Saturday 19 March 2022 – St Leonards-on-Sea.
It’s been great being back in London and back at work (sort of). London is sooooooo much busier than Auckland and the twice a week commute on the very busy Tube was uncomfortable to start with, but I’m getting used to being so close to so many people again. I’m one of the few wearing a mask on the train and it can be unpleasant when someone unmasked is breathing right into your face as the carriage is rammed tight. Covid numbers are on the rise as all restrictions have now been removed, so I’m taking some responsibility for myself. The Victoria Line train to Oxford Circus this morning was very busy, so it was a bit of a relief to jump lines to the Metropolitan which was much quieter. I love these old carriages on the Metropolitan, so 80s.
I had a book and my phone to read, though spent most of the journey south from Charing Cross Station with headphones on staring out of the window, bright sun shining in my eyes, enjoying the urban, then country scenery as Eleanor read next to me.
In the early spring the English deciduous trees are still without leaf giving a longer view over the mostly lovely Kent and East Sussex countryside. The lack of leaves also a reminder that the grimness of winter isn’t long gone, that grimness reflecting what is going in the world outside. I pondered life and England and my hopes and fears for the day as we travelled.
We moved out of my flat in St Leonards on Friday 26 June 2021, almost nine months ago; 266 days to be precise, I’m not going to count the hours. It seems like yesterday, yet at the same time it feels like forever ago. I could say that I’ve thought about it every single day we’ve been away, but that would be a lie. I have thought about it most days, more so now that we are back in the UK and it’s so close.
I must confess to having had a level of trepidation regarding today’s trip to St Leonards, I was concerned that I may no longer like the place, it’s a small but valid concern. The town has been changing for some time, starting well before I arrived in 2019, though the pace of change has increased over the past year, house prices particularly have sky rocketed. I hope it won’t trip too far over the line and become even more unaffordable for those who were there before gentrification and people like me arrived. I kind of like the balance of roughness, gentrification and the arts the town has, and when it tips too far into gentrification it will be the art that leaves first and that will be a shame. I have the same trepidation about liking the flat, though I don’t get to see inside until April 9, after the tenant has moved out. I very much hope I’m still in love with it when I walk through the front door.
We disembarked at West St Leonards Station strolling up West Hill Rd towards my flat. I’ve seen a number of flats for sale, or sold, for stupidly high prices on this road and was interested to see how things had changed; the answer was not much, but a lot more houses have been painted in the last 9 months. It does look nice, maybe too nice.
We did a quick walk-by of the flat and it was good to see the old pile looking resplendent in the late morning sun. I liked looking at her, thankfully, and am now very much looking forward to walking in and looking out of the bedroom window to the sea and over to Beachy Head.
St Leonards feels the same, the residential streets we walked haven’t changed at all, though there seems to be even more scaffold up around the big houses at the top of Pevensey Rd than there was when we left, yet no work seems to have been done over that time. There were a small number of new shops in Kings Rd, no dramatic changes and all the places we liked are still open. It looks like this part of town survived the pandemic well enough.
I was shocked to see scaffold around the ‘Old England’ pub, what seemed to be the last of the old school boozers boozer. It will be interesting to see what happens to it, it has always been a miserable looking dump, even just a lick of paint will improve that corner of the world. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t dislike a proper pub, even an old school old man’s pub is fine, but the Old England was an eye-sore.
The day was drifting towards lunch so we walked down to the seafront looking for something to eat. As usual and as expected, Goat Ledge was mega-busy and quite a long queue had formed. We carried on towards Hastings without hanging around, much as I love Goat Ledge, and a fish sandwich would have been great, a 40 minute wait in the wind was not what we were after.
Bottle Alley is a 480 meter long lower boardwalk along the sea front between St Leonards and Hastings, it was built in the 1930s and the inner wall is concrete inlayed with thousands of fragments of coloured glass, hence the name. Other than the occasional smell of urine and strong cannabis and un-picked-up dog pooh it’s an absolute wonder and I love walking through it; at night it is lit with constant changing coloured lights and I have always felt safe walking home that way.
As we entered I saw some legs with roller skates dangling from the boardwalk above so we stopped to take a few photos. I love a scene like this, they so rarely happen and I was very glad I had brought my camera with me.
There were a lot of people around, and a lot of those people had small dogs; there has been a dog explosion over lockdown and everyone in St Leonards has one it seems. I’ve never seen so many people (or dogs) around at this time of year, even on sunny days, I suspect this coming summer it will be crazy busy at the weekends. when we are back I must make better use of work from home days and get down to the seafront and the nearby cafes and bars while there is some semblance of peace.
I’ve never seen a car in Bottle Alley, it was being driven by a policeman. I wasn’t sure where he was going as the car had gone by the time we got to the end, maybe he did it for a dare? Admittedly we stopped for lunch at a new place in the Alley.
The food was really nice at ‘Starsky and Hatch’, though quite expensive; gentrification is here to stay I guess, hard to roll back wanting people to spend money. Eleanor’s hair reminded me it was windy (it’s always windy in St Leonards) and quite cool as we waited for lunch.
We strolled past the closed pier (why is it closed?),
and past Hasting Beach to the old town. With the aid of some judicious tweaking in Lightroom, the beach almost looks like a 1960s postcard.
Not a lot seems to have changed in either the old or the new town, George St was absolutely rammed in places and it felt like there were fewer shops and more eating/drink establishments, which is probably a good thing for the local economy. Not that we come here much ourselves, we tend to spend money closer to home. There were a few empty shop fronts though that is not unusual this time of year.
We stopped for a drink and some chips at a pub in Queens Rd, before taking an even slower walk back to St Leonards, stopping for a further drink at Graze. I’m glad Graze made it through the lockdowns, on a good day it’s one of my favourite places for a quiet glass of usually good wine. We were meeting some friends in their flat in Marine Court, my favourite building in St Leonards, though I wouldn’t want to live there due to the service charges and all the maintenance issues.
The building still has some of the original 30s fittings and I love the common area interiors, faded as they are. I love this font.
I took a couple of photos from our friend’s front deck that overlooks the sea, and one from their kitchen over the houses behind. The view from the desk is one of the best in St Leonards.
Some other friends joined us and we all left to go to a gallery opening of an artist friend of our hosts. Eleanor and I stayed briefly before heading off to catch the train back to London. The train was fine, but there were issues with the Tube at London Bridge so we walked up to Liverpool St (knackered) and I took one final photo for the day as we crossed the Thames.
Reflecting back on the day, both on the train back to London and over the week since, I think it is fair to say I can barely wait to get back to St Leonards, to the sea, to less crowded streets, significantly less air pollution and to the people and places I was enjoying before we left. I’m still hopeful I will love my flat, two more weeks and I will have the answer to that question too.