To understand the crumbling cliffs of St. Leonards on sea and indeed the whole landscape of Hastings through to Rye, via Fairlight and Pett, you have to go back millennia. Hastings and St. Leonards on Sea are part of a large area of land called the High Weald, which is a ridge of sandstone and clays, which extends southwards from Tunbridge Wells down to the coast at Hastings and St.Leonards. This area was created millions of years ago by the deposition of sand and silt from rivers and estuaries, which have been shaped by earth movements and glaciers to the landscape that can be found today.
Where these sandstones are layered with silts and clays, as is the case in Hastings and St. Leonards this has resulted in landslides and mud flows over centuries, as water has penetrated into these various layers, a process that is still at work today.
West Hill in St. Leonards (not to be confused with West Hill in Hastings), as seen on the below map extract, covers a relatively short distance from the ‘Royal Victoria Hotel’ in Burton St. Leonards to just past the ‘Bo Peep’ Pub, a distance of less than a mile, but an area which is full of fascinating history and human interest, visited and lived in at various times, by writers, artists and poets, not to mention smugglers. At the bottom of the cliff along the seafront is West Marina and running parallel along the top of the cliff is West Hill road. To call them cliffs is almost a misnomer, as they are somewhat modest compared with Fairlight just east of Hastings or the majestic chalk coastline on the South Downs at Seven Sisters and Beachy Head.
The extent of the West Hill in 1846, prior to the massive development in the 20th century, can also be seen on the plan below.
However, what cannot be disputed is that this landscape is very unstable and has been slowly disintegrating over the last 200 years, ever since the area first became a seaside resort and many examples of earlier and recent falls can still be seen.
In the early 19th century, a rather foolhardy individual, a certain William Smith, excavated a series of passages and caves, some of which extended over 300 feet into the cliff. He installed his family in furnished apartments with kitchen, bedrooms and parlour and would give visitors a guided tour for a small fee. Smith, who by trade was a milkman, stored his milk in the caves and had a tradesman’s card which read “Milk from the Cow at the door”. There were also rumours that the caves were used to store smuggled goods, a strong possibility, in light of the extensive smuggling activity in the area. Inevitably, the caves were doomed and in 1855 a rock fall sealed off the mouth of the caves. Today, after further subsidence over the years, there is no trace left of the caves or even of their exact location.
Another example was the original St. Leonards Church, built in 1834, which survived numerous cliff falls until it was destroyed by a German rocket in the 2nd World War and its replacement has now been closed permanently due to the danger from the unstable cliffs (Further information on this can be found in my earlier article An Iconic Church in St Leonards)
In 2002, Sussex steps, a short cut from the top of West Hill Road down to Caves road, collapsed suddenly and some workers in the electrical substation had to run for their lives. The remains of the steps, suspended precariously, can still be seen to this day.
High above the church, on West Hill Road, is a memorial garden containing a strange tomb in the shape of a pyramid. This is where James Burton1, the founder of St. Leonards in the early 19th century, is buried together with his wife and other members of his family. Unfortunately, this garden has not been spared the march of time as, also a result of subsidence, the garden has now been temporarily closed to the public. It is hoped that a solution can be found to allow this unique tomb and memorial to remain in place for the public to enjoy in the future.
Various methods of halting the erosion have been attempted over the years, from mass concrete, to stone gabion walls, some more environmentally friendly than others.
However, the most ingenious method to be tried to date, has to be the arches supporting the Victorian Hospital complex in West Hill Road (now sadly derelict). The Eversfield Hospital and Home for Consumption and Diseases for the Chest and Throat was opened in 1891 and once housed hundreds of Tuberculosis patients partaking of the fresh sea salt air, which was thought to be a cure for consumption.
There is an urban myth that these arches, which were actually not constructed until some time in the twentieth century, were used for the TB patients to partake of the fresh air for their lungs, but the truth was far more mundane but equally bizarre. The patients were in fact housed in portable shelters on wheels in front of the hospital, where they slept in all weathers, with the only concession to the climate being that they could be moved to avoid the worst of the wind and rain. The survival figures as a result of this treatment are, unfortunately, not available.
This area of St. Leonards, however, is more than just the landscape that shaped it, people have come and gone and left their mark on the area and made it what it is today.
As we move from West to East up West Hill Road, we encounter an unusual dwelling, ‘The Bath House’, now a privately owned Grade II listed building. It is this spot that, in 1848 that a Chalybeate spring2 was discovered and a certain German entrepreneur, Emil Grosslob, opened up a spa the following year. In the Victorian era, Spa treatments were all the rage, with the middle and upper classes, who flocked to these areas to take the healing waters. Grosslob had big plans for his small spring.
In Hope’s Pictorial Guide to Hastings and St. Leonards it was stated that “The Chalybeate Spring , recently discovered by Mr. Grosslob , is at No. 2 , West Hill , a short distance to the westward of the South Lodge .” and after describing the chemical analysis of the water, it went on to state that “The action on the system is mildly laxative and tonic , correcting also acidity of the stomach , and is likely to be a valuable adjunct to the usual means of cure for many of those invalids who here seek restoration to health.”
In 1849, there was an article in a journal, called ‘A Ramble through St.Leonards, where the writer stated that “Further on I saw the word Chalybeate in a neat little garden by the roadside. My curiosity led me in, and here I was introduced to Mr. Grosslob, a German gentleman, with whom I passed a very agreeable hour.“
In time, Grosslob developed the site, first into a bigger complex building a Russian Bath and when that burnt down, replaced it with a Turkish bath in 1864, before inexplicable leaving St. Leonards in 1866.
However, one of its early and most distinguished visitors, was a Mary Ann Evans, better known by her pen name of George Eliot. Her novel ‘Middlemarch’ has been described as being one of the greatest novels in the English language and Virginia Wolf wrote that it was “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people”, so who am I to argue with that.
Eliot arrived in St. Leonards in 1853, where she had been staying in Tunbridge Wells, but with the construction of a new railway link to Hastings and St. Leonards, she was tempted down to the coast to enjoy the sea air. It was here, when she was staying in Park Cottage in West Hill Road, near the Assembly Rooms and Victoria Hotel that she met Grosslob. As well as partaking of the healing waters, it may well be that as an aspiring writer, she wanted to make Grosslob’s acquaintance, as he claimed friendship with those great German artists, Schiller and Goethe. (Reference- George Eliot’s English Travels by Kathleen McCormack)
As one moves further up West Hill Road, there is another surprise in store. Who would have guessed that our greatest living artist, David Hockney, once spent a year living in a small cottage at the top of West Hill, perched on the edge of the cliff? A story, strange but true.
When Hockney left art college and was called up to National Service, he registered as a conscientious objector and spent the first year in a Bradford hospital, and then in 1958 he was sent to Hastings to work as an orderly in St. Helens Hospital. There is not much artistic evidence from his year in St. Leonards, but I have come across a Linocut entitled ‘Cliff Cottage, West Hill, St Leonards on Sea‘, a brief legacy of his short stay on West Hill Road. There is not much written material about his stay here, but it would be fascinating to hear from Mr. Hockney himself about the time he spent here in St. Leonards, prior to launching himself to fame and fortune at the Royal College of Art.
As we move towards the western end of West Hill, we come across an area with the unusual name of ‘Bo Peep’ and on the corner is the Bo Peep Hotel. But why this name? If you look at the pub sign, you start getting a clue as to its true meaning. On one side of the sign is the image that every school child knows, from the nursery rhyme, with the careless shepherdess looking for her lost sheep. However, on the other side is something far darker, alluding to smuggling and deadly fights with the customs and excise. If truth be told, in the early 19th century, the area of Bo-Peep and Bulverhythe a bit further West, was not for the faint hearted.
In this version of the children’s nursery rhyme, Bo-peep refers to the Customs men, the sheep are the smugglers and the tails of the sheep refer to the contraband, that the smugglers are trying to hide in various places.
One of the definitive books on smuggling appears to be ‘The Smugglers’ by Charles Harper written in 1909, but recently re-published as a free e-book by Project Gutenberg. Harper paints a grim but perhaps rather fanciful picture of life in the early 19th century in West St Leonards, as follows:-
“A determined and blood-stained struggle took place at Bo-Peep at midnight of January 3rd, 1828. Bo-Peep was the name of a desolate spot situated midway between Hastings and Bexhill. The place is the same as that westernmost extension of St. Leonards now known by the eminently respectable—not to say imposing—name of “West Marina”; but in those times it was a shore, not indeed lonely (better for its reputation had it been so) but marked by an evil-looking inn, to which were attached still more evil-looking “Pleasure Gardens.” If throats were not, in fact, commonly cut in those times at Bo-Beep, the inn and its deplorable “Pleasure Gardens” certainly looked no fit, or safe, resort for any innocent young man with a pocketful of money jingling as he walked.”
Harper then went on to tell the story of how a group of smugglers brought their goods ashore, but were accosted by a large group of ‘blockade-men’ a few miles inland and in the ensuing fight one custom’s man and one smuggler were killed. At the ensuing trial at the Old Bailey the smugglers, all who were under 30, received a death sentence, which was later commuted to transportation to Australia.
Another incident took place later in 1828, when a large group of smugglers came ashore in broad daylight with their goods, guarded by a 300 locally hired “rustic labourers”. This time, the customs men, prudently, did not intervene and the whole operation passed without incident.
The ‘evil looking inn’ that Harper refers to, is not the present day Bo Peep pub, but a pub of the same name, formerly called ‘The New England Bank’, but now sadly long gone, having made way for the ‘West Marina’ railway station, which is also alas no more.
This original ‘Bo Peep’ inn was also host to an unlikely visitor in 1817, considering its unsavoury reputation. When I first moved to the area, I had noticed a small side road next to the Bo Peep pub, called Keats Close, but it had never occurred to me that it was in reference to the famous Romantic poet, John Keats, doomed to die an early death 4 years later of Tuberculosis.
Keats was in the middle of writing his famous poem ‘Endymion’ and was looking for inspiration at the seashore, which he found in the form of the beautiful Isabella Jones of Hastings. Keats must have been enamoured with her as he wrote a number of poems to her over the next couple of years. The exact nature of their relationship is not clear, but Keats told his brothers that he had ‘warmed with her … and kissed her’. Make of that what you will.
No article about this area of West St. Leonards would be complete with a mention of the Marina Fountain, formerly the Fountain Inn. Within the last few years, this pub has been transformed into a thriving community hub by its new owners, with good food, drink and music for the growing population of West St. Leonards. For us relative newcomers, there is nothing better on a warm summer’s day than to sit in the garden of the Marina Fountain, with the enormous brick arches towering above us, protecting us from the crumbling cliffs.
1 James Burton started building the seaside town of St. Leonards in 1828, based on his experiences of developing parts of London including Regent’s Park and Bloomsbury, as a summer retreat for well to do Londoners. After his death in 1837, his son Decimus Burton, a renowned Architect who designed Kew Gardens Glass House and other famous London landmarks including the Gate at Hyde Park Corner. To find out more about the Burtons and the founding of St. Leonards on Sea go to The Burton’s St. Leonards Society website
2 Chalybeate (/kəˈlɪbieɪt/) waters, also known as ferruginous waters, are mineral spring waters containing salts of iron. Due to uniqueness of the soft sandstone landscape, Hastings and St. Leonards is full of many other Chalybeate springs, from St. Helen’s Park to Alexandria Park and beyond.
11 thoughts on “The Crumbling Cliffs of St. Leonards (and other tales)”
Great article thanks.
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Informative and fascinating. Appreciate this SO much@
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Thanks good piece, very interesting.
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Great insights and info to the past, just up from what you was writing about is some splendid architecture such as the Dr Leonard’s gardens I am very curious how pevensey rd Winchester house came to be and its history and the round water tower etc
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Back in the 80s we underpinned the royal Victoria hotel in st Leonard’s because of the sea reclaiming the land very interesting to read
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Thank you , glad you enjoyed it, it makes the research worthwhile
Thank you for this very interesting and thought-provoking article. John. I really enjoyed it and thoroughly appreciate all your research (and time given) to bring it together. My husband and I lived in Grosvenor Crescent, St Leonards, for 14 happy years until August 2021, when we left to return to Adelaide, South Australia, having emigrated originally in 1974 from England with our family. However, we will always have very fond memories of St Leonard’s and your article certainly added another dimension to that which we were previously unaware of. Extremely fascinating. Thank you so much and very best wishes. BH
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Thanks you so much Barbara, it makes it all worthwhile when people are so appreciative. Now I’m retired I enjoy doing the research and learning about my local area. Have a nice life in Australia.
Hi Liz, thank you for mentioning my site in your article about St Leonards. I have been enjoying your observations on your trips to this part of the South Coast.