St Leonards, Sussex

St Leonards is majestic. The well-to-do from Bexhill may not venture here, but it is their loss. The resort has now merged imperceptibly with Hastings (there was once space and a grand gateway between the two), but St Leonards remains a place apart. It is what Hove is to Brighton. The distant silhouette of Hastings’ black burnt-out pier looks like a row of matchsticks when you see it from  Marine Court – a clomping great Cunard Liner of art deco building which feels as though it is about to weigh anchor and sail out to sea. (When it was completed in 1938 it was the tallest block of flats in the country and was nicknamed ‘Monstrosity Mansions’. Today it is lauded.)

St_LeonardsThe romantic, steep terrain appealed to James Burton, a big London builder, who bought the farmland stretching for two-thirds of a mile along the coast. He was used to grand schemes, having worked with John Nash on Regent’s Park, and his luxurious terraces and hotels along the promenade echo their style. The resort was carefully planned with a bath house, library, assembly rooms, a separate service area for tradespeople – the Mercatoria – and another for a washerwoman, Lavatoria Square.

James’s son, Decimus Burton left his mark. Past his Greek-style assembly rooms on East Ascent, his lodged archway leads into St Leonards Gardens, a steep, wooded glen complete with a pond, from where you can glimpse the gothic Clock House in the trees. Beside the gardens, beyond flowerbeds of rosemary, catmint, phlomis and silvery mallows, the houses climbing Maze Hill are glorious – one-half timbered, another Tudor Regency. Past ilexes and yew at the very head of the glen, another Decimus gateway in the Tudor style sports a blue plaque on its eastern lodge: ‘Sir Henry Rider Haggard, author, lived here 1918- 1923.’ The Uplands on these heights are the grandest semi-detached villas imaginable, in brownish stone with white stucco dressings and wonderful views to the sea below.

On 29th July 1944 at 11.40 pm a doodlebug which had been hit over the sea staggered for three miles and turned inland in the direction of Marine Court, where a big dance was being held. It deflected at the last moment and instead zipped up Undercliff and shattered St Leonards Church. God seems to have had a hand because no one was killed. The replacement church by Adrian Gilbert Scott, built in the 1950s, is fantastic, and contains stained-glass windows by Patrick Reyntiens, a dado rail of rippling stone waves, mosaics of local fish and a pulpit made from the prow of a boat from the Sea of Galilee.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Oast House Archive

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