On The Edge, Facing South

Sussex Modern Stories  |  3 minutes read

Where the Low Weald meets the sea you find a land of contrasts and contradictions – inspiring marshy levels, broad stretches of shingle and sandy beach, and favourite seaside playgrounds. Here tradition and innovation, edginess and sophistication live side by side. In this liminal world divergent histories of invasion, defence, pleasure and escape jostle for attention. The sea here is an ever-present force and companion, a frontier for the area’s rich marine ecology and now a protected offshore zone for its diverse wildlife.

Among the first of the popular Sussex seaside towns, just one, Bexhill-on-Sea, embraced a Modernist vision of life by the coast. In the 1930s this town with its genteel facades and seemingly conventional English demeanour made a bold experiment in social culture and design when commissioning a brand new, architecturally innovative public pavilion on the seafront. Ever since, the light and airy De La Warr Pavilion (named after its protagonist) has been an emblem for creative exploration and entertainment.

De La Warr Pavilion. Photo: Daniel Alford

Bexhill made a bold experiment in social culture and design when commissioning a brand new public pavilion on the seafront

This remarkable Modernist building connects Sussex with Europe. It was designed by émigré architects fleeing oppressive regimes, and its aims were unashamedly democratic – open to everyone.  That spirit continues to this day through the Pavilion’s vibrant international, national and local arts programme. Visit an exhibition, make time for reflection, join in the exhilaration of a live gig or festival, or just sit on the Pavilion’s café balcony and watch the sun go down over the distant outline of Beachy Head.

Minoru Nomata: Windscape, Installation view, 2022, De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea. Photography: Burst Photos

Dignified Edwardian buildings provide their own contrast to the Pavilion, and the active town behind it – with its restaurants, cafés, vintage shops and local galleries – has its own life and idiosyncrasies. The award-winning Brickmaker’s Alehouse is a micropub on a mission to be the friendliest place for a pint. In a building once home to a quarrying and brickmaking company the cosy venue offers a regularly changing menu of cask ales and ciders. For food, try Rocksalt, and art lovers should call in at Flatlands Projects, an artist-run exhibition and community space in Beeching Road Studios, which is a new affordable workspace hub for the town’s burgeoning creative community.

A deep seam of creativity runs along this coastline, so it’s worth exploring world-class art on the 18 mile Coastal Culture Trail, which runs from the Towner Gallery in Eastbourne, via Bexhill’s De La Warr Pavilion to Hastings Contemporary. En route to Hastings, pause at eclectic St Leonards with its range of vintage and independent shops, and its eateries, including Goat Ledge, Heist and The Royal. Cycle or walk the trail, or hop on a train – a convenient line connects the three towns, making outings quick and easy. In Hastings, explore the clifftop Country Park and its sustainably built visitor centre The Bale House and, beyond, stop off at The Cove in Fairlight or The Red Pig food truck at Pett Level. Back in Bexhill, maybe just to strong the tranquil seafront and dip your toe in the sea is enough. For the more adventurous, why not join the all year round sea swimmers for a bracing plunge, or take to the still waters with a paddle board or kayak?

A deep seam of creativity runs along this coastline, so it’s worth exploring world-class art on the 18-mile Coastal Culture Trail

If you venture westwards towards Eastbourne, drop by or stay at the Relais Cooden Beach, literally on the beach and recently updated as a stylish retreat with uninterrupted views across the Channel and a playful beach club vibe. Its smart restaurant serves local produce and its wellbeing experiences include yoga on the beach and wild swimming.

The open stretch of coast beyond Cooden reaches laid-back Normans Bay and Pevensey. Here kite-surfers ride the waves while horse riders gather on the sands at low tide. Sea kale dots the shingle, cormorants skim the water and the occasional seal pops up. And it’s here that the marshy Pevensey Levels begin. This is frontier land where notorious smugglers once operated, the Normans famously landed in 1066, and the Romans before them tried to hold back the invading Saxons.

The Pevensey Levels extend inland and from here you can join the 1066 Country Walk, an undulating 31 mile trail that runs cross country to Rye at the eastern end of the county. You will pass open land with grazing sheep, reed beds teeming with wildlife and patrolled by hunting marsh harriers. Along the trail wooded enclaves and fields reveal a series of impressive oak sculptures that mark key sites and tell the story of the Norman invasion.

The contrasts of this haunting coast and its stories are memorable. Sometimes, looking out to sea and breathing in the fresh salty air, it feels like the edge of the world. You just need a little time to truly appreciate its mysteries.

This is frontier land where the Normans famously landed in 1066, and the Romans before them tried to hold back the invading Saxons

De La Warr Pavilion

The Pavilion was the first UK public building to be built in the Modernist style. 

Designed by Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff, it reflected the ideals and aspirations of the age. Using new techniques and materials, it was as pioneering in construction as it was in design and function. Informally known at the ‘people’s palace’, the Pavilion was opened to wide acclaim in 1935.

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Sea Kale

This shingle-loving plant is a speciality of Sussex, often seen along the coast. Its curly, edible leaves change colour from purples to grey-greens as they mature. It blooms with aromatic white flowers in summer.



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