Adventures of a Hasting’s Flâneur

The title of this article is ‘Adventures of a Hasting’s Flâneur‘, but what do I mean by a Flâneur?

Luckily, there are as many definitions as there are dictionaries, some state that it is ‘a man who saunters around observing society.’ another states that ‘A flâneur is, quite simply, a leisurely wanderer, a worldly explorer, a connoisseur of life. The word, hailing from 19th-century France, captures the idea that the mind functions best at a slow pace, and that curiosity can uncover a life of significance.’

The word is, of course, French and in its literal use means an ‘idler’ ‘saunterer’ or ‘loafer’. I’ve no doubt that I have been guilty of all of these at times and so I don’t feel embarrassed using the term.

My personal preference is for the second definition above and so I will try and define my understanding of what it means to be a Flâneur in 21st century Hastings and St Leonards:-

“A person who wanders around their home town in a leisurely way, looking for things that pique their interest, which are perhaps unusual or strange, and may then lead them on a journey of discovery of people, places and anything else that might fire their imagination”

These then are some of the stories that I have discovered, as a Flâneur in Hastings and St Leonards, in the course of my leisurely wanderings, together with my trusty camera.

One day my wandering took me to Silchester Road, in the backstreets of St Leonards, and, in a row of small terraced houses, I spied a blue plaque. These have always interested me and can often be the start of a new journey. We know that many plaques honour the great and the good, but often you see a plaque for someone relatively unknown to the public at large. This was the case here, as I had never come across Elsie Bowerman before.

Just from the few words written on the plaque, I knew there was a story here, but once I started my research, I realised that this remarkable women had led an extraordinary life which included a high profile role in the Woman’s Suffrage movement, a survivor of the most famous shipwreck disaster of the 20th century, an active participant in the First World War, a witness to the Russian Revolution, becoming one of the earliest female barristers in the UK and, last but not least, having an important role in the formation of the United Nations.

I have found very few photographs of Elsie, but this one below seems to capture her personality, and which shows her at the age of about 20, staring straight into the camera with a look of resolve and strength; a person determined to make their mark on the world.

To find out more about Elsie Bowerman, there is an excellent article by local author, Helena Wojtczak in her book ‘Notable Women of Victorian Hastings’

Just a few steps down and there is yet another enigmatic plaque for one George Bristow, a taxidermist and a central figure in the Hastings Rarities affair. This was definitely a mystery that needed further investigation by the Hastings Flâneur.

When in doubt, consult Wikipedia and, as always, it did not disappoint. It states that “The Hastings Rarities affair is a case of statistically demonstrated ornithological fraud that misled the bird world for decades in the 20th century. The discovery of the long-running hoax shocked ornithologists.”

I have this unsettling vision of traumatised ornithologists walking around in dazed shock following this revelation.

It emerged in 1962, after statistical analysis, and many years after his death, that George Bristow, a taxidermist and gunsmith, was the perpetrator of a series of frauds, carried out from the 1890s to at least 1930, by importing bird specimens from outside the British Isles, but claiming them to have been found and shot in the Hastings area. He then went on to sell these specimens to wealthy ornithologists.

As a result of the scandal, 29 bird species or subspecies were dropped from the British List of birds in Britain, although some of the species dropped have now been readmitted to the list on the basis of reliable subsequent records. The white winged snow finch below was not one of them and has never been seen in the British Isles.

The moral of the story seems to be never trust a taxidermist with a gun. A great exception should, of course, be made for Hasting’s own wonderful Ethical Taxidermist, Jasmine Miles-Long who turns her creations into beautiful works of art, all made using animals that have died from natural causes.

Plaques seem to congregate into groups and just a few streets away in North Street was the last resting place of a much more recent, well loved figure and cultural icon called Marianne Joan Elliott-Said. If that doesn’t mean much to most people, perhaps her stage name of ‘Poly Styrene’ is more familiar. In 1977, Poly Styrene was at the forefront of the punk movement in UK with her band ‘X-Ray Spex’ singing such punk anthems such as ‘Oh Bondage, Up yours’, a cry of rage and defiance against male domination.

Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard
But I think “oh bondage, up yours!”

Poly Styrene in her glory days with X-Ray Spec circa 1977

When Poly Styrene left her punk days behind her, she settled in St. Leonards and was about to relaunch her career, with the release of a solo album, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer which had metastasised to her spine. She died on the 25 April 2011, at the tragically young age of 53, at St. Michael’s Hospice in St. Leonards. She was, by all accounts, a gentle soul who left this earth far too young.

A source of great pleasure and interest for the leisurely wanderer like myself are churches and churchyards. Many people who have read some of my previous posts will be aware of this, as I have written extensively about two well known Hasting’s churches, The Church in the Wood and Old St. Helen’s Church

Ancient Graves in Old St. Helen’s Church covered in beautiful lichen
The beautiful churchyard of Church in the Wood

It’s difficult to pinpoint why I love churches and churchyards so much, especially as I am not a particularly religious person. I have difficulty explaining it, but without wishing to sound pretentious, it seems to me that these places are imbued with the spirit of the people that have worshipped and died there, leaving a collective atmosphere that can somehow be picked up on.

Whatever the reason, there is always a new treasure and discovery to be made every time I visit my favourite churchyards. In my previous post about Church in the Wood, I told the story of Rear Admiral Marcus Lowther who sailed to the Far East and the Pacific Islands in the mid 19th century, and all the while was sketching and painting the landscapes, houses and the indigenous people, recording a world that has now totally vanished. His sketchbooks eventually surfaced in 2020 and were a sensation.

Chincha islands loading Guano
H.M. Dart, Marcus Lowther’s ship

When I revisited the grave recently, there were 4 beautifully painted stones laid on his gravestone, a poignant and beautiful homage to Admiral Lowther. But who made them and placed them there? Was it some local schoolchildren or maybe a distant relative or just an admirer? Whoever it was must have been familiar with his travels and the sketches. When I finished photographing them, I placed them back on the grave for the enjoyment of others.

Painted Pebbles on Marcus Lowther’s grave – Unknown artist

Ancient monuments and ruins are another obsession for this Flâneur and there are quite a few in Hastings. Old St Helen’s church is one such, tucked away behind a new development, glorious in its lonely isolation, only visited by the determined visitor and ‘ruin’ obsessive like me.

Romantic ruins of Old St. Helen’s Church

Also, if you travel a bit further afield, westwards, out of St. Leonards on the way towards Bexhill, there is an area called Bulverhythe. But where is it? There is a Bulverhythe beach, which is fascinating in its own right, but no sign of a hamlet or village that would denote a separate community. It turns out that Bulverhythe is one of thousands of medieval villages lost to history, as a result of changing circumstances. Many were lost to the bubonic plague and other disasters, but in the case of Bulverhythe it was the sea that caused its ultimate demise.

The village of Bulverhythe was a thriving port in the Middle Ages serving the people of Hastings and was once part of the Cinque Ports confederation, but by the 17th Century the village had been all but destroyed by constant storms and coastal erosion. The people, unable to survive without a seaport, upped sticks and left.

Today, there remain only two survivors of the old Bulverhythe, one being The Bull Inn, a friendly local pub, situated on the Bexhill Road. The other is the ruins of St Mary’s Chapel, dating back nearly 1,000 years and which was one of the first Norman churches built in England. This small and unique chapel is hidden away, incongruously, in a 1930s housing estate behind the main road, another gem that many people are not aware of, except, of course, the residents of the estate.

Of course, the most famous ruins in Hastings can be found in the town itself. The remains of Hastings Castle have stood alone and proud on the West Hill, overlooking the town for centuries, a romantic reminder of an earlier age and also a reminder, if one is needed, of 1066 and the Battle of Hastings.

Postcard of Hastings Castle from the early 20th century

However, this is not the oldest monument in Hastings, this honour goes to a feature that thousands of people might have walked across, on their way to visit the castle, without realising its significance. This unprepossessing area is called the “Ladies Parlour” and consists of a semi grass-banked enclosure to the north-east of Hastings Castle. This area was once a Stone Age hill fort and settlement.

On the web site ‘Ancient Monuments’ it states that:-

Hastings Castle, the Collegiate Church of St Mary and the Ladies’ Parlour includes the castle of Norman origin together with its rock-cut ditch, the remains of a Collegiate church and the earthworks and interior area of an enclosure known as the Ladies’ Parlour which has been identified as an Iron Age promontory fort.

The Ladies’ Parlour is part of a defensive enclosure which occupied the whole promontory although one half of its original area was subsequently taken over by the Norman castle. The crescent-shaped earthwork bank stands as high as 4m in places, but diminishes in height to both south and west. The ditch runs NW-SE between Castle Hill Road and the cliff edge above Burdett Place increasing in size to the south-east to a maximum of 2.4m deep and 20m wide.”

The name Ladies’ Parlour is thought to have derived from the story that the area had been a tilt yard, in the Middle Ages, where jousting tournaments were held, watched by ladies in their finery, but I have not come across any contemporary evidence of this, so it may well be yet another urban myth.

There is however material evidence that, in fact, this area had been settled for far longer than the Iron Age; an archaeological excavation from the site in the 1930s discovered an array of arrows, javelins and spear tips, typical of the Mesolithic Period (Middle Stone Age), possibly over 10,000 years old. Perhaps this ancient area was the birthplace of Hastings, a tantalising thought.

These are some of my adventures as a Flâneur in Hastings and St Leonards, I could tell you many other stories from my wanderings, but that will have to wait for another day.

The Flâneur surveys his domain – Old Town Hastings

One thing I’ve slowly come to discover in my wanderings, is the ‘Art of Looking‘. Before my knees began to fail me, I used to run around the town barely having time to notice anything, other than my laboured breathing, but since I hung up my running shoes, I have more time to take in my surroundings and absorb everything around me.

I began to notice the cloud formations, the roofs of houses, the patterns in nature and of course the endless variety of the ocean and the waves. I can spend hours staring at the sea and, at these times, the only thing to do is put the camera away and live in the moment. In these troubled times, where we feel everything is outside our control, these moments offer a certain solace and give us some reason for hope .

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?-

No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows:

No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass:

No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night:

No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance:

No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began?

A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

W.H. Davies – Leisure 1911

Published by John Bostock

Retired and living in St. Leonards on Sea, but still learning about life. All views are my own.

8 thoughts on “Adventures of a Hasting’s Flâneur

  1. I loved your post, so interesting. The fact that you enjoy looking at cloud formations tells me that you are not someone who stares avidly at your phone!!! I don’t either – I love just staring at the sea and the sky. They are constantly changing and therefore fascinating

    Liked by 1 person

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