Next up in the series, seven secret highlights, we’re on the lookout for alternative things to do in Hastings. The Ellie & Co team often visit the East Sussex seaside town about an hour west of Brighton by car or train, or 1.5 hours from London. We usually go for a day trip or occasionally at the weekend. However long we spend in Hastings, it goes without saying, once we’ve done the classic things like walked on the pier, and scoffed fish n chips and ice cream on the beach, we’ll wander away from the crowds around the backstreets in search of off-beat gems and local haunts.
Hidden highlights of Hastings
If you’re planning your next trip to Hastings, every travel blog or article you read will tell you to go to Hastings Castle, the Shipwreck Museum, on the West Hill or East Hill cliff railway funicular railways, to see the fisherman’s huts, and Hastings Contemporary gallery. These places are interesting, but they get busy. So today, I want to share with you my favourite secret highlights of a recent visit. These are places you won’t find on most tourist itineraries, which doesn’t mean they aren’t worth visiting or trying. Let’s dive into some alternative things to do in Hastings,
1 America Ground, an overlooked neighbourhood
Most people – including me until recently – miss this tiny triangular shopping area called The America Ground. It’s bordered by Robertson Street, Trinity Street and Claremont and I love it for its independent spirit. It’s packed with independent shops, restaurants, cafes, clubs and bars; as well as architectural curiosities like the Hastings Library with connections to this forgotten bestselling female travel writer and Source Park, the biggest underground BMX and skate park in the world set in an old Turkish bathhouse. It’s also where you’ll one of my favourite Hastings discoveries, the True Crime Museum and this antique shop with a twist.
The story behind its name is also interesting. It’s a reminder of a time the area ended up becoming separated off from the official borough of Hastings boundary; blocked off my silt and pebbles displaced after storms. Over time, this independent bit of land grew into a thriving community of 1,000 people who lived tax and rent free in ramshackle buildings. When Hastings Council tried to evict them, the America Ground was born. The residents declared themselves independent from Hastings as the ‘24th US state’ and hoisting the Stars and Stripes flag. The ramshackle buildings may have disappeared, but its spirit of independence lives on.
Side point: You can find a beautifully illustrated and interactive map of the America Ground area here.
2 Printworks Hastings, an eclectic arts space and B&B
The Printworks Hastings is a club in the America Ground neighbourhood I mentioned above. It’s set inside a Venetian gothic building designed in 1878 by Walter Liberty Vernon for FJ Parsons and a local philanthropist, Thomas Brassey (husband of Annie Brassey, the bestselling travel writer time forgot). It originally opened as a bed and breakfast and expanded across three levels over the last 10 years.
Today it offers creative studio/office space and most recently The Printworks Arts Club on the ground and first floors, which is open Thursday, Friday and Saturday, which you enter via Gotham Alley. They host DJs playing vinyl, live bands, comedians and sometimes burlesque, drag and cabaret, charity events, authors events, spoken word, literary salons and Fringe Festivals.
Find The Printworks Hastings at 14 Claremont, Hastings TN34 1HA
3 Old-town Twittens, a tangle of narrow passages
These fascinating Sussex-centric curiosities are unknown to most visitors to Hastings, but they make for a charming and fun way to explore the older part of the town. In case you have no idea what I’m talking about, ‘twittens’ are technically narrow passages that run along the front of houses that connect bigger streets. There are plenty to explore all around Sussex, particularly in Brighton.
In Hastings, there’s a beautiful tangle of them to the west of the old town leading up to West Hill to lose yourself in. The twittens in Hastings, are lined with beautiful historic homes and colourful facades. I could spend my entire Hastings day trip wandering around them, picking out my favourite houses and taking endless photos, until you emerge up on the windswept West Hill for a lovely view out over the State and out to sea.
4 The flea market hiding an Edwardian menswear shop
Another overlooked discovery in the fascinating little-known America Ground neighbourhood. Most people walk on past Arthur Green’s, an antique shop with a twist, unaware of what’s hidden inside. You’ll find it on the seafront where the town of St Leonard’s-on-Sea and Hastings meet, opposite the underground skate park. I spotted the beautiful old floor mosaic first – I’m always on the lookout for them in Brighton and anywhere else I go.
This was the clue I was in for a big surprise. Inside, not only is this shop packed with all kinds of beautiful antique treasures. It also hides a perfectly preserved interior of an Edwardian gentleman’s outfitters dating back to 1904!
As you can see, running along each wall, are two beautiful shelving units, each with different sections designed to contain a specific type of garment. Beautifully carved signs tell me where I would originally have found the shirts, silk and felt hats and hosiery. A staff member I got chatting to told me that English Heritage has given it Grade II listed status, and I wouldn’t believe the number of American visitors who had offered to buy it.
Find Arthur Greene’s at 34 White Rock, Hastings TN34 1JY
5 Flower Makers’ Museum, a blooming basement factory
This under-the-radar museum is hidden in the basement of a Hastings’ High Street shop with beautiful old Victorian façade. On first glance, it looks like an ordinary high street florist. Get closer, and you’ll see that all of the little flowers and foliage decorating the front window and spilling out the door are in fact, artificial; a clue of what’s to come.
This is the headquarters of a curious and thriving company called the Shirley Leaf and Petal Co. It specialises in making artificial flowers, petals, leaves and foliage for film and television sets, film production companies, theatre shows and fashion houses. It opened in the 19th century in east London, but moved to Hastings in 1910 and today is owned by a lady called Breda Wilson. The museum is a little-known working collection consisting of everything involved in manufacturing fake flowers and foliage.
Side note: The shop is often randomly closed, even on the days it says it’s open. I had to make two trips to Hastings to catch it, but it was worth it. They also charge a £1.50 entry fee to get in.
Find the Flower Makers’ Museum at 58A High Street, Hastings TN34 3EN
6 The Electric Palace, a tiny independent cinema
Here at Ellie & Co we love supporting local independents, especially cinemas, seeing as there are so few around these days. I stopped in my tracks when I spotted the Electric Palace Cinema tucked along High Street in the Old Town. It was the cool font around the door that did it. It’s the kind of special place you want to tell everyone about, but keep to yourself at the same time.
They show a choice of alternative films and film-related events. There’s a licensed bar so you can sip a tasty local ale or Fairtrade coffee while you setting into one of their iconic 1930s golden velvet seats they nabbed at a memorabilia sale.
Side note: Supporting this place is so important as the cinema survives solely on ticket and refreshment sales and our team of 30 dedicated volunteers to staff the screenings.
Find the Electric Palace Cinema at 39A High Street, Hastings TN34 3ER
7 Boulevard books Thai Cafe, it’s like dining in a library
Boulevard Books and Thai Café is a bookshop by day, and a cosy Thai restaurant come the evening. It’s located along George Street, a pedestrianised lane lined with shops, pubs, cafes and restaurants all with historic frontages. As you can see inside, this tiny little shop is filled to the brim with books crammed into floor-to-ceiling shelves lining every wall, each table set for dinner tucked neatly into little corners.
I must admit I got totally distracted looking around and taking photos as soon as I set foot through the door. Eventually I made it to our little table for two in the politics section (!) in the back part of the restaurant filled with natural light. The food is good, too. Spicy and filing plates of dlelcious chicken with lovely sticky Thai jasmine rice which doesn’t last long. The relaxing finale to our day trip to Hastings, I highly recommend.
Side notes: Our date dinner at Boulevard Books and Thai Café was a spontaneous decision, and we were lucky to nab the last table for two, so I recommend you book ahead. They also don’t serve alcohol but you can bring your own for a £2 corkage fee, it’s also cash-only and they serve a set two-course menu for £17 per person.
Find Boulevard Books and Thai Cafe at 32 George Street, Hastings TN34 3EA
BONUS hidden highlight – Little Roar Gill, a hidden waterfall in an ancient nature reserve
While all the other tourists head up to East or West Hill for a spot of nature/fresh air, we’re heading to local fave park Alexandra Park, to hunt for a hidden gem many residents don’t know about, or if they do, haven’t ventured to yet. If you head into the northern part of the park, you’ll find an otherworldly nature reserve called Old Roar Gill – a hidden gem in itself – which is home to an ancient waterfall called Little Roar Gill that, until recently, lay neglected and overlooked since the big storm of 1987.
Old Roar Gill reserve is a hidden treasure in itself – and a walk through it to find the waterfall makes for an otherworldly experience. Being in the reserve feels like you’re in a rainforest, not in the middle of a residential area of a Sussex town: it’s rich in ferns and moss and home to rare orchids. In spring, it’s carpeted in ancient woodland flowers, such as bluebells, wood anemones and avens.
To find this curious waterfall, follow the pathway through Alexandra Park that follows the stream under the road bridge to the wall. You can also get to it if you drive up Ghyllside Avenue. Here you’ll find an alleyway to the left which takes you down to a stream. If you follow the footpath through the reserve, it takes you past several mini falls on the way.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about my secret highlights of Hastings and feel inspired to hunt for curiosities on your next trip to the East Sussex coastal town. Do you have a curiosity in Hastings to recommend? I’d love to know!