Imposing, timeless and solid as it appears on the horizon, Eastbourne’s Grand Hotel is in fact busy performing a somewhat precarious balancing act.
The landmark Victorian ‘white palace’ dare not stray too far from conservative observation of its faded traditions, yet it must also keep up with the demands of providing a modern five star experience. Fortunately, where the two approaches collide, there exists a gentle joy in the absurd extremes of both.
We arrive as 2017’s archetypal time-poor urban escapees, still flustered having inevitably dashed for the train at Victoria. Yet from the moment the door is held open by a sharply-uniformed porter, we’re transported into the calming if clipped world of Edwardian seaside indulgence.
We’re here because the town is following the successful formula, now repeated all around the coast, of investing heavily in Culture. It’s a surefire way for the UK’s once threadbare resorts to compete with the lure of budget flights and Euro city-breaks, plus it’s a lot more interesting than the other mainstay, the conference trade.
Tomorrow, we hit the Coastal Cultural Trail, an 18-mile route that can be enjoyed by foot, bike or even train and takes in three major galleries and heaps of smaller attractions dotted between here and Hastings.
But right now, it’s all about lunchtime fish ‘n’ chips, followed by some crimson-faced wanderings through the hotel corridors kitted only in a fluffy robe, having thoroughly ‘tested out’ the sauna and spa facilities.
We stumble into Qualisea (189 Terminus Road) for a battered huss (aka fresh, meaty local dogfish) and perfect chunky chips. The place is packed, and the nice octogenarian couple we end up squeezed on a table with ensure us this is the best chippie in a town stuffed full of them. It’s no frills, but “the fish is much better than that posh place up the road,” we’re told. This transpired to be the thoroughly snooty… Harry Ramsdens.
The sun – which bestows remarkably frequent appearances upon this coast whatever the season – sets as we watch the colours fade and shadows lengthen on the seafront from the vantage our tall balcony windows. A huge bedside fireplace reminds of the scale and ambition of this hotel when it opened in 1875, boasting 200 rooms. The visible links to that silver service past means the décor – littered with sensibly upholstered deep armchairs, explosively floral curtains and the like – is easily excused, in fact relished.
Descending into the grandeur of the Great Hall, famous throughout the 1930s for its live orchestral broadcasts on the BBC, and into the bar, (later to have the carpet rolled back for ballroom dancing), our emersion in the enduring bubble of The Grand continues pleasantly.
Dinner in the Mirabelle restaurant is where things could probably do with loosening up a bit. The staff are slick and attentive, just as you’d expect. The food is as rich and slightly haughty as you’d presume, too. We have hoped for just a smidgen more pizazz these days. A ham terrine starter marbled with duck liver is fine, followed by a deep, dark venison stew which doesn’t really need the additional dry sausages on top. More striking is a vegetarian risotto, muddling fennel and chestnuts with some unnecessary out of season asparagus for a fresher main. The carpeted, soft mumble of mature diners (children have their own pre-7:30 dining room) and the soporific effects of the dessert wine pairings seal our fate: not even the animations of the ballroom can keep us from repairing upstairs.Greeted by a low pre-spring sunshine in the morning, we borrow a couple of well-kept bikes from reception and pedal off gingerly along the Trail, identifying spots for coffee stops, such as the terrace at the Beach House (6 Lower Rd). The Napoleonic Redoubt Fortress (Royal Parade) isn’t yet open, but we loved Azimuth, the towering new installation out front, made from sections of long-suffering sea defences conjuring up shipwrecks and revealing the ultimate dominance of the waves.
Despite some sections involving roads rather than bike paths, the Trail proves a gentle meander and we’re fully enjoying pedal-power, having not cycled for years. In fact, time has flown by as marvellous modernist curves of the De La Warr Pavillion come into view at Bexhill, a few more miles east. With no time to press on the Hastings and the Jerwood gallery today (you can arrange for your luggage to be sent on by taxi if you are staying in a different town each night) we enjoy a brief moment admiring this Grade I-listed building and turn back, into the growing wind.
Still, Eastbourne arrives surprisingly soon, and we have a decent explore of the Towner Gallery and current show A Certain Kind of Light (until May 7th). Katie Paterson’s solar-influenced giant glitter ball, Totality, the gaping depths of an Anish Kapoor steel sculpture, and Mark Garry’s delicate optical illusion of fine coloured threads strung across the ceiling all feel more vital and beautiful, the silence more enveloping, after traversing a few miles of windswept shingle coastline immediately beforehand. A thoroughly recommended contrast.
Despite having only dipped a toe in to the year-round potential of the cultural trail, we return to London having been refreshingly blasted by the elements, pampered like Debussy (or any one of The Grand’s rolecall of celeb former guests) and immersed in world class art, all in little over 24 hours.
In that respect, the East Sussex coast still upholds a compelling five star seaside experience over 200 years since visitors first started flocking here, and despite the eroding ebb and flow of fashions, facilities and formalities constantly swirling all around.