Sussex by the Sea: The Curious Case of Eastbourne

Eastbourne is one of the iconic British seaside resorts you’ll find scattered along the East Sussex coastline. For a long time, I never really understood the appeal of my hometown as a holiday destination, especially with its nickname “God’s Waiting Room” due to the large number of old peoples’ homes and its aging population.

Although returning to Eastbourne doesn’t fill me with excitement, after having the privilege of living and working in more exciting locations like  Budapest, Madrid, Frankfurt, Tbilisi, and South India, I am slowly beginning to see the quirky appeal of this little seaside resort.

With its Edwardian architecture and sea views straight out of an Agatha Christie novel, the town is undoubtedly picturesque. This is classic “Sussex by the Sea” territory: it’s antique, and it’s not the fashionable, up-dated version you’ll find in Brighton. People flock to the shingled beaches at the first ray of sunlight with a box of takeaway fish and chips, while predatory seagulls shriek in the air plotting their culinary burglary.

For years I remained prejudiced about the town, judging it for its grittier side where Friday nights meant a lot of inebriated girls tottering around in miniskirts or drug dealers who sit on the street corners in the residential areas behind the seafront. In capital cities like Budapest and Madrid it’s easier to overlook these as part of city life, but in a small town it’s jarring. Since my mother moved back to Hungary, I haven’t had a reason to return. I’ve lost touch with my British roots, especially in the climate of Brexit where I feel more “othered” for having a Hungarian mother and having lived outside the UK for nearly 15 years. I’m one of those “Citizens of Nowhere” the likes of Theresa May looks down on. That doesn’t make me immune to nostalgia and homesickness. I think back to a sunny New Year’s Day when we took the customary stroll along the seafront. Away from the derelict back streets we lived on, I could appreciate the town’s old fashioned charm I took for granted and often ridiculed.

Often I’ve had to stop myself from laughing at the signpost “The Sunshine Coast Welcomes You” after coming home for the holidays while living in Spain. It’s always rained when I pass it, but you can usually trust statistics,  which say that Eastbourne has a track record for the highest levels of sunlight in the UK (although, I wouldn’t be surprised if another town has stolen Eastbourne’s sunshine crown by now). I always found this a bit depressing, especially since it’s already dark by 3 p.m. in December.

When the sun is out, Eastbourne is very pleasant. Walks along the seafront are refreshing. There are plenty of cafés along the beach, which make for a nice spot for a coffee with a sea view when I’m in the mood for something traditional, like a Sussex cream tea on the pier.

Other than old people, Eastbourne is infamous for Beachy Head, one of the top suicide spots in the world. You wouldn’t think it on a summer hike, when you’re surrounded by spectacular white cliffs and stunning coastal views.

Comapred to nearby Brighton, Eastbourne seems frumpy, which is why it surprised me when I saw the A-list of celebrities who passed through the town. Apparently, John Malkovich even owned a hotel here at some point, and sometimes locals spotted him on the seafront a few times.

Eastbourne has had its fair share of illustrious visitors and residents. Charles Dickens performed amateur dramatics at the Lamb Theatre in the 1830s, and Communist Manifesto authors Marx and Engles spent a lot of time in the area as well. Engels even had his ashes scattered from Beachy Head. There is even a legend that Debussy found inspiration for his composition “La Mer” here.

 

 

Other residents have included The Graduate author Charles Webb, sci-fi writer Angela Carter, occultist Alistair Crowley, comedian Eddie Izzard, Tommy Cooper and many more. Some even say that John Cleese came up Fawlty Towers after a terrible holiday in Eastbourne.

Next to the turquoise-domed neo-oriental bandstand I spotted a placard  commemorating one of the musicians who had gone down on the Titanic. He was member of the quartet that continued to play as the ship sank. It sent chills down my spine. The Titanic played a part in my own family history since my Hungarian great-grandfather missed his connection in Hamburg to catch the “unsinkable” ship. He sailed to New York on the Carpathian – the ship which picked up the survivors.

Eastbourne is a curious box of contradictions that has many surprises to give. Parts of it might be run down and even dodgy, but the rest is a picture postcard resort of classic British seaside charm. There must be something in its sea air to continuously attract curious and famous characters.

 

For me it was the closest thing I had to a hometown. I remember cool nights on the shingly beach, where I kissed my first boyfriend under the pier. I walked barefoot along the seafront after our school prom, my feet hurting after dancing in heels all night. I remember the times I got shat on by a seagull. Twice. Perhaps it’s a bad thing I haven’t been back in five years. Or perhaps it was a part of my past that remains in the past, that I loved and let go only to move onto new adventures, memories and challenges.

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