There are some cafés with such great names, you just have to eat there. So, in spite of grey, drizzly skies and a stiff breeze, we head to Goat Ledge in St Leonards – set on the seafront with tables on the shingle – for breakfast. One of the town’s new breed of hip cafés and eateries, Goat Ledge is a brightly painted beach shack, with bookable huts for dinners of freshly caught fish or crab-loaded fries, and lip-smacking breakfast baps, washed down with Coldblow coffee, hand-roasted just over the border in Kent.
Our chilly – but delicious – breakfast comes after a night in Hastings, one of Sussex’s more maligned seaside towns, famous for its fishing fleet and the two funiculars that grind up the cliffside (the East Hill Lift is the steepest in the country, although currently out of action). Usually referred to as part of a duo with St Leonards – rather like Brighton and Hove – there’s much talk of the town having a rebirth, not least because of the opening of Vive, a slick hotel housed in former university accommodation right in the heart of town.
It’s easy to spot Vive; its angular charcoal frontage is a marked contrast to the rather tatty buildings around it.
Our room is chic and comfortable, with a well-equipped kitchenette that makes it ideal for longer rentals, as well as for weekend breakers like us. The friendly receptionist tells us to head for Hastings Old Town, a 10-minute walk away, where much of the town’s renaissance is focused. We set off through the unprepossessing modern part of town and cut down to the beach, where fishing trawlers rest on the wide swathe of shingle and tourists dip in and out of fish and chip shops and souvenir emporiums.
The Old Town begins at pedestrianised George Street, lined with cafés, boutiques and galleries. We spend a lovely hour popping in and out of shops: Butler’s Emporium, with its array of scented candles and butter-soft scarves; Vintage Bird, with bolts of fabric and wallpaper swatches by Timorous Beasties and Christian Lacroix; and Penbuckles, where we snap up artisan chocolate and a bottle of local rum.
We wander up the High Street, dotted with more vintage shops and cafés, and double back down to the sea, where the town’s iconic fishers’ sheds rise up from the bach. Originally built as storage huts for fishermen, many are three storeys high, angular black monoliths against the cobalt sky. We dip into RX Fisheries, where the counters are stacked with silver-skinned seabass and rose-pink tuna, scallops and raw prawns, piled high on nests of samphire, and agree to pop back before we leave to pick up a fishy feast to take home.
As the sun begins to drift westwards, we set out towards St Leonards – a 20-minute walk along the seafront – for supper at Colombo 16, a Sri Lankan fusion restaurant, owned and run by the charming Caleb, who serves up fragrant curries and rotis alongside a range of inventive dishes. Examples are: gin-cured trout with chilli and coriander, and wild whiting with green mango sambal. He tells us how the food scene is developing in St Leonards, with a clutch of cocktail bars, cafés and restaurants popping up since the end of the pandemic.
On his advice, we walk around the corner to Heist (heistmarket.com), a collective of seven food and drink businesses, and opt for a glass from the Boatyard’s organic wines, all sourced from coastal vineyards around Europe. We wander slowly home to the sound of the sea rolling quietly on to the shingle.
The following morning is grey and gloomy, but the vibe at Goat Ledge – named after the farmers who brought their animals to feed on the seaweed – feels positively Caribbean. We settle into deckchairs with bacon-stacked baps and hot coffee and reflect on the streets behind – quirkier than Brighton, artier than Eastbourne, still with a few rough edges, maybe, but definitely a town on the up.
The Vive Hotel has doubles from £105, room only (vivehotel.co.uk)
Beyond Brighton… Three more south-coast towns shaking off their fusty image
Bexhill-on-Sea The big draw in Bexhill is the modernist De La Warr Pavilion, built in 1935 by the 9th Earl De La Warr and set right on the beach. A blueprint for London’s Southbank Centre, the building is a thriving hub for the arts, combining a gallery with a concert space. Stay at the revamped Relais Cooden Beach (doubles from £170, room only, therelaisretreats.com).
Worthing In recent years, Worthing has swapped its staid reputation for something hipper, as refuseniks from the eye-watering Brighton housing market have moved in. Crabshack (crabshackworthing.co.uk) is the place for seafood, while the New Amsterdam (newamsterdamworthing.co.uk) offers locally brewed craft ales with work by local artists on the walls. Stay at the Brewhouse & Kitchen (doubles from £135 B&B, brewhouseandkitchen.co.uk) for rooms on the edge of leafy Victoria Park.
Eastbourne Another genteel town slowly revamping its image, Eastbourne got a lift with the opening of Port, a boutique hotel bringing Brooklyn style to the promenade (doubles from £95, room only, porthotel.co.uk). Browse the vintage stores and boutiques in Little Chelsea, and reserve a table at Cru (cruwine.co.uk).