Hastings to Rye
March 01, 2020 by Extinction Rebellion
I feel the tug of the sea as I exit Hastings railway station. No need for a map. Just follow the wheeling seagulls downhill to the beach.
What does the town forever linked, with geographical imprecision, to England’s biggest home-defeat do to erase 1,000 years of hurt? It turns instant recognition to its advantage, rebranding itself and its pretty Sussex hinterland as ‘1066 Country’.
There is an attractive alternative whistlestop walk on the 1066 Country Walk 6 miles to the actual site of the showdown, on Senlac Hill, at Battle, but today I head east along part of the Saxon Shore Way (12 miles, 19km) to Rye, hilltop town of distinction.
I begin on the Hastings seafront, lined with handsome Georgian houses. At the eastern end is the historic fishing quarter, the Stade. This mazy skyscape of steep-roofed fishermen’s huts huddles under the cliff face, around Jerwood Gallery.
On this hectic, built-up Sussex coast there is a glorious undeveloped gap in the smother of concrete to the east of Hastings, where my path steps up onto clay heights above pebbly coves and plunging valleys. In the spring a carpet of wildflowers rolls away north and a smudge of bright yellow gorse lights the cliff edge at Fire Hills. To the east is the lonely spread of the Pett Levels.
Beyond it is a coast ill at ease with the sea. My route follows a section of the C19th Royal Military Canal to Winchelsea, one of the now inland towns whose flourishing harbours were choked by ancient storms. In St Thomas’s Church I found the grave of Spike Milligan.
It’s a short step on to the charming town of Rye, every medieval street a film set. I look down on the long golden expanse of Camber Sands. To the south, on a clear, slack day of low sun, the coast of France beckons dimly.