This post is actually long overdue. It was (gasp) MARCH when I footled off to Bexhill to spend a day with a good friend and explore the loveliness of a classic British seaside town. But it hasn’t left me, because – especially for a born Londoner who has only managed to take herself further away from water by moving to the Home Counties – there is something so very lovely about the British coast, the jumbled mix of hipster-chic and genuinely crumbling, the proliferation of junk shops and charity outlets and the immediate sense of letting out a big breath you didn’t know you were holding the moment you leave the city. Bexhill isn’t one of the classic treasures (usually in Wales or Cornwall) that you see dotted around tourist websites, all vying for a Portmeirion-esque chocolate boxness that is very, very pretty but somehow unconvincing as a living town. Bexhill is not a town of summer homes. Even in the cold, damp English springtime it was alive and well, keeping calm and carrying on.
Our ostensible reason for meeting there – K’s parents live in Bexhill but she’s actually based in St Leonard’s – was to visit the Ladybird by Design exhibition at the De la Warr Pavilion, which was absolutely wonderful, and – though it has completed its run in Bexhill – is due to arrive in London in July. I’d recommend a visit to the DLWP any day, whatever the exhibits – it’s a lovely space, beautifully situated. Go in, have a coffee, browse the little shop crammed tastefully with quirky prints, arty bags and cute knick-knacks. There are lots of planned family activities too; for the Ladybird exhibition there was an entire wall covered with memories and experiences of Ladybird books from visitors aged 5-95. My favourite (pictured) was a wonderful note from a woman who had, as a child, become the basis for some of the classic illustrations!
Having spent a couple of hours digging around the wonderfully curated galleries and picking up a few treats at the gift shop (an amazing late 50s living room print now hangs over my retro dressing table), we considered what we could do with the rest of our day. That led us to the Little British Tea Shop, which was practically guaranteed to appeal to me on every single score. Vintage decor and mismatched crockery? Check. Bountiful savoury options (including a savoury only tea)? Check. A proper, lengthy, loose leaf tea menu with everything from builder’s to oolong? CHECK. We sat in the kitschest and cutest of window seats and shared a crumpet smeared with salty butter and a delicious cuppa and it was glorious. I was wearing a 1960s fuchsia Lane Bryant suit skirt from my vintage collection, but bitterly regretted not having a 40s number and pin curls in (I haven’t mastered Victory rolls yet). The service is friendly and warm and practically out of a film. And the prices are distinctly un-London at around £14.50 for afternoon tea for two.
Much of the rest of the day was spent wandering around the shops; I picked up a lovely fabric shoulder bag for our holiday to Florida, and a birthday treat for myself of a shrink plastic watercolour octopus brooch. There is what I can only refer to as an embarrassment of charity shops – then again, the intersecting local high streets in Bucks where I live have nine of them within a mile radius – and independent shops crammed with a mixture of local arts and crafts and general souvenir tat. A bit like walking into Not on the High Street (on the high street)…
That was when K suggested we pop to the antiques warehouse up past the police station; it was a short walk out of town, but entirely worth every minute. I want to go back with a truck and someone else’s credit card. Eras of Style is a mammoth two-story treasure trove packed to the gills with vintage furniture, records, toys… you name it. It’s a little light on clothing, but crammed with practically everything else. I fell in love with at least three separate tables (so. much. G-Plan.) and I adored the more random bits and bobs like the 60s fairground attraction car and some crazy bits of Disney memorabilia like Jafar here, hanging out in the coffee shop. The cafe is itself worth a visit, with nice tea, multiple cake options – I spotted gluten-free ones, too – and apparently now a specialism in bagels (I am SO going back).
Sea air, wonderful places to have tea, art and vintage style. And the wonderful thing is that this kind of footprint is repeated readily across Britain, and should be loved and treasured for what it is. I do worry that one too many hipsters like me and the places risk being gentrified; then again, a lot of these towns have suffered rising unemployment and could do with an investment of cash and love (preferably from people with an interest in staying in, rather than exploiting and running from, the area). I often wish I could travel further, wider and more often (how ungrateful that sounds after a trip to Florida!) but I also forget that there are little jewels on my doorstep – a drive or cheap train trip away. I’m aware that, especially from a distance, I’ve romanticised things a bit, but I do want to make it a habit to explore more of what’s right in front of me, and make the most of the beauty of home.
What’s your favourite hidden (or not so hidden) British treasure? Where should I visit next?