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How to plan a cycling tour along East Sussex's cultural coast

Hop on a bike to discover a trio of vibrant south-coast towns and their celebrated art galleries as part of the county’s Coastal Culture Trail.

Published 9 Sept 2021, 00:15 BST, Updated 10 Sept 2021, 09:42 BST
The Towner gallery in Eastbourne, East Sussex. This striking angular building, built in 2009 and splashed in ...

The Towner gallery in Eastbourne, East Sussex. This striking angular building, built in 2009 and splashed in a multicoloured, geometric mural to mark its 10th anniversary, is home to 5,000 artworks, including some by David Nash, Vanessa Bell and Henry Moore.

Photograph by Jim Stephenson

The tang of salt air in your nostrils, the sea breeze ruffling your hair, the prospect of a bag of chips on the beach — the British seaside promises many things, but rarely is that promise cutting-edge art. That’s all changed on the south coast with the opening of the Coastal Culture Trail, an 18-mile cycle route that links the towns of Hastings, Bexhill-on-Sea and Eastbourne and their three showcase galleries. The flat and often car-free trail can be tackled by even the most reluctant cyclist, particularly given the chance to root around antique shops, pick up supplies from delis and slouch on the beach after a bracing paddle in the Channel.

Further transforming East Sussex is last year’s launch of England’s Creative Coast, an initiative designed to bring further culture and outdoor artworks to the south east. The good news is the old-school stalwarts of the great British seaside are also on full display — so you can still get your fill of crazy golf, beach huts and 99 Flakes between bouts of art appreciation. 

1. Hastings Contemporary

Start with a visit to your first gallery, at the foot of the cliffs in Hasting’s higgledy-piggledy Old Town. Overlooking the shingle beach, Hastings Contemporary is a big beast of a building clad in glossy black tiles to mirror the nearby wooden sheds, or net huts, used to store fishing gear. Frequently changing exhibitions bring contemporary artworks to the light-filled galleries inside, with a focus on local themes and Modern British artists, from LS Lowry to Stanley Spencer.

2. Hastings Traditional

Once you’ve taken in the modern, it’s worth a look at Hastings’ more traditional attractions before you set off on your bike. Mooch around the fishing boats pulled on to the shingle (the town is home to the UK’s largest beach-launched fishing fleet); discover more about the town’s unique, grade-II listed huts at the Fisherman’s Museum; and then clank up the cliffs on the Victorian funicular for fine views of the coastal route you’re about to take.

3. St Leonard's-on-sea

Wheel past Hastings’ clean-lined, timber-decked pier, rebuilt in 2016 after a devastating fire, before briefly diverting from the cycle path into the neighbouring town of St Leonard’s. It’s here you’ll find the Kino-Teatr — a lively cultural complex home to a refurbished cinema, a small shop selling mid-century design pieces and the Baker Mamonova Gallery, exhibiting a changing roster of 20th-century Russian art. Grab a seat in its atmospheric cafe for a cake and coffee before getting back on two wheels.

4. Bexhill-on-Sea

Get your legs going for a few miles along the car-free path to Bexhill-on-Sea, then lock your bike outside the dazzling white De La Warr Pavilion on the seafront. The gallery and cultural centre — a mix of art deco and international styles — hosts free exhibitions by contemporary artists over two floors, as well as comedy gigs, talks and live music. Have lunch at the cafe bar, best enjoyed overlooking the Channel on one of the building’s beautiful, curved terraces.

5. Eastbourne

The trail meanders away from the coast for a couple of miles, returning to the sea near Eastbourne. Zip along the promenade before turning into town for your final dose of art at the Towner. The striking angular building, built in 2009 and splashed in a multicoloured, geometric mural to mark its 10th anniversary, is home to 5,000 artworks, including some by David Nash, Vanessa Bell and Henry Moore. It’s also home to the country’s largest collection of pieces by local boy Eric Ravilious.

6. East Dean

The Coastal Culture Trail officially ends in Eastbourne, but hop back on your bike for a final excursion to the village of East Dean. Track down the special blue plaque to ‘consulting detective and bee keeper’ Sherlock Holmes, the fictional character described to have retired to a handsome brick and flint cottage next to The Tiger Inn here. Celebrate finishing your journey with a pint of local ale and haddock and chips at the 16th-century pub, overlooking the pretty green.

Did you know?

Hastings is home to the ultimate sporting contest, one designed to push competitors to the very edge of human endeavour. Yes, it’s the World Crazy Golf Championship, held annually at its adventure golf course.

Published in the October issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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