A Weekend in… St Leonard’s


St Leonards-on-Sea (popularly just ‘St Leonards’) is located within the Hastings Borough, and is often associated with its joined-at-the-hip neighbour. But it’s very much a town with its own identity, and is well worth a visit in its own right.

Its history stretches back to the 1820s, when property developer James Burton, already responsible for large developments in Bloomsbury and around Regent’s Park, decided to create a posh south-coast holiday resort to compete with Brighton. His work was continued by his splendidly-named son Decimus Burton, who lived in the town until his death in 1881.

St Leonards did, indeed, become a fashionable seaside destination for the Georgian era’s rich and famous, with royalty such as Princess Sophia of Gloucester, Princess Victoria (later Queen Victoria), the Duchess of Kent and Queen Adelaide spending long periods of time there in the 1830s. A pleasure pier was built in 1888, and the town’s reputation as being a ‘cut above’ other resorts was maintained until WW2, with the splendid ship-shaped Marine Court, a Modernist icon to match Brighton’s Embassy Court in scope and size, going up in 1938.

After the war, however, the town suffered a decline. The pier was severed during the conflict, and never rebuilt, eventually being demolished in 1951. With holidaymakers increasingly preferring foreign destinations, St Leonards gradually took on a shabby appearance, its grand Georgian buildings fading and decaying.

A perfect destination, then, for an artistic community to thrive. Creative types started using the town as their base in the 90s, and in recent years this influx has boomed, with an abundance of new studios and galleries sprouting up, particularly on the western stretch of Norman Road, a short walk from St Leonards Warrior Square train station. This small street boasts no fewer than eight small-sized galleries, in spaces that were originally used for shops.

The town still has a scruffy look to it, but we can’t think of a place that better deserves the description ‘shabby chic’. Alongside the galleries there’s a fine array of bars, pubs, cafés and restaurants, as well as an embarrassment of junk shops and second-hand clothing stores (aka charity shops), which are difficult to come out of empty-handed. Oh, and a marvellous independent cinema/events venue, the Kino-Teatr. All that, and the sea, with long stretches of shingle beach a pebble’s throw from the centre of town. No wonder house prices are on the up again.


St Leonards’ many boutique art galleries are unlikely to be open on Mondays or Tuesdays, so we recommend visiting in the latter half of the week. We can pick out three particular Norman Road favourites, but do pay a visit to them all. Lucy Bell Gallery sell and display fine art and rock/pop-related photographic prints; Solaris is run by an expert printer, who exhibits high-end artwork by artists and photographers (Susan Ormerod’s work will be on display until the end of July); Project 78 mixes emerging artists with big names, inviting them to take risks (no pressure to sell) in a space that divides the gallery from the framer’s workshop behind. A 15-minute walk further west, Electro Studios Project Space puts on curated group exhibitions and events in a sizeable L-shaped unit. Before you book your trip, check out what’s on at the Kino-Teatr.


There’s so much choice, we suggest you follow your nose, but we can particularly recommend a few eateries. For a snacky lunch, try the Goat Ledge Café, on the seafront, which serves own-brand ale as well as surprisingly good food (Brazilian prawn moqueca stew, anyone?), which you can eat in (pre-bookable) beach huts overlooking the ocean, or on the wooden tables on a promontory amid the shingle. Or try Starsky & Hatch, further Hastings-wards on Bottle Alley, serving imaginative delicacies such as Bloody Mary Crumpets, or Indian-spiced sausage rolls. Parlour, in the same building as Kino-Teatr, is a brasserie offering healthy, beautifully presented brunches (including a best-you’ll-have-ever-tasted kedgeree) and evening meals (if you’re feeling flush, try the ‘surf and turf’, with smoked butter seafood and fillet steak), along with a choice of fine ales and wines. Another upper-end possibility is the classy independent St Clement’s, which serves locally sourced ingredients including catch of the day from the Hastings fishing fleet; their two-course Sunday lunches are good value, and their sticky toffee puddings are legendary.


St Clements is next door to St Leonards’ most famous traditional pub, the bow-windowed Horse and Groom. It’s nicknamed ‘The Doom and Gloom’, or simply ‘The Doom’, by the locals, who are still in shock after the death of its long-serving landlord, David Sansbury, a man much respected for his inability to suffer fools (or DFLs) gladly. This is a real old-school pub, dominated by a horseshoe-shaped bar, with an array of military hats hanging from the ceiling, and a clientele who like to stick around for several drinks, putting the world to rights, in front of the fire. We can also recommend the Marina Fountain, just off the coast road, under new management since 2019, who care deeply about the beers the serve, the music they play, and the politically motivated art they put on the walls.


If you arrive by train (which we advise) the first street you’ll walk down is the Kings Road, a colourful mix of junk shops, old-style butchers and bakers and independent cafes with imaginative names and menus. After a two-year hiatus, the popular monthly Kings Road Street Market is now back in action, on the first Saturday of the month, a good time to point yourself in the direction of this characterful and ever-surprising town.


If you fancy making a weekend of it, there are plenty of hotels, traditional bed & breakfast, and Airbnb options. We can recommend the boutique hotel Hastings House on Warrior Square (featured on Channel 4’s Four in a Bed last year) or, if you’re after a luxury option (with themed rooms and whirlpool-dip opportunities), the Zanzibar International Hotel, on the seafront, is a gem of a place.