24 July 2020

Sussex Staycation: Beachy Head, Hastings and Brighton

I was supposed to be on holiday in Montenegro this week, but my flights were cancelled some months ago and, in any case, a flexible staycation seemed more doable in the present COVID-19 circumstances. Instead, I went to stay with my parents in Oxford for a few days, where we strolled in Port Meadow, visited a few coffee shops and recreated Molineux in the garden.

On Tuesday, we drove down to the South Coast for some sunshine and sea air, and luckily, both were abundant. Coincidentally, while researching the trip, I had spotted some stunning photos of Birling Gap and Seven Sisters by Finn Hopson on Twitter, and we decided to head for the National Trust car park at Birling Gap. The car park was quite busy when we arrived, despite our early start, and there was a bit of a — physically distant — queue for the one working loo. We bought some sausage rolls and hot drinks from the cafe, which was open for takeaway, and climbed down the steps to the pebbly beach. Several people were already swimming in the sea, but we were too busy gaping at the stark, white cliffs that form the Seven Sisters. The white chalk gleamed in the sunshine, contrasting with the white chalk, the blue sky and the turquoise sea so sharply, it was hard to believe someone hadn't carved out the cliff edge to a specific design.

After our tea break, we walked back up to the car park and then up the hill towards Beachy Head, over to the east. The National Trust website has a one-hour circular route, although we carried on almost all the way to Beachy Head. It's one of those walks where you think you've found the best view, only for there to be another even better photo opportunity a few hundred metres further on, especially as the iconic red and white Beachy Head Lighthouse appeared. The curving coastline is also misleading, and just when you think you've reached the top of the headland, there's another twist in the tale. We looped back round through a scrubby forest back to the car park, and collected our picnic, which we enjoyed overlooking the Seven Sisters. There were quite a few other walkers out and about, but everyone was following physical distancing guidelines.

Our next stop was Hastings and we tried really hard to take 'the coast road', but both Google and the sat nav kept directing us back onto the main roads in land. The snatches of seaside scenes we saw were very picturesque, and we did make a pitstop in Bexhill-on-Sea, whose name appealed to me for obvious reasons; I was also unaware of the town's connections to motor racing and to John Logie Baird, who died there. We arrived in Hastings around 4 pm, parked in the old town, explored some of the picturesque streets, spied the remains of the castle on the hill built in 1066 by William of Normandy, and walked down the sea front to the pier. Hastings was fairly busy but not to the extent of impacting social distancing.

It was then an hour's drive to Brighton, via Newhaven and a final stretch of coast road. I was staying the night at the Artist Residence, a small, quirky boutique hotel in Regency Square, one block back from the seafront at West Pier. After I had checked in, we ordered fish and chips from The Regency, which we enjoyed in the golden hour sun on the beach; the staff did a great job of dealing with customers wanting to eat in and those who were collecting or ordering takeaway, and the food was great. My parents drove back to Oxford, and I went for a walk along the seafront to the Palace Pier — there were some very pockets near the beach bars, but generally it wasn't too crowded.

My small room on the fourth floor of the hotel was cosy and quiet, clean and well-appointed. Each room at the Artist Residence features the work of a different artist, and the whole hotel has lots of unique, creative touches. They weren't yet serving food but the bar — which looked great — was open all day for drinks. All of the staff were very welcoming, and I felt very comfortable throughout.

In the morning, I visited a few speciality coffee shops in Hove — I've written about these in a separate post — and then headed back down to the beach, eyeing up the colourful beach huts, dodging sea gulls and finally dipping my feet into the sea. I was really lucky with the weather: it was beautifully sunny and warm but not too hot.

I wandered through The Lanes, donning my face mask in the slightly busier parts, before stopping for coffee and brunch at 17 Grams. They were open for eat-in customers, at the handful of distanced tables inside the colourfully decorated cafe, and outside in the sunshine. I had a very fine Allpress piccolo, and cornbread waffles with avocado mousse, smoky tempeh and hummus, which was delicious and beautifully presented.

Afterwards, I continued on to the North Laine, popping into a few of the many great independent shops, and then up to the Seven Dials neighbourhood, which has some interesting eateries and delis, before looping back to pick up my bag from my hotel before heading to the station. I didn't book my ticket in advance and neither the train station nor my train to London Bridge was very busy; luckily for me, it's just a short walk home from London Bridge, and so ended my little staycation.

No, it wasn't the same as a trip to a new city or country, but it was good to have a change of scenery and to test the waters, so to speak. In addition to my many already-cancelled trips this year, I do still have one last pair of international flights booked in for November, but I'm not yet getting my hopes up too much about that, and the thought of booking something else if it ends up being cancelled is almost unbearable. What a year...

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