They say you can never go back again. Never cross the same river twice. The past is a foreign country, as the famous quotation goes. Sometimes, it can’t be avoided. Sometimes, though, it can be worth doing just for yourself.
When I was small, our summer holidays followed the same pattern, from when I was three through to when I was about 14 or 15 or so—I can’t rememeber the exact year it stopped. We would go camping for a fortnight, either two weeks in Sussex, two weeks in Kent, or more often than not, one week in each. The amount of equipment and comfort changed over the years, from smaller tents to larger tents, trailer tents through to caravans, but the destinations were always the same, the same two campsites in the same two parts of England. Wherever else we went, every holiday would include at least one day trip to Hastings, the south eastern seaside town that feels almost like a genteel resort, a noisy arcades town and a West Country fishing village all rolled into a single ball and mixed together. Here’s a photo I took when I was eleven, of the cliffs in Hastings Country Park, looking towards Fairlight Glen.
And then, in my mid teens, we stopped going. We had a couple more family holidays, where I asked for Gwynedd to replace Sussex, but I never again went back to Hastings.
Until last week.
I took The Children away for a summer holiday; and where better to go than a classic seaside town that has a beach that’s great for paddling, arcades, a miniature railway you can ride on, castles, caves, cliffs, the lot. OK, you can’t really build sandcastles, but building sandcastles is something The Children really enjoy in theory far more than in practice, and at least the sea never disappears to the horizon, the beach being steep enough to let it merely retreat a respectful few yards from the prom and the arcades. And: they loved it. I took them around all the same places I’d been taken when I was a kid myself: the miniature railway, the crazy golf, the cliff railway, the castle, and they loved absolutely all of it. We barely even left town for the week. The Child Who Loves Animals would have had us go to the aquarium every day if he’d had his way. I just enjpyed the chance to walk around and practice a bit with my new camera.
The town? As a child your priorities are naturally a bit different to those of a middle-aged adult; but, even I could see that it has changed in the past thirty years. It has improved, a lot. So many places to eat out in the evening! So much craft beer everywhere. So many Pride flags flying, even from the flagpole in the castle. But it was still recognisably the same place, the same old shape, new flesh on old bones. The 1930s railway station might have been demolished and replaced, but the walk from it down to the beach was still unchanged. The art deco promenade by the pier has artwork now, but still the same concrete lines. The miniature railway might have nicer trains, but they still go between the same two spots, past a boating lake now cleared of boats and pedalos, but to a crazy golf course that still has its windmill and watermill obstacles and where hitting the bell at the end still scores you a free round. It’s hard to say, but I’m fairly sure the fish and chips is better.
The main thing that’s changed, though? Probably me. And it made me quite emotional. The last time I went there, I had a fairly good idea of the sort of person I wanted to be as an adult. Going back, walking down the promenade, I almost drew tears as I thought about just how much of my envisaged self, the me I imagined back in my early teens, is present in the woman I am today. Even if it does mean that I have to walk along the shingle in heels now.
Because the East Hill Lift was closed for major track repairs, we didn’t go up to the Country Park so I could replicate the picture at the top of this piece. Here, though, is a view of the town from the West Hill, the castle site, still the same odd little mixture of holidaymaking and industry that it was when I was a preschooler.
Oh, I said we barely did leave the town, but we did go for a couple of days out, to Battle and to Hythe. Here’s a couple of photos of Hythe railway station, one I took age 9 (I think) and one from last week, just to show you that in some ways I haven’t changed that much at all.