Britain’s once rundown seaside resorts have been busily reinventing themselves. Take Eastbourne for instance: forget those hackneyed Zimmerframe City images, this largely Victorian Sussex Coast resort is fast becoming as vibrantly youthful and trendy as neighbouring Brighton.
It’s within commuting distance of London, closer still to Gatwick, is becoming increasingly popular for weekend breaks, and its demographic has been lowered dramatically by a large and international student population, drawn by the presence of a number of good language schools and several departments of Sussex University.
The powers that be are now shrewdly promoting the town and its environs as a great place for active short breaks – which is what drew me to the recent cycling festival, a weekend packed with freewheeling and fast pedalling activities, from a mini bike show to fun rides and some full-on racing up and down the promenade.
You can hire bikes at www.uckmere-cycle.co.uk and head off for a ride that follows the famous Sven Sisters chalk cliffs, through the new South Downs National Park, or whack it into low gear and slog up the steep hill to the top of Beachy Head, sadly notorious as a suicide site but one of the South of Englland’s most beautiful landmarks.
You might recognise this breathtaking site from the final scene of the mods and rockers’ movie 'Quadrophenia'. Eastbourne has also served as a stage for such diverse films and TV shows as 'The Goblet of Fire', 'Miss Marple', 'Foyle’s War', 'Poirot', 'Little Britain' and, hard to believe but true, 'Pearl Harbour' – while the town’s magnificent pier doubled for Brighton’s Palace Pier in 'Brighton Rock'!
Pop into the tourist information centre or go to www.visiteastboourne.com and get a map of 35 film and TV locations across the town. Also available are details of nine routes that reveal the town’s colourful heritage and locate where all the appropriate blue plaques can be found.
The formidable Redoubt Fortress, which dates from Napoleonic times, is a seafront landmark currently presenting ‘Stitch For Victory’, which explores the contribution needlework played to life in World War Two. For men and boys there are military exhibits, including the Royal Sussex and Queen’s Royal Irish Hussars regimental collections and a Blitz display.
Nearby is the man-made Sovereign Harbour Marina, one of the largest facilities of its type in Europe. It’s from here that you can take a white-knuckle speedboat ride across the bay. On the waterfront there are places to eat and drink and the Bright Ideas gallery and shop to explore.
Eastbourne is strong on arts and culture and Viewpoint, Henry Paddon and the Emma Mason Gallery are three of the smaller galleries to be found in the trendy Little Chelsea quarter, with its pavement cafés, bars and boutiques.
Best of all, though, is the massive – and stridently modern – Towner Gallery (01323 434670, towereastbourne.org.uk), opened just three years ago and set in Devonshire Park, close to the famous tennis stadium – which is home to the nation’s second most important tournament after Wimbledon. When you’ve had enough time exploring the galleries there’s a good value first-floor café with light food and a pleasant balcony for days when al fresco is the preferred option.
Or you might prefer to wander back to the seafront and take a seat at the famed 76-year old bandstand, which hosts more than 130 concerts a year.
Save some time too for the How We Lived Then Museum (01323 737143, www.sussexmuseums.co.uk). Here are 100,000 plus exhibits, spanning half a century and displayed in old room and shop setting over four floors.
Eastbourne now welcomes an estimated 4.8-million visitors every year, bringing £252-million into the town, some £100-million of it from day visitors.
The town can offer more than 7,500 bed spaces, making it one of the South East’s largest accommodation providers.
Part owned by American actor John Malkevich, the Big Sleep Hotel has been voted by TripAdvisor as one of the world’s top-10 celebrity owned establishments while the Grand is currently England’s only five-star seaside hotel.
Our option was to go for a private B&B establishment. Cambridge House (01323 721100, cambridgehouseeastbourne.co.uk), just off the seafront, made an ideal choice. Our room was bright and cheery, breakfast was generous and hosts Peter and Jeanette Lowe made us feel immediately
at home. It was a great good value option, with full mod cons and the freedom to come and go as we pleased.
When it comes to eating out, you’ll be spoilt for choice. We dined at Farm@Fridaystreet (01323 766049, farmfridaystreet.com) – a highly popular gastro pub brasserie, with tasty, no nonsense food in truly generous portions. Our mussels’ starter would serve most as a main course while belly pork and a massive locally caught plaice where perfectly cooked and presented.
Fortunately we’d taken it easy at lunchtime, with a beautifully served light salad at Central Eating (07980 339864, twitter.com/centraleasting), a newly opened venue on busy Terminus Road. Concentrating on local ingredients they’ve got it right from the off, with a lovely child-friendly ambience – colouring books, games and toys aplenty to keep the kids from under the adults’ feet.
Eastbourne is within reach of a host of attractions. There’s Pevensey Castle, close by where William the Conqueror landed in 1966; the stunning gardens and grounds of Herstmonceux Castle; Michelham Priory, which boasts the largest moat in Britain; Knockhatch Adventure Park and, of course, such rival seaside resorts as Bexhill, Hastings, Brighton, Worthing, Littlehampton and Bognor Regis.
On our way down, we overnighted at the delectably photogenic little Sussex market town of MIdhurst – home to Cowdray Park, the spiritual home of polo.
Set at the heart of the town but having its own lovely grounds The Spread Eagle Hotel (01730 816 911, spreadeagle-midhurst.com) is an atmosphere-laden establishment that has been welcoming travellers since the 15th Century.
Walls are wonky, floorboards creak and a mediaeval ambience prevails, but there are all the creature comforts of the modern age. You can even opt for a massive – and magnificent – four-poster tester bed if you want to crank up the romantic mood.
The elegant restaurant serves suitably exquisite modern British cuisine, at prices that, like the room rates, will seem like steal to anyone used to paying London tariffs.
The hotel’s splendid spa currently has a £75 pp special deal: either a 55-minute treatment or two 25-minute seasons, a two-course lunch with a glass of Pimms and full use of the indoor pool. Sauna, steam room, spa bath and gym (Mondays-Fridays till August 31. Tel: 01730 819829, firstname.lastname@example.org).
Nearby are the contrasting delights of glorious Goodwood, the South Downs, the cathedral city of Chichester, mighty Arundel Castle, Jane Austen’s Chawton House and, 90 minutes away, welcoming Eastbourne.