We first visited Hastings around Halloween time, a year before we moved. I hadn’t consciously accepted our time in London was up yet, but I felt it in my waters. I often found myself dreaming about the seaside in that untenably expensive East End boxroom flat around that time. 

For some reason, Hastings got its hooks into us as soon as we arrived. I don’t really know why – on paper it was a bad idea: a drinking town with a fishing problem, an unemployment blackspot full of Greggs pasties and smack, gone to rack & ruin … but walking round the Old Town with the dog in early November, it was so sunny I had to take my coat off, ambling round in a t-shirt by the sunny fishing boats, charmed by the net-houses and stalls selling crab claws, wandering up crooked streets full of wonky cottages to a graveyard full of strange graves, one with ITNOTGAOTU like a word salvaged from a dream or a trance chiseled into it beneath an all-seeing eye in a triangle, and I couldn’t help but fall under Hastings’ spell. There was something enchanted about this unlikely proposition of a place, this rickety town hidden and nestled in its hills by the sea.

It seemed spellbound by some mysterious energy, something occulted, troubling the corner of your eye, just beyond the tumbledown terraces, round the back of the stairs winding up the hill …I lapped up the rumours the town was a hotbed of witchcraft and the occult. I liked the fact it was half-boarded up. The public toilet with the needle exchange in it intrigued me, in a grim kind of way. A basket case, at right angles to the manicured lawns of the home counties, in a perpendicular dimension to the Tory shires surrounding it. It was also just about the only place we could still afford to live within day-trip reach of the capital and the old lives we’d built up over the last 20 years. On paper, it was a failed state, but something told me we’d fit right in.

When we got back home I googled the shit out of the place, gorging on unlikely internet threads about Alex Sanders the King of the Witches and Rollo Ahmed the voodoo priest. Shirley Collins, the godmother of the English folk music revival, was a daughter of the Old Town. For years she worked in the job centre. Her neighbour and old mate was that strange bloke with the Hassidic ringlets out of occult industrial noise unit Current 93. Apparently, you could see him down the local pub, studying Coptic, the extinct language of the first Egyptian Christians who wrote the Nag Hammadi gnostic gospels; the pub was a well-watered station on the processional route of the Jack-in-the-Green, the local rites of spring, where every Beltane the town follows a huge effigy of the Green Man up the West Hill, where he’s then slaughtered by my mate Gary’s coven of Morris Men to release the spirit of summer, hacked to pieces with ceremonial machetes, papier maché arms and legs flying up in the air on the West Hill at high noon by the ruins of the Norman Castle, overlooking the English Channel, commanding the seaway back to Normandy. A peculiar idea about the place started forming in my mind.

I started making tentative excursions from Charing Cross train station on my days off, labouring under the premise I was going to write something about this strange threadbare resort. It only took me twice as long to get to the coast from Charing Cross as it did to get to Charing Cross from my house, I reasoned. Really it was romanticised house hunting, only I hadn’t admitted that to myself yet. 

And so I wandered around on my cheap day return, a stranger on the shore, feasting on all the contradictions and non-sequiturs, gorging on all the tantalising clues that didn’t join up or make any sense yet, all jumbled up in these rickety streets : a gargoyle lurched from a gothic cornerstone at the bottom of some gloomy gaslit steps, gorgeous belle epoque writing etched into mirrored glass boasted of HIGH CLASS CONFECTIONS AND MINERALS, with TRACEY’S BARBERS in red plastic bubble letters next door, and then BAILEY’S JOB AGENCY, with FORK LIFT DRIVER WANTED – OWN TRANSPORT ESSENTIAL written in marker pen on fluorescent card blutacked onto shabby windows … and then, intriguingly, in big bay penthouse windows with a sweeping sea view, a huge canvas in the process of being painted, a tantalising glimpse of a longed-for bohemia flourishing like an exotic mould on all the decay, an orchid in the marsh, here on the edges of the land and the margins of the culture … 

Further along the windswept front, the sun laid its beautiful block colours on the chipped, flat cream of the soured Regency elegance … a peculiar atmosphere hung over this sorry stretch … the sadness of the English seaside, mourning for the glory of its past … the British seaside and the British Empire, big Indian domes on an Edwardian theatre, now saying BINGO in jarring chrome letters. … opposite, a deserted crazy golf course glowing luminous in the winter sun, little windmills turning as the sun got low, making the fishing boats impossibly pretty in the low flat luminous light …

“Would you like to know your destiny?” asked Psychic Sarah from her plexiglass box, her pre-recorded Mystic Meg voice on repeat, her mannequin’s hands above an electric blue plasma ball. As I looked on while she posed the question, two scumbags head to toe in Sports Direct deliberately cut across me on their bikes, nearly taking my toes off; as I recoiled backwards my foot knocked over an empty litre bottle of Cactus Jack’s Schnapps, cherry red flavour, left in the street below a blue plaque of Gabriel Dante Rossetti, next to a shop with tastefully rusty enameled colanders from some middle class fantasy of the 1950s and old wooden school chairs on sale for 50 quid, which made me feel really confused. Over the road, there was a ghost ride that was closed, and a pub with a dummy of a pirate swinging off the sign. Hastings threw so many contradictions at me, all I could do was relish them. Making sense of the kaleidoscope of mixed messages I’d leave till later.

The abiding image from that first cheap day return that stuck in my brain the most came as the cold began to creep into my joints as the sun burned itself out over the channel. I’d found my way up to the top of the West Hill, by the ruined castle, and was trying to navigate my way back down into the Old Town along a winding path that became a crooked passage that dipped underneath the freestanding upper storey of a weatherboarded old house, a floating first floor that was more like a wooden Bridge of Sighs joining the main part of the strange rambling pile to the cliff. I noticed there was a real-life skeleton standing guard in the window of this floating floor, dramatically silhouetted by the dying red sunshine of the winter dusk, like a gatehouse above a passage winding down into the village in The Witchfinder General or the Devil Rides Out. Slap bang in the middle of this passage of ancient wooden beams was a scarlet front door with a golden knocker. There was immediately, obviously, something curious and perhaps a little sinister about this house. Ever since I imagined it as the “Hammer House.” It was like something out of one of those fevery psychedelic horror films, all vampire fangs and heaving bodices and blood as bright as ketchup.

One night a few years later we were throwing some event or other down in the cellar of our shop and I was thrilled to meet the occupants of this house, local bohemian royalty, the first of the wave of painters from the Royal College of Art to colonise this forgotten and forlorn resort in the late 70s. I was introduced to Angie – artist, model and muse, old now, but still dark-eyed, dusky and gorgeous. I asked her about the skeleton I’d seen in the window of the floating first floor. 

“Oh, he’s just in my husband’s studio,” she explained. 

“Rollo Ahmed the Caribbean Voodoo priest lived in our house and conducted his rituals in that room, and he was a good friend of Crowley’s”

“Is it true that Aleister Crowley used to perform his rituals up there?” I asked. “Well apparently so. Rollo Ahmed the Caribbean Voodoo priest lived in our house and conducted his rituals in that room, and he was a good friend of Crowley’s. That room has a secret entrance into the smugglers’ caves in the cliffs, where they got up to all sorts of ghastly things.” 

“Wow. Was there any lasting sense of all that when you moved in? Did it linger in the air?”

“Well there were strange bumps in the night, and glasses used to shatter for no reason. Shortly after moving in, we had to get it exorcised.”

“Shit! It was a strange atmosphere then?” 

John Martyn at home in Hastings in September 1971. Photograph: Brian Cooke/Redfern

“Oh yes, and what with John Martyn who lived over the road frequently masturbating in the bay window, a very strange atmosphere indeed,” at which point I forfeited any claim to an it-was-better-before-all-you-wankers-from-Hackney-moved-down first dibs on the place. It was clearly a lot fucking weirder before we turned up selling natural wine and craft beer in our trendy little shop.

Stranger on the Shore — a film by Michael Smith and Maxy Bianco with music by Andrew Weatherall and Nina Walsh. Watch Stranger on the Shore for free online – BFI Player

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  • Michael Smith

    Michael Smith is a writer, broadcaster, filmmaker and Faber novelist. He was brought up in Hartlepool and graduated from University College London. His best-known work is The Giro Playboy. He is the author of two other works of fiction, Unreal City and Shorty Loves Wing Wong, and has written features for the Guardian, the Observer, the Idler and Dazed and Confused, amongst others. He has made various documentaries for BBC4 including Drivetime and held a regular slot on BBC 2’s The Culture Show while it ran. His short film Lost in London premiered at The Barbican in 2012 and Stranger on the Shore was screened at the NFT along with a performance with his collaborator Andrew Weatherall in 2016.

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