Surrounded by sky-scrapers and grey lanes of whirling traffic it's easy to forget that London is not that far from the sea. Brighton is the home location of choice for many celebrities or those who have to do business in London but do not care much for city-life. A mere hour's train-ride away from central London is a pebbly beach and a pier-ful of arcade games and fairground rides. Fish and chips are plentiful and you can shop along picturesque cobbly lanes, or spend a night boogie-ing to 90s dance tunes in one of the town's many gay bars. Whilst the sea may remain grey and freezing for a large portion of the year just its existence is enough to make a visitor giddy with excitement of being at the seaside, almost as if one is on holiday, even for an afternoon. Hop on a train from Victoria (only make sure it's a quick one or you'll be treated to a not-so whistlestop tour of every small town in Sussex) and you can be there in less time than it takes many Londoners to commute home.
Before Christmas I ventured further out of London and visited two different seaside locations - one rather rural and tasteful and the other, erm, less so. Yet interestingly both had their own charms. My first seaside jaunt was with the Accidental Cousin, to her family's house in Dorset. We wandered along a National Trust beach and watched plovers being bowled over by the low waves. The sun shone down on us and a legion of dog-walkers and strollers, one even brave enough to paddle in his bare feet as he chattered on his mobile phone, ankle-deep in salty foam.
We spent our weekend in Dorset drinking coffee in little delis, and tramping in wellies across soggy sand and muddy fields. We rode across a bay on a blowy ferry with keen cross-country cyclists, a small rural bus and a distressed labrador with a phobia of boats. Of an afternoon, one of us wrote whilst the other studied, and we collapsed early into bed, our city bodies and brains exhausted by all the fresh air. The small towns we visited were full of cosy cafes and gastro-pubs and neat semi-timbered cottages. It was the seaside at its most postcard-perfect.
My second visit, at the beginning of December, was to the town of Hastings, a much more urban spot by the sea. Hastings is actually a very ancient settlement, and has a slightly tired atmosphere about it, as if it wishes it could give up being a seaside resort and quietly retire to be a small crofting village in North Wales. The train we took from Charing Cross arrived into an exotic sounding station called 'St Leonard's Warrior Square'. Warrior Square actually looks considerably less exotic than it sounds...
(Although a most obliging seagull did pose in the top corner to prove this place is on the coast.) If Hastings was a human it would have multiple-personality disorder. Much of the town has a rather run-down resort feel, filled as it is with grotty chip shops, tiresome blinking arcades, and an empty and drippy promenade. Large film-crew pantechnicons were clustered in a wind-swept carpark, and a local taxi-driver informed us they were there to shoot a 'low-budget zombie-vampire thing'. Looking around at the depressing concrete street furniture and half-illuminated flashing signs this sounded like a perfectly plausible set choice.
However hidden within the oldest part of this town lies a tangle of streets which would be more suitable for filming period dramas. Charming, winding lanes are lined with restaurants and boutiques, peddling everything from antique metal signs and vintage furs to ludicrously expensive hand-made soaps. Regency-style houses, not entirely dissimilar to Bath's curving architecture, are carved into a cliff beneath an ancient ruin.
We ate chips with balsa-wood forks, were blown off the beach by a fierce gale, visited the city's surprisingly entertaining museum (much of which was dedicated to a great taxidermy scam which appeared to have scandalised Hastings several years ago), and frequented what I suspect may be the only Tintin-themed bar outside of Belgium. Everywhere we went locals were cheerfully friendly, which made the seedier areas of Hastings seem infinitely more charming. Less than two hours on a return train from Warrior Square and we were back in London, surrounded by the heaving tourist masses in Trafalgar Square. The coast suddenly seemed far away once more. But should I ever feel the need to run away to the seaside I now know it's only a train-ride away.