the south coast creative paradise you've not heard about
We look into why young creatives are moving to a seaside town in Sussex.
Hastings conjures up images of pebbled shores, crumbling beach huts and hen nights, aging OAPs and unruly youths blasting down the promenades in Vauxhall Corsas. For some, Hastings feels like a town stuck in a bygone era of England. A time when the great British summertime was in full swing, a time before the Costa Del Sol, a time when the beaches where choc-a-block with holidaymakers with buckets and spades.
But Hastings is changing and changing fast. Beyond the boarded up B&Bs it's clear that the seaside town is shedding some -- but not all -- of its grit. The town is a mishmash of junkies and Cath Kidson-clad mums, Hastings exists in limbo. High-ceilinged elegant 18th century apartments give way to some of the country's most deprived council estates. Upmarket oyster restaurants sit side by side with fish and chip shops that only seem to stock saveloys. Art galleries like The Jerwood lie next to empty amusement arcades. The town manages to walk the tightrope between urban decay and creative rebirth.
In fact it is probably this combination, which makes Hastings so appealing for an incoming class of creatives. In case you weren't aware, increasing numbers of Londoners are jumping ship and relocating to Hastings. On top of this, the University of Brighton has a new campus in the town, drawing more young people in (although there are doubts about its longterm future).
Fashion photographer, Rachel Manns, 25, is one of many making the move. "As a single freelancer in London, the amount of money I'd have to make just to pay my rent was crazy," she explains. "It just felt like I was constantly slaving away for a city that didn't want me. I suddenly realised I don't need to be there."
Since moving to Hastings, Rachel's rent has drastically dropped. "I pay £550 a month for a three bedroom flat in Hastings. I live by myself, so I have a spare double bedroom for guests and a room I use as a home studio. It's literally right on the seafront with ocean views. The same thing in Hackney would cost £2500."
But Rachel isn't the only one making the move. "The first weekend I moved down, I went out in the old town and bumped into loads of young people - all around my age. Lots of them had moved from places like New Cross, Hackney and even Brighton," she explains. "There's a feeling of community that I get down here that I've never experienced before."
30-year-old filmmaker and animator, Arisotelis Maragko decided to make the move just over a year ago. "Hastings offers a better sense of community, an affordable environment and it's only an hour and twenty minutes to commute to central London," he explains. "There is quite a lot of creative people in Hastings. They get together and chat. Without needing to travel for an hour and a half to get somewhere".
Whilst London or Brighton might be the big draws, it's not like Hastings is without charm or culture. "I like the sea and the small venues that it has to offer. I am a big fan of Electric Palace Cinema. The Jerwood Gallery offers a lot to the identity of Hastings," Arisotelis says. "That and the mini golf and the arcades and the fisherman, all create an era unique atmosphere".
Co-founder of record label, Trashmouth, Liam D. May has come across so many folk relocating that he decided to name his label's compilation album Thinking Of Moving To Hastings. "The amount of people that we are speaking to who had just moved to Hastings, or were talking about moving is ridiculous," he begins. "London is becoming so money-centric it feels like anybody who isn't a part of that is an outsider. There's much more of a feeling of freedom in Hastings. It doesn't feel so restricted."
But don't be mistaken. Hastings remains a world away from some quaint "hipsturbian" enclave. Unlike its twee, chocolate box neighbours, Whitstable and Rye, Hastings possesses an unapologetic realness and ruggedness, it just comes with a side portion of seaside charm, enduring nostalgia and suburban ennui. Like Brighton, there is still some spirit left from the days when Hastings was massively divided between mods and rocker, but unlike Brighton, Hastings is that bit more cut off, so it isn't full of weary commuters and hordes of daytrippers.
Hastings isn't without its problems. It's the most deprived district in the South East of England and its unemployment rate is well over double the average for the South East, and a third of the town's children live in poverty. Those lucky enough to be in work only earn two thirds as much as the rest of the region. So although Hastings has become a place that some Londoners yearn to escape to, for many locals, it remains a place they long to leave.
Crowned with a Norman castle and nestled between cliffs, Hastings sits in the middle of the South coast. In the same way that Brighton conjoins Hove, Hastings lives next to St Leonards. While Hastings is best known for the battle of 1066, St Leonards didn't spring to life until the 1820s. A stone's throw from each other, the twin towns flow seamlessly into one another. Of the two, it is St Leonards that is more -- for want of a better word -- gentrified. It even has its own perspex-protected Banksy stencil. Dazzling yet decaying, you can't help but be drawn to the impoverished majesty of its 18th century architecture and art deco flats.
In recent years, both areas have had their fair share of Arts Council grants and government-led regeneration subsidies, and now the mile-long corroded concrete colonnade and rusty, weather-beaten pier, which used to host the likes of The Clash, The Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix, are finally being done up. What's more, galleries like The Jerwood, The Observation, The Arts Forum and smaller independent numbers are springing up everywhere. Who knows where it'll end up but right now, there's a sense that Hastings is where something is starting to happen rather than finishing.
Text Maya Oppenheim
Photography Ben Sutherland