A Weekend in… Eastbourne


As you’ll undoubtedly have heard by now, Towner Eastbourne has been chosen to host the 2023 edition of the Turner Prize. Which begs the question: is it time to reassess the reputation of Britain’s sunniest town, traditionally (and rather sneerily) nicknamed ‘God’s Waiting Room’, due to its notionally elderly population? It’s certainly true that there has been an influx of ‘Down from London’ newcomers in recent years, attracted by the house prices, which still fall under the national average (an average property sells at £311k, and you can still buy a five-bedroom Victorian house for under £600k). And that these newcomers are increasingly being culturally catered for, with the emergence of a host of trendy cafes, shops and restaurants, particularly in the district just south of the station, which has been renamed ‘Little Chelsea’. Whether or not this trajectory will continue apace in the current economic climate remains to be seen, and there’s still a long way to go before it becomes Hipster-on-Sea (as dubbed in a recent Daily Mail article), but Eastbourne is certainly a town in transition, and there’s plenty of interesting activity to divert the discerning day-tripper, or weekender.


The Anglo-Saxon settlement known as ‘Borne’ grew up in the largely residential area now known as ‘Old Town’, fifteen minutes’ walk north-west of the seafront, and there is still a sizeable community of shops and pubs around St Mary’s Church, which dates back to 1054. But Eastbourne as we know it now was a much more modern invention, becoming known as ‘The Empress of the Watering Places’ in Georgian times, when it was popularised by royal visitors, as a rival to Brighton. Two landowners, John Davies Gilbert and William Cavendish (aka the Duke of Devonshire) oversaw massive development of the town in the second half of the 19th century, after the arrival of the railway, its population increasing from 4,000 to 31,000 between the censuses of 1851 and 1891. This was the heyday of Eastbourne’s popularity as an upmarket tourist resort: the rows of Victorian hotels which line the town’s central seafront date from this period; the pleasure pier was erected in 1870, designed by Eugenius Birch. The town’s fortunes suffered an inevitable post-WW2 decline as foreign holidays grew increasingly affordable; it was during this period that it became a fashionable retirement location, particularly the Meads district (between the town centre and Beachy Head), which in 2015 was declared Britain’s oldest district (average age 70+). In recent years the demographics have shifted again: today the average age of the 104,000 population of Eastbourne as a whole is 45.8, only 4.5 over the national figure.


Towner Eastbourne, relocated from a townhouse location to its current premises in 2009, and refurbished this year, is without doubt the jewel in the town’s cultural crown, looking splendid in recent years after a colourful paint job designed by German artist Lothar Götz (is there a more instantly recognisable provincial gallery in the country?) Stored on its ground floor (and occasionally open to the public) is its rich art collection, largely of 20th-century paintings, including a plenitude of watercolours by local legend Eric Ravilious. Under the stewardship of director Joe Hill, Towner regularly puts on imaginatively curated 20th century and contemporary exhibitions, and it also boasts the town’s only independent cinema. Linked to the gallery as part of the ‘Devonshire Collective’, the recently opened VOLT gallery, the other side of the commercial centre of town, is a rather more conceptually minded space showing emerging artists. Emma Mason Gallery, which specialises in the sale of 20th century and contemporary British prints, is also well worth a visit. If you’re interested in the performing arts, there are no fewer than four theatres offering mainstream drama and musicals; a fifth, The Grove, underneath the town’s Brutalist 1960s library, is a smaller, more intimate affair.


Some people come to Camilla’s Bookshop on Grove Road for the entire day, bringing thermos and sarnie box, and delving into the piled-high second-hand tomes like pot-holers. Archie the parrot, guarding the front door, epitomises the store’s eccentricity. Other must-visit shops on the same street include cool stationery joint All Things Analogue (as neat as Camilla’s is chaotic) and men’s-clothing outlet Born Store, for that original-hipster look. Meanwhile Barley Sugar Delicatessen sells a variety of cheeses, charcuterie, tinned delicacies, wines and craft beers – as you’d expect – but also mid-century studio pottery and tasteful vintage items, artfully placed among the foodstuffs, and in an easy-to-miss basement space.

Eating and Drinking

You’re spoilt for choice when it comes to Eastbourne cafés: we recommend Skylark on Grove Road for a top brunch, and To the Rise Bakery for cake and coffee: their almond croissants raise the benchmark. The town centre could really do, though, with an edgy, independent, craft-aley type pub: as it is, our favourites are out in Old Town. The half-timbered Harvey’srun The Lamb dates back to 1240 (its cellar is even older, and, by the toilets, there’s an incredibly deep ancient well that you can peer down); The Rainbow, round the corner, is in a Grade II Listed 16th-century building, and serves classy meals consisting entirely of locally sourced produce. Pick of the bunch of Eastbourne’s globeful of restaurants, according to our local-tipster straw poll, is the family-run Meze, a friendly Turkish restaurant where you can see them baking the flatbread and grilling the lamb racks and Tavuk Şiş on the grill in front of you. We tried it out; we weren’t disappointed. If you’ve got any room left, Gelato Famoso (formerly Fusciardi’s) is the best Italian-style gelateria in town (and well beyond), though their flavours are Anglo-oriented. It was a tough choice between rum & raisin and salted caramel.

Walking it off

Eastbourne sits at the easternmost-edge of the 161-mile South Downs Way, leading all the way to Winchester. The first landmark on this walk is Beachy Head, Britain’s highest sea cliff. From the top you get views of Kent; on a clear day, can see the Isle of Wight. It’s a 1.5-mile walk to the foot of the cliff, westwards along the seafront from the town centre. A reachable turning-point is the famous Belle Tout lighthouse, moved 17 feet back from the cliff face in 1999, to stop it toppling into the sea due to coastal erosion.


The 152-room Grand Hotel on the seafront claims to be the only 5-star hotel on Britain’s coastline: if you can’t afford a room in this wedding-cake of a building, nicknamed ‘the White Palace’, treat yourself to a high tea, served by formally attired staff. A cultural did-you-know? Claude Debussy wrote La Mer here in 1905. The nearby Port Hotel is a rather more boutiquey affair in a seafront Victorian townhouse, while the View is a modern seven-storey block, with balconies overlooking the sea. If you want a more homely atmosphere, the Ravilious Hotel – overlooking Devonshire Park near Towner – is a tastefully appointed guesthouse that does outstanding breakfasts.