastboune’s Martello Tower. Towers like this one were once built all along the coast to defend Britain against a seemingly impending Napoleonic invasion. On photos from the mid-19th century, you can still see these towers lined up in intervals of a few hundred meters. Few of them are left nowadays, since they were built to withstand Napoleon rather than the ravages of time.

"Martello Tower in Eastbourne along the coastal culture trail"

The Grand Hotel Eastbourne on the opposite side of the Parade is one of the coast’s most vivid remnants of the Long Edwardian Summer (the years preceding WWI), unquestionably the Golden Age of the English seaside resorts. (A perfect base if you decide to take on the challenge of the Coastal Culture Trail. We based ourselves in Eastbourne in the Grand Eastbourne Hotel, also known as the Palace by the Sea.)

"historic lounge in The Grand Hotel along the coastal culture trail"

It recalls the sumptuous opulence of the age, still providing five-star luxury but without any hint of pretense. Entire families come here to explore the Coastal Culture Trail (or for a seaside break in the summer).

"The Concourse of The Grand Hotel in Eastbourne along the coastal culture trail"

And the Grand invited the Easy Hikers to stay for a night.

"A welcome for the Easy Hikers at the Grand Hotel along the coastal culture trail"

Still, it’s a pretty good place to spoil yourself, and even if you decide to book somewhere else, you can at least treat yourself for dinner in one of the Grand’s two fine restaurants (choose the Mirabelle if you really want to spoil yourselves). It’s a wonderful experience, and, while not as cheap as some of the downtown fish-and-chip restaurants, not as intimidatingly expensive as you might think.

"exterior of Mirabelle restaurant in the Grand Hotel along the coastal culture trail"

Behind the Hotel, you will find the Towner Gallery, which is well worth the brief walk inland. Entrance is free, so you can walk in and have a look around without any pressure of getting value out of a 10-bucks-entrance fee. There is much to look at and enjoy.

The Towner also has the largest elevator I have ever seen, surely large enough, should the need ever arise, to shuttle an elephant from floor to floor.

"very large elevator of Towner Gallery along the coastal culture trail"

Much like the town around it, Eastbourne Pier a little further down the Parade has recently been restored to its ancient glory. (It was largely destroyed by a fire in 1970.) In the old days, day trippers took boats from here for brief escapades to the continent. (Not to buy cheap booze, I presume.)

"Eastbourne pier along the coastal culture trail"

Roughly at the level of Queen’s Hotel, the Parade comes to an end. Queen’s, it is said, was set in a specific angle to the coast in order to provide a visual frontier between the Parade part of Eastbourne and the shabbier boarding houses to the north.

"Queens Hotel along the coastal culture trail"

But shabby or not: this is the direction in which we shall proceed on the Cultural Trail towards Bexhill.

"a patient dog by the beach along the coastal culture trail"

Join us next week for the second leg of our journey along the Coastal Culture Trail.

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