Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Discovering St Leonards-on-Sea

Although I grew up in Sussex and have spent many happy days pottering around Hastings Old Town and Bexhill seafront, until recently I had somehow avoided that elusive bit in between, St Leonards. I'd always assumed there was nothing much there to warrant a visit, then by chance we picked up a brochure from a Bexhill vintage market, promoting the supposed cultural delights of the neighbouring town.

One of the quirky things I love about that general part of the world is the hidden higgledy piggledy steps that weave up through the steep streets, bringing you out in unexpected locations. You'll come across similar ascending (or descending, depending on which end you start) passageways in Montmartre and San Francisco, but the East Sussex ones have a distinct flavour that somehow evokes Saxon adventure and smugglers' getaways. On a sunny Saturday in May we found one of these going up from St Leonard's seafront (next to the oldest motorbike shop in the country) and made our way in through the back streets, peering nosily into houses as we went.

The brochure recommended Norman Road and the 'Style Mile' as a place to find vintage and hand made clothes and home decor as well as good cafes, so we explored around there first and discovered a strip of interesting shops, that were pedalling everything from customised upcycled clothes to extortionately overpriced bits of old fairground rides. At the end of the strip, in the rather unimaginatively named 'Shop', we found retro trifle dishes, slinky summer dresses and a sprinkling of G-plan furniture, before crossing over spend a good half an hour rifling through vintage clothes at Xanadu.

Surely the ultimate test of a place is its tea and cake, and in this department we were spoilt for choice, with several decent looking eateries on offer. We chose Little Larder, next to Xanadu, to refresh after Ant's slightly traumatic experience of trying on an ill-fitting woollen suit on a hot summer's day (yes, we had some of those in May). The cake and coffee did the trick, and we bounced off to see what else St Leonards had to offer. Beyond Norman Road the attractions were fewer and farther between, as the arty vibe faded into rundown high street of tatty looking shops selling tatty old stuff. We did see a rather nice Art Deco wardrobe in the shabby (but not chic) flea market, but it was part of a set and they wouldn't let us buy it on its own. And so our St Leonards adventure drew to a close. 

A couple of weekends ago we returned in the evening to eat at the quite swish looking, and as it turns out, rather excellent St Clements restaurant, which is reason enough to venture to St Leonards, if my other accounts of the town have not been enough to entice you. It's one of those tucked away places that feels like a locals' secret, serving imaginative dishes at the more decadent end of Modern British cuisine. Although the vegetarian choice was limited, the elderflower and prosecco cocktails more than made up for it, as did the knee-tremblingly indulgent sticky toffee pudding for desert.
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