August 25 2019 – St Leonards-on-Sea.
The line where the bigger town of Hastings ends and St Leonards-on-Sea starts must be a very thin one and have I no idea what is St Leonards and what is Hastings. They form one larger entity, though I suspect that those who live in each of the towns identify wholly with that place. Though who wants to live in a weird place like Hastings!
Hastings is an old place, much much older than the new St Leonards. It has history, and a well documented history at that; at least as far as the events of 1066 are concerned. Think about that year for a moment, 1066. That was 953 years ago, a seriously long time, yet we all know the events of that year; invasion by the Norman French under William the Conqueror , the Battle of Hastings, and the death of King Harold. Things we all learned about in school. Hastings existed before the battle, it likely had a Roman port (now long gone due to the shifting coast line), and pre-roman bronze and iron age artifacts have been found on both east and west hills. It is an old place.
Old places, ancient places, come with history; and with history come tales of good and evil, of weirdness and the unexplained and unexplainable. Strange things have happened, sometimes those things are bad and ghosts or memories of those events remain behind. I am not saying Hastings is haunted, though over the years it has attracted a number of interesting characters who chose to make Hastings their home. Charles Dawson, the infamous Piltdown Man hoaxer was from Hastings and the ‘evilest man in Britain’ Aleister Crowley lived the last of his years, eventually dying here. Crowley supposedly cursed the town from his death bed, and this curse apparently can still be felt today, 80 plus years later.
During my home hunting I read ‘The Stone Tide’ by Gareth E. Rees who had recently moved to Hastings from London. His previous work based around Walthamstow Marshes had been a favourite read and this one was no different. The book is part fiction/part factual and contains numerous references to the weird and wonderful bits of Hastings.
With a week off between jobs and time to spare now the bulk of the spring and summer house work has been completed I decided it was time to try and find some of the odd references noted in The Stone Tide, explore some of the lesser know highlights of Hastings. My first mission was to find the Black Arches and the Minnis Rock.
The Black Arches are three arches carved into the cliff face near the top of East Hill, from West Hill apparently they look like they could be the doors of a church . The Minnis Rock is also on East Hill, so it seemed logical to try and find the both at the same time.
St Leonards is to the west of Hastings, so it made sense to start by walking to the top of West Hill. The hill separates Hastings Old Town and the new town. Hastings Castle sits on the top of West Hill, and there are great views over the sea and up and down the coast.
Just along from the castle , and over a low fence is a sand stone cliff edge, cracked and gullied; slowly collapsing and being worn away by the elements. I stopped to take some photos of the names that have been carved into the sand stone over decades and worn down by the feet and bums of thousands of visitors ever since. Letters carved on top of old letters. Nothing was very obvious, it was hard to read any of the messages. Note of undying love, going the way of most youthful undying love.
I had read that the Black Aches were visible from West Hill, though only in winter. Summer foliage made it impossible to see them from both afar and up close. They were right, I could not see them from the hill, but there was a good view over the old town that sits in the valley between. Below my feet are a series of caves, that make up part of a paid for attraction, one that I will wait to visit with El.
There are two paths to the top of East Hill from the western side, one is steep and stepped and near the funicular on the sea front, the other runs up behind All Saints Church, I headed to All Saints, I don’t like steep. Entering the churchyard from The Bourne I passed what appears to be the most recent grave stone, it is at least the most looked after one. It had an Illuminati eye symbol on it, coincidence as to its condition? Maybe an early sign that some mysterious and secretive forces have been at play in Hastings.
The churchyard was in a sad state of repair, it is obviously old, most of the grave stones are so worn by the weather that nothing, or virtually nothing can be read on most of them. Some had fallen down, thankfully not many, and a lot had vines and bramble growing over, across and around. I quite liked it. It was peaceful and shady in the quite relenting sun.
Only two of the stones, had anything recognisable, one a broken angel and the other a Masonic symbol.
I walked up the path behind the churchyard, a gentle gradient towards the top of East Hill. I was trying to see any sign of the Black Arches or Minnis Rock, though the advice that summer was not a good time was very good. Everything was covered in brambles and ferns, ivy and a variety of trees and shrubs I am not going to even attempt to name. Hopeless.
Rather than look for caves or sign of caves I was looking for paths off the main track, thinking that whatever was there would have been accessed from this main path. Spotting a well worn side path I ducked under a branch and headed up towards the cliff face, and found something. I am not sure what it was, it definitely was neither of the things I was looking for, but it was a something. A very shallow cave carved into the sandstone, hidden behind trees.
I got up close to have a look at some of the things carved into the face. Like the sand stone cliff edge of West Hill this rock face has been visited and defaced for centuries. The clearest I could read was 1882.
The newest, and freshest, it looked as if it were carved yesterday, which it could well have been was from this year.
Needless to say I am going to go back when the winter has come and the trees are free of leaves and the brambles have died back a bit. I spent a bit of time walking around the cliff top and the paths below, trying to find any sign of the Black Arches or Minnis Rock, but nothing was visible through the dense undergrowth and trees. There were numerous paths and I tried all of them without successfully finding either of my objectives.
I finally gave up and took the lower path back towards the road, cutting up a set of steps to High Wickham, a short road with houses on one side that was very popular with artists in Victorian times. I crossed back over East Hill and down the steps to the sea front. Totally unsuccessful in my mission. Though the lovely old, saggy, Tudor houses on All Saints are always worth walking past.
On the way back home I stopped to take a photo of the Burton Tomb on West Hill Rd in St Leonards-on-Sea and just down the hill from my flat. This is not to be confused with the West Hill in Hastings by the way. So many hills! James Burton and his son Decimus and other members of the family are interred here in this very Masonic looking structure.
James Burton was the founder of what is now known as Burton St Leonards, the area of the town I live in, he was responsible for the design of the streets and building some of the wonderful houses, his son Decimus carried on the building after his death. There will be more on Burton St Leonards in a future post.
That night I spent a little more time researching the location of Minnis Rock and the Black Arches and returned the following day. Realising that 20 ft past the steps I cut up to High Wickham was the location of Minnis Rock. I am not sure why this is call a rock, it is three small and shall caves, linked internally.
There is confusion as to their history. One claim is they were cut in the 18th century, though a painting from 1663 shows something similar. Some say they were built for hermits, some as a place of worship and others as a place to shelter livestock before entering the town itself. I have also seen reference to Three Bears Caves, but for life of me cannot find that reference. Confusion and mystery abounds !
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