Historic Hastings – From Cinque Port to Seaside Resort

Hastings is a major town and borough on the Sussex coast. Situated around 50 miles from London, it serves as both a fishing port and coastal seaside resort. Originally a member of the medieval Cinque Port Confederation along with New Romney, Hythe, Dover and Sandwich, it developed into a major holiday destination during the 18th century.


Hastings dates back to Saxon times and its name derives from the Old English term, Hæstingas, which translates as ‘the followers of Haesta’. According to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, which is a collection of Old English annals documenting Anglo-Saxon history, the town was sacked by the Vikings in 1011 as large swathes of Sussex, Kent and Surrey were overrun by Danish marauders.

Plaque Commemorating 1066

Norman Conquest

Fifty years later, the Norman Conquest began in earnest with the Battle of Hastings. This famed confrontation was fought some 8 miles north of the town at Senlac Hill, following the Norman landings between Hastings and Eastbourne.

Historians believe that the Norman encampment was actually established on Hastings’ outskirts. During the battle, William the Duke of Normandy routed the English army led by Harold Godwinson leading to the eventual conquest of England. A plaque commorating the battle can be seen in the town of Normandy.

Cinque Port Status

By the 11th century Hastings had become a Cinque Port, responsible for the provision of ships to the Crown. In return, a variety of privileges were granted including tax exemption, the freedom to self-govern and to impose local taxes.

However, Hastings’s development as a major port was significantly hindered by the great storms of 1287. Extensive flooding and inclement weather also caused its harbour to silt up.

French Raiders

Further misfortune befell Hastings in 1377 when French raiders attacked and burned the town as part a series of sea-born assaults along the south coast of England. Despite this, Hastings recovered.

To prevent further incursions from the sea, a stone wall was built sometime in the 14th century although by the 18th century, this had fallen into disrepair. In the 16th century, concerted attempts were made to build a natural harbour. But these efforts were repeatedly frustrated by storms and flooding.

Hastings Pier

However, a pier was successfully constructed in 1872. Designed by Eugenius Birch who was also responsible for the piers at Brighton and Eastbourne, it became a popular music venue during the 30s and 60s.

Sadly, the structure was severely damaged by storms in 1990. The in 1995, it was almost completely destroyed by fire in 2010. Although, redeveloped since, the pier is now a shadow of its former self.

The Royal Charter

In spite of the many setbacks, the town’s development was helped considerably when, in 1589, Queen Elizabeth I granted Hastings a ‘Charter of Incorporation’. This provided the town with a corporation and powers to govern its own affairs such as the electing of a mayor. The charter also enabled certain townsfolk to regularise their hitherto unlawful land seizures.

18th Century Tourism

During the 18th century, seaside holidays became especially popular among the wealthy and middle classes. Although not as popular as spa towns such as Buxton, Bath or Cheltenham, southern coastal resorts started to attract large numbers of visitors.

As a result, Hastings slowly became a major holiday destination. This was further accelerated with the introduction of the railways which made the south coast far more accessible from London and beyond.

Modern Hastings

Today, Hastings manages to balance its status as both a historical town and popular holiday destination. The Old Town, which lies at the eastern-end, retains the character and charm of its maritime past – a warren of narrow streets, red-tiled cottages and timbered houses lead down to a shingle beach known as the Stade.

From here, the town’s fishing fleet still operates, with fisherman unloading their catches straight onto the beach.

Hastings Old Town

The centre of Hastings is mid-Victorian but also includes a few regency terraces, a good selection of shops as well as an attractive cricket ground.

Further west is St Leonards, laid out in the 19th century by James Burton, with its boarding houses, small hotels and elegant gardens. This part of Hastings is mostly residential.

A continuous parade runs for more than 3 miles along Hastings seafront and is replete with the kind of tacky but cheerful amusements that are fairly typical of a modern UK seaside resort.

For long stretches the parade has two tiers, with a covered under-walk beside the beach as well as underground car parks behind it.

Top Hastings Visitor Attractions

As well as the countless amusements found on Hastings’ seafront, the town boasts an assortment of top visitor attractions, activities and places of interest.

Hastings Castle

Immediately after the Norman landings, William ordered three fortifications to be constructed at Pevensey, Dover and Hastings. Hastings Castle, which is located on West Hill, was originally made from wood as a motte-and-bailey keep, before being eventually rebuilt in stone.

Today, the Norman fortification lies in ruins although its original dungeons and cloistered chapel remain intact. The castle and its grounds are open to the public and afford some outstanding views of the town and local seascape.

A 20 minute program called the 1066 Story also runs from a tent-style theatre in the castle grounds, offering insights into the keep’s history, the Battle of Hastings as well as the Norman Conquest.

St Clements Caves

Carved into West Hill deep underneath Hasting Castle is a series of caverns known as St Clements Caves which were originally used by smugglers. Over the years, they’ve also served as an air-raid shelter, ballroom and hospital.

Visitors have full access to the labyrinth of passageways and caverns as part of the ‘Smugglers Adventure’ experience, which also includes more than 70 life-size characters and a variety of interactive displays.

1066 Battlefield

No short break holiday to Hastings would be complete without a visit to the battlefield which helped make the town famous. Situated around six miles from Hastings near the charming market town of Battle, the now tranquil, peaceful landscape belies the viscous armed struggle that took place there more than 900 years ago. A visitor centre helps piece together the events that led to the confrontation via a series of interactive displays and an introductory film.

Battle Abbey

Battle Abbey

To commemorate his resounding victory and to atone for the bloodshed, William the Conqueror ordered the construction of an abbey. Almost 30 years later, the 223-foot Benedictine Abbey was finally consecrated and dedicated to Saint Martin of Tours.

Although remodelled and partly destroyed during the reign of Henry VIII, the 13th century rib-vaulted dormitory remains intact as does the Abbey gatehouse which is free to explore.

Blue Reef Aquarium

Hastings’ Blue Reef Aquarium is situated on Rock-A-Nore Road and features 30 aquatic habitats as well as a giant ocean tank. An underwater tunnel allows visitors to get close to an impressive array of marine species including sharks, sting rays and seahorses.

The aquarium also runs a variety of events showcasing its wonderful and exotic inhabitants with additional activities aimed at youngsters including quizzes, word-searches and competitions.

Hastings Museum

Hastings Museum is well-worth a visit and houses a variety of important historical collections. Its archaeological exhibition is one of the most impressive and comprises more than 2000 flints and over 10,000 artefacts, some of which have been excavated locally. These include Iron Age pots, Celtic coins and medieval tiles.

In addition, there’s an excellent Native North American collection, displaying items from the collections of Colin Taylor, Edward Blackmore and Clare Sheridan. Noteworthy artefacts include Sitting Bull’s belt, wooden carvings and authentic headdresses.

There’s also a superb collection of world art objects, donated by the affluent and influential Brassey family. A 19th century offering vessel from Myanmar, a Malagan ceremonial mask as well as an 18th century feathered cloak are just some of the impressive items on show.

Shipwreck Museum

The award-winning Shipwreck Museum is another top historical attraction that should be part of any travel itinerary. Set in Hastings’ Old Town, it displays various artefacts collected from major ships that foundered in local waters, including a British 60-gun warship and a large Dutch East Indiaman.

From the museum, visitors are encouraged to visit the sites of two historical shipwrecks that are only visible at low-tide. Traces of Hastings’ sea defences can also still be seen as well as the remains of a prehistoric forest.

Hastings Fisherman Museum, housed in a 19th century chapel, is also close-by and exhibits a small but beguiling collection of items charting the development of the town’s fishing industry.

The Stade

The Stade

The Stade is Hastings’ shingle beach. Meaning ‘landing place’ in Saxon, it has been home to the town’s fishing fleet for more than 1000 years. A row of tottering, well-preserved net lofts can be found there and were originally used to store nets.

They’re bedecked in brown tar as a result of weatherboarding – a traditional practice that still continues in some parts of Sussex. In 2010, the huts were granted Grade II status by the English Heritage.

East Hill Cliff Railway

Located on Rock-a-Nore Street, this funicular railway was opened in 1902 and runs for 267 feet up East Hill. As the steepest railway of its kind in the UK, its two carriages traverse a 78% gradient offering some magnificent views over Stade beach and its colourful beach-launched fishing fleet. At the top of the hill is Hastings Country Park.

East Hill Cliff Railway is complimented by West Cliff Railway, which runs through a tunnel at a slightly more forgiving 33% gradient, providing easy access to Hastings Castle and St Clement’s Caves.

Hastings Country Park Nature Reserve

Hastings Country Park offers an excellent day out and allows the visitor to truly appreciate the beauty of the south east coast. It was formed in 1974 and is set in the High Wield Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

The reserve, which is one of the largest in England, features 852 acres of ancient, plush green woodlands, sandstone cliffs and gorse-covered glens. It’s also a wildlife haven attracting a rich array of bird species such as kestrels, peregrine falcons and buzzards. Further information can be found at the reserve’s visitor centre which is staffed by a knowledgeable team of volunteers.

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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.