If life is all about juxtaposition, then nowhere is this more apparent than sleepy Bexhill-on-Sea. An ancient old town with purpose-built Victorian resort. A quiet place with a loud art gallery. Very English, but with a touch of the continentals. And where Keane, a nearly-local band, even named a single after its Sovereign Light Cafe on the seafront.
Bexhill-on-Sea was built mostly in the late 19th century as a health-giving resort popular with tourists by the 1890s. It’s the waterfront sister to a settlement a mile or so uphill dating back to the eighth century and awash with clapperboard buildings, some medieval.
Somewhat unkindly known by some as “God’s Waiting Room”, Bexhill boasts apparently the highest percentage of centenarians for its population in England and Wales.
But let’s face it, that seafront – with its masts clinking in the breeze – is to die for. There’s the atmospheric Colonnade, all artisan shops and cafes; water fountains filled with the shriek of little kids; and a landscaped promenade, entitled Next Wave. And you can stop to admire the view over the distant bulk of Beachy Head, or one of the gardens of the privileged that lick the shingle beach.
The De La Warr Pavilion is the reason for many visits. A vast ship-like building in the art deco style – and one of the first major modernist public buildings in Britain – it was constructed in 1935, designed by the architects Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff, winners of a competition thrown by mayor and socialist Herbrand Sackville, the 9th Earl De La Warr.
Suffering in the war, the Pavilion declined until the mid 1980s when it was Grade I listed, preventing further damage; but it wasn’t until 2002 that a £6 million grant by the Heritage Lottery facilitated its re-opening in 2006 as one of the south coast’s largest contemporary art spaces and cafes.
Architecturally it’s a dream; in fact, everything about the De La Warr is successful. Don’t miss Holly Hendry’s Invertebrate, an eye-catching outdoor artwork and one of this summer’s Waterfronts installations by England’s Creative Coast. She has an accompanying show inside the gallery too, both free of charge. Find out more here.
Article originally published 2015, updated 2018 and then again May 2021