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Hastings Beach: Exploring the Legacy of a Historic Maritime Town with Martin Dutton

Updated: May 24, 2023

Hastings, located on the picturesque East Sussex coast of England, has a long-standing connection with the sea. While its maritime history does not date back to Roman times, it gained prominence during the Saxon period, firmly establishing itself as one of the country's important port towns. Over the centuries, Hastings thrived as a member of the Cinque Ports, making significant contributions to both the local economy and the nation's fishing industry.

The precise location of the early Saxon harbour remains a mystery, as historical records from that era offer little insight. However, evidence suggests that the harbour might have been situated in an inlet protected by a shingle spit, similar to the formation of other nearby ports such as Shoreham and Winchelsea. It is believed that the allure of a sheltered bay or lagoon at the mouth of the Old Roar Stream in Priory Valley initially attracted the Saxons to the area.

Unfortunately, the build-up of silts from the stream gradually transformed the harbour into a marsh-like environment, rendering it virtually unusable. This reclaimed land, later known as the America Ground, became an integral part of the present-day New Town.

In the 16th century, Hastings made attempts to build a functioning harbour. Remains of the old 16th-century harbour wall, buried beneath the current stade, are the oldest known structures of this kind in Sussex. Records indicate the existence of a wooden pier in 1546, followed by the commissioning of a stone wall for the stade in 1561. However, it is unclear whether this construction was successful, as historical records do not provide conclusive evidence.

In 1562, Rye, considered the region's principal port at the time, initiated efforts to construct a protective pier or breakwater in Hastings. Despite enlisting the support of influential figures such as the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, William Brooke, immediate progress was elusive.

It was not until October 1578 that Queen Elizabeth I acknowledged the importance of Hastings as a strategic military and fishing town. The loss of the pier had caused significant decay, leading to a decline in maritime trade and fishing activities. Consequently, the Queen granted £4000, a substantial sum for that era, for the construction of a suitable harbour. Unfortunately, misappropriation of funds hindered progress, and work ceased until March 1595 when assistance from men in Lyme Regis was sought to repair the pier.

The construction of the pier, primarily made of stone, faced numerous challenges. The first winter storm resulted in its break-up, as the absence of a timber brace proved detrimental. Subsequent attempts to rebuild the pier continued in 1596, this time incorporating the remains of an earlier structure. By November 1597, a pier measuring around 100 feet in length and 30 feet in height stood tall. However, its brief existence came to a swift end when a severe storm destroyed it within an hour.

Throughout the 17th century, Hastings made sporadic efforts to repair and improve the pier. The entire town was called upon to contribute financially, and those who failed to do so were fined. Despite the efforts to raise funds, the financial situation remained challenging, leading to a doubling of the catch allowance for the fishing fleet in 1617, with a portion of the increase allocated for the pier's repair. Additionally, a tax of 12 pence was imposed on every tun of beer, with half of the revenue directed towards the pier. However, the work on the harbour was sporadic and eventually came to a halt in 1621.

In 1635, the town made its last attempt during this period to create a decent harbour. Henrich Cranhalls, a renowned Dutch engineer, was brought in to determine the location and method of construction. Instead of focusing on the stade, Cranhalls proposed building a safe haven at the site of the former Saxon port in Priory Valley. His ambitious plan aimed to accommodate ships of 400 tons or more and provide shelter for 200 or more vessels. However, the estimated cost of £220,000 (equivalent to approximately £19 million today) presented a significant hurdle. In 1636, King Charles I was petitioned for the necessary funding, and while promises of assistance were made, the provision of funds was generally lacking. In 1656, a winter storm washed away the remaining structures of the Elizabethan harbour wall, bringing all work to a halt. After nearly a century of efforts, the town's attempts to construct a functional harbour had been in vain.

Following the unsuccessful endeavours of the previous century, there was a prolonged period of inactivity regarding the development of a harbour. Fishing vessels were brought ashore, and the stade received some protection from the remnants of the Elizabethan harbour. In 1806, as the town grew in prosperity and size, Sir John Rennie, a renowned engineer responsible for notable projects such as the original Southwark and Waterloo Bridges, proposed the construction of a harbour to the west of the Priory Stream. Unfortunately, no detailed plans have survived, and it is believed that the cost and ambitious nature of the project prevented its realization. Nonetheless, the need for an improved harbour was evident, as larger ships began arriving in Hastings in the 1800s, carrying goods such as The Roanoke, bound for Antwerp from New York, which was recorded as having discharged at Hastings Harbour in 1829. Rennie's plan was reconsidered in 1834 but was once again deemed too expensive. As a result, a smaller 12-acre harbour was proposed, with an estimated cost of around £100,000. However, even this scaled-down project was ultimately shelved.

Various other harbour designs were considered, but it was not until 1896 that a plan, which had been developed years earlier, finally saw some progress. The harbour, designed by Alfred Carey, was intended to cover 24 acres and feature landing stages, wharves, and jetties. The harbour wall was positioned to the east of the remains of the Elizabethan structures. The inshore section of the harbour was constructed using open wooden staging to allow shingle to pass through. The design also incorporated the Rock-a-Nore groyne, a 76-meter long structure built to prevent the eastward movement of shingle and the erosion of the stade. The failure to construct suitable groynes to the east of the Old Town had raised concerns among the local population, who suspected that the council's reluctance was driven by a desire to see the fishing industry relocate to Rye. However, after public pressure and severe storms in 1884, the council finally constructed the Rock-a-Nore groyne. This groyne would later be extended to form the eastern end of the harbour, as per Carey's design.

Despite initial progress, construction difficulties and insufficient funds led to a halt in the harbour project at the end of 1897, with the eastern harbour arm measuring 371 meters in length. Over the next 100 years, shingle accumulated against the incomplete harbour wall and the Rock-a-Nore groyne, resulting in the expansion of the stade toward the sea. By 1930, the low water mark had shifted 112 meters further out compared to 1908. The remains of the Elizabethan harbour became buried, and the entire wooden portion of the harbour arm, measuring 145 meters, was covered by shingle.

By 1955, Hastings Council no longer viewed the structure as a harbour but as a breakwater or large groyne. The continued accumulation of shingle on the western side of the harbour arm caused a significant decline in the fishermen's stade, forcing some boats to relocate to Rye. In the late 1960s, the Rock-a-Nore groyne was made higher and longer. Although this prevented further erosion of the fishermen's stade, it also increased the width of the beach, reducing the benefits provided by the harbour arm. By the mid-1970s, the harbour arm had started to break apart. Professional advice was sought from Halcrow, and the collapsed centre was reinforced with 7-tonne concrete blocks called stabits, which are still in place today.

Hastings has had a long-standing relationship with the sea, although there is no evidence to suggest its connection dates back to the Roman era. However, during the Saxon period, the town firmly established itself and became one of the most important port towns in the country due to its membership in the Cinque Ports. While the town flourished, its fishing industry also thrived, playing a vital role in the local economy. Over time, the loss of the harbour and various challenges, both natural and man-made, have posed significant obstacles to the fishing fleet. Competition from other fishing fleets, over-fishing, and quota limits imposed by the EU have all contributed to the decline of the fleet.

Despite these challenges, the fishing fleet in Hastings has endured, making it Europe's largest beach-launched fleet and an integral part of the town's heritage. The efforts to construct a functional harbour over the centuries may have been marred by bungled attempts, financial constraints, and natural forces, but the fishing industry and its historical significance continue to be a vital part of Hastings today.

Martin Dutton's Hastings Beach

"The shingle beach at Hastings, known as The Stade, is the home of the largest beach-launched fishing fleet in Britain. I was first introduced to the beach in 2015 and the whole place appealed to me as a subject to paint. The fishing boats hauled up onto the shingle beach, the constant blustery winds from across the sea, the screeching, soaring seagulls, the activities of the fishermen and the brick-a-brac of discarded nets, pots, boats, tractors and machine parts littered around the beach are all fascinating things crying out for painterly interpretation."

"I started my new beach theme with numerous objective in situ studies in oil or mixed media- my usual approach when starting a new subject to enable me to get to know what I am looking at."

"There is a single purpose and power that dominates the beach- the need to continue and maintain a commercially viable fishing industry, an industry that dates back to Medieval times. This struggle to wrestle a living from the powerful sea has, in essence, remained unchanged since the beginning of human civilisation. When tramping, with effort, across the shingle observing the massive fishing boats or sheltering on the leeward side of their hulls to draw and paint, one gets a sense of the dominant physical nature of the beach and its atavistic reverberations. In my paintings I attempt to find a painterly equivalent to these subjective responses."

You can discover Martin's work at Artizan Collective Gallery until June 25th. For more information, visit



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