Empress of Watering Places – Eastbourne

Eastbourne is a seaside town on the Sussex coast. Situated around 20 miles from Brighton, this popular resort features an elegant three-mile esplanade populated by an assortment of Victorian hotels and townhouses, a traditional pier and Napoleonic keep. Less hectic than its illustrious neighbour to the west, Eastbourne is well-suited to those looking for a more tranquil short break holiday.

Early History of Eastbourne

Local archaeological finds indicate that the area around Eastbourne was occupied by humans as far back as the Stone Age. Remains of Celtic and Roman settlements have also been uncovered including a Roman villa.

Anglo Saxon Mention

An Anglo-Saxon charter from around 963AD makes mention of a settlement called ‘Burne’. This is thought to be the first recorded mention of Eastbourne and means ‘brook or stream’. The name likely refers to the stream that sill runs through the town today. The prefix ‘East’ was later added in the 13th century to avoid confusion with Westbourne in West Sussex.

Norman Times

Following the Norman Conquest, Eastbourne and the surrounding region was held by Robert, Count of Mortain – William the Conqueror’s half brother. Nevertheless, ‘Burne’ as it was then known, remained a small, relatively nondescript farming village until medieval times.

Market Charter, Late Medieval Times

In the early 14th century, a market charter was granted and the town began to prosper. Its fortunes were helped further in 1324 with the visit of King Edward II. By the end of the 16th century, Eastbourne had acquired ‘town’ status and was under the ownership of three affluent local families; the Burtons, Gildgredges and Selwyns.

The Medieval period was one of significant development for Eastbourne as the town grew in prominence. This can be seen through a variety of historical buildings such as the 12th century Church of St Mary and the Grade I listed mansion house Compton Place – home to the Burton family.

Empress of Watering Places

Eastbourne began to build a reputation as a seaside resort in the late 18th century as did many south coast towns including nearby neighbour, Brighton. The catalyst was Doctor Richard Russell who extolled the medicinal benefits of the seaside in an acclaimed 1752 dissertation.

The doctor’s claims were endorsed by royalty in 1780 when King George III sent his children to Eastbourne for their summer holiday. But the therapeutic qualities of Britain’s seawaters weren’t the only reason that people began flocking to coastal towns during this period.

The Napoleonic Wars

The Napoleonic Wars broke out in 1803 and prevented many of the UK’s well-healed from taking their holidays in Europe. This led to many taking their holidays at many of Britain’s coastal towns. Eastbourne and Torquay are typical examples. The conflict, which raged for more than a decade, also had an influence Eastbourne’s physical make-up.

Construction of Coastal Defences

In 1793 and with the threat of French invasion looming, a major survey was conducted of coastal defences on the south coast. As a result, some fourteen Martello towers were constructed along the shore of Pevensey Bay.

Of the several that survive, Eastbourne’s Wish Tower is one of the most impressive and still occupies a prominent position on the town’s seafront. In 1805, the circular fort, Eastbourne Redoubt was built and served as a barracks and storage depot.

Victorian Growth

The Victorian era was one of substantial growth for Eastbourne. The opening of the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway in 1849 was a major factor. For the first time, the town was easily accessible from London and most parts of Sussex. As the local population boomed, new houses were built throughout Eastbourne.

A Resort for Gentlemen by Gentlemen

To cater to the influx of visitors, local landowner William Cavendish, who later became the 7th Duke of Devonshire, commissioned architect and surveyor, Henry Currey. Currey’s task was to transform Eastbourne into a resort ‘for gentlemen by gentleman’.

In 1872 a 300m pier was built followed by Devonshire Park in 1874 and a town hall in 1883. This redevelopment continued into the early 20th century. 1902 saw the opening of Hampden Park along with the Italian Gardens three years later.

Early 20th Century, World War II

During the Second World War, Eastbourne was heavily bombed. Nevertheless, the town recovered and by 1951, the population had reached 57,000. Its reputation as a popular resort town had also been restored.

Eastbourne Today

Today the elegant Victorian seaside resort conceived by Cavendish and carried out by Currey remains largely intact. Much of the gleaming white architecture is still in evidence today, especially on the sea front, as are the parks and open spaces. Read on as we now take a closer look at popular Eastbourne visitor attractions.

Eastbourne Beaches

Eastbourne’s Beaches

Eastbourne is fronted by three miles of shingle beaches that are popular with families, water-sport enthusiasts and locals. Some of the most notable ones are as follows.

Grand Parade Main Resort Beach

Situated between the pier and Wish Tower, this is Eastbourne’s award-winning main beach. It was honourably mentioned in the Good Beach Guide, is clean and has excellent facilities. Beach huts are available for rent throughout the year and are perfect for shielding against the occasionally bracing elements

This is a quintessentially British resort beach complete with pier (albeit damaged by fire) and backed by Eastbourne’s stately Victorian seafront.

Marine Parade Beach

Marine Parade beaches is located the other side of the pier and is popular with locals and visitors alike. Within easy access to local amenities, it stretches towards Sovereign Marina and commands some outstanding coastal vistas. However, unlike Grand Parade beach, it is not lifeguarded so responsible bathing is recommended.

King Edward Beach

King Edward Beach is ideal for those looking to escape the busier beaches to the east. Offering wonderful views of the distant pier and nearby chalk cliffs, it can be accessed via the promenade. Although predominantly made up of shingle, low tide reveals rock pools and sand.

Redoubt Beach

Redoubt Beach is a sand and shingle beach located to the east of Marine Parade. It’s within walking distance of local amenities and also provides an excellent alternative to the often crowded main beaches to the west.

Holywell Retreat Beach

This beautiful little beach nestles at the foot of the South Downs and is home to an assortment of beach huts and chalets as well as a popular cafe. Pebble gives way to sand and rock pools at low tide, while the local cliffs provide a dramatic backdrop. Recommended by the Good Beach Guide, Eastbourne’s well-kept Italian gardens are also close-by.

Royal Parade Beach

The sand and shingle Royal Parade Beach is a major draw for windsurfers and kite surfers. It’s located away from Eastbourne’s main beaches and is usually less crowded. Like many of the town’s local beaches, its easily accessible and within a short distance of local amenities and facilities.

Harbour Reach

Like Royal Parade Beach, Habour Reach is largely made up of sand and shingle. It’s also a regular haunt for water-sport enthusiasts, cyclists and families. The views back along the coast towards Eastbourne Pier are superb.

Carpet Gardens, Eastbourne

Eastbourne Seafront and Carpet Gardens

Eastbourne Seafront is a visitor attraction in itself and is backed by grand Victorian townhouses and hotels, as well as a collection of shops and restaurants. The centrepiece of this majestic promenade is the award-winning Carpet Gardens with their colourful displays of betting plants and fountains. Laid out in 1904, they’re home to a dazzling array of plant species and shrubs from around the world

Princes Park

The 33-acre Princes Park is lies to the east of Eastbourne’s town centre and offers a serene, tranquil escape during high season. This beautiful green space consists of a rose garden, a boating lake as well as two playgrounds for children.

Hampden Park

Hampden Park is another picturesque open space situated in the centre of Eastbourne. The northern end is dominated by a large pond, lawns and woodland that’s home to an abundant array of wildlife and tree species. Picnic tables have been arranged here and there allowing visitors to relax and enjoy the idyllic surroundings. There’s also a cafe and History Garden near the centre.

Eastbourne Bandstand

Eastbourne Bandstand was built as part of the 1930s redevelopment of the seafront. Said to be ‘the busiest in the UK, its semi-circular design includes a distinctive blue domed roof. Viewing decks and a colonnade form part of the main arena which can accommodate more than 1000 people.

A busy calendar of more than 140 events is held there each year and includes firework displays, tribute bands, themed concerts and parties. Opposite the main bandstand is a commemorative plaque honouring bandsman John Wesley Woodward who perished on the Titanic in 1912.

Redoubt Fortress, Eastbourne

Eastbourne Redoubt Fortress

The Eastbourne Redoubt, constructed in 1805 to guard against French invasion, is one of only three such fortresses in the United Kingdom. Circular in shape and around 220 feet in diameter, this imposing military stronghold comprises 24 vaulted chambers or casemates that open out into a central parade ground.

Above the casemates runs an upper tier gun platform that’s protected by a parapet that at one time housed eleven cannons. The redoubt is open to the public from April to November.

And although admission is charged for entry to the interior, access to the gun platform and parade ground is free. Tours of the fortress as well as films and lectures are held throughout the year and a permanent children’s play area was recently added.

Eastbourne Miniature Steam Railway Adventure Park

This is an award-winning Eastbourne visitor attraction that offers a fun and nostalgic day out for the whole family. Its home to a collection of classic one-eighth scale miniature locomotives such as the Flying Scotsman and LMS Class 5. These iconic trains take visitors along a circular mile-long track around a 5-acre boating lake. A maze, picnic areas, an adventure playground and railway shop can also be found on-site

Fort Fun

Fort Fun is another top Eastbourne visitor attraction. The sprawling site comprises an assortment of activities aimed at children such as adventure golf, an outdoor jungle gym, a play village and indoor soft play zone. During peak season, visitors also have access to an excellent water park with slides and other aquatic activities as well as a sand play area.

Sovereign Harbour Marina

This award-winning marina is a big attraction for yachting and pleasure-boating enthusiasts. It’s also a gastro and retail hub boasting an outstanding array of waterfront restaurants, cafes and shops. The complex opened in the early 1990s on a site originally known as the Crumbles.

There are four linked harbours, a retail park and numerous housing projects, one of which includes short break holiday properties. Easily within reach of the rest of town, the marina offers a great day out for the whole family.

Beachy Head

Beachy Head and the South Downs

The beautiful and dramatic chalk headland of Beachy Head is about three miles from Eastbourne and lies within the beautiful South Downs that surround the town. Towering more than 500 feet above sea-level, the cliffs afford some wonderful views out over the English Channel and towards Dungeness in the east as well as Selsey Bill in the west.

Unsurprisingly, there are some wonderful coastal walks to be had in the vicinity. Sightseeing tours atop an open bus can also be arranged that take in the inspiring wind-swept scenery of these parts.

Bell Tout Lighthouse

The famous Belle Tout lighthouse is set near Beachy Head and has featured in a variety of movies and TV shows. Decommissioned in 1902, it is now Grade II-listed and provides panoramic views of the English Channel.

In 1999, the 850 ton lighthouse was moved back from the cliffs on hydraulic jacks to save it from coastal erosion. The jacks remain in place and can be used to move the building again when required. Today, Bell Tout is a privately-owned bed and breakfast.

Seven Sisters Country Park

Seven Sisters Country Park is situated further along the coast from Eastbourne and is where the South Downs meet the sea. The Seven Sisters are actually a series of chalk cliffs – the highest of them is Haven Brow which extends some 253 feet above the waves. The others are Short Brow, Rough Brow, Brass Point, Flagstaff Point, Baily’s Brow and Went Hill Brow.

At their feet is a thriving environment for marine life that’s been designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest. The area, also considered an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, is home to a macabre but fascinating array of shipwrecks, some of which are accessible via certain shore-walks. Further information can be found at the park’s visitor centre which houses a variety of exhibits and displays. Entry is free.

Dotto Train

The Dotto Train is a great way to get around Eastbourne seafront. Running from Holywell Retreat to the Harbour on Atlantic Drive, the train calls at Eastbourne Pier, Fisherman’s Green, Fort Fun and the Sovereign Centre. It operates during the summer months and is able to accommodate wheelchair users. Well-behaved pets are also permitted.

See https://www.visiteastbourne.com for more information about the town.

Looking to stay in Sussex or near Eastbourne? See our featured range of holiday properties in the area!

Dale Shelabarger

Dale is the owner and founder of Cottages to Rent which he launched back in 2005. As well as promoting holiday cottages, Dale blogs regularly about top UK holiday destinations, visitor attractions and places of historical interest.