Bexhill-On-Sea, East Sussex. Home to Milly Molly Mandy (well, Joyce Lanchester Brisley, her author), Fanny Cradock and the highest proportion of residents aged over 100 years old in England and Wales. Also, and most importantly to the Lost Promenade, it’s the site of the second death in Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders. We’ve been here many times before singly, but never for an official Lost Prom excursion, however here we are at the end of summer and Bexhill’s day has finally arrived.
Nostalgic Vintage is a shop that we’ve long wanted to go to but has always been closed on past visits. We’re not disappointed. Not only is it open but it’s excellent; stuffed with dead stock 1960s & 70s clothes and homewares, in a jewel box array of man made fibres. Reasonably priced and run by a knowledgeable proprietor, the shop is a lesson in how to sell vintage well, and we leave laden down with trophies.
We can’t resist a stop at Alfredo & Sue Silva’s café, with its intriguingly wide-ranging specialism of “British, Swiss and Spanish cuisine” and its 18 flavours of milkshakes. In the pleasant garden at the back, Nhung orders Spanish chicken and Tamsin the evocatively named “Alfredo’s Egg Special” This turns out to be an omelette in a bap. But it’s a very nice one.
It’s back to shopping; Bexhill is brimming with charity shops, bric-a-brac emporiums and furniture reclamation stores. We’re pleased to see that Mein Kampf is no longer in the precious things cabinet in one charity shop as it was last time Tamsin visited, however we’re still astounded by just how many vaguely racist antiques seem to exist in the world and especially Bexhill. We’re also shocked by the actions of another vintage/pre-worn clothes shop in Bexhill – they’re selling a leopard print 1950s style raincoat which the Lost Prom recognises as being from Primark, because it once owned the very same model. However the label has been removed and it’s been priced up at £52. They do have some nice golfing jumpers, but this mis-selling, (sharp practice or just ignorance?), plus other inaccurately labelled items leaves a sour, earwaxy taste so we leave with nothing. The proprietor of another shop is nicer though; when Nhung buys a school prefect badge, he says “You know you can’t wear this don’t you?”, “Can’t I?” replies Nhung, slightly confused, “Because it says ‘prefect’ not ‘perfect’” charms the man. In the same shop we also hear a mother saying to her child, “Please stop licking me”.
We have a cup of tea in Di Paolo café on the seafront, another one of our beloved Italian seaside ice cream parlours, but this time sadly there’s no original 60s décor, although it’s going for a 1980sish approximation with plenty of seaside pastel colours and powder blue serving counters. Nhung is sure she’s been there before, but can’t put her finger on it. What the hey, it’s time for another craft fair. The last few Lost Prom trips seem to have been following the same formula; charity shops, Italian ice cream parlour, milkshake, craft fair, so why change a winning formula?
This is another fairly old-school event, held in a church hall, and offering proof that despite the presence of the cutting-edge De La Warr Pavilion (see below), and the opening of a few new cafés and chotchke shops, Bexhill is still firmly stuck in the past and stubbornly non-metropolitanised or trendified. Our favourite stall features homemade cards and for some reason, a single lonely cucumber. We also buy some nice hand-crafted soaps, including one called Sophia’s Snow, so-named because it snowed on the maker’s grand-daughter’s birthday so she used freshly fallen (hopefully un-urinated-upon) snow as one of the ingredients. All of a sudden, whilst discussing the intricacies of soap making, we hear a church organ strike up with Mendelssohn’s Wedding March. A newly married couple and wedding party spill out through a doorway and start a stately walk through the craft fair, past at least 3 different elderly ladies knitting and onto the outside. It turns out the church hall had been double booked. That still doesn’t explain the cucumber however.
If you google Bexhill, you won’t have to look far down the page to see references to its ageing population: the zimmer frames, the sleepiness, the inconsequence and incontinent. However there is one exception – the De La Warr Pavilion, designed by Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff in the 1930s and one of the first modernist public buildings in Britain. When it was first built, George Bernard Shaw apparently said, “Delighted to hear that Bexhill has emerged from barbarism at last, but I shall not give it a clean bill of civilisation until all my plays are performed there once a year at least.” Sadly, over the years the building fell into a poor state, and the lumbering beasts of barbarism once more roamed free in Bexhill until 2005 when the building was renovated and re-opened as a contemporary gallery and arts venue. And since then, it has fought a heroic fight to stave off both barbarism and boredom , with interesting installations and unexpected gigs (Henry Rollins in Bexhill! I saw it with my own eyes!)
Currently, the De La Warr is sporting a full-size bus teetering off the edge of its roof; a piece by artist Richard Wilson in homage to the film The Italian Job. What it has to do with the Pavilion is not clear, however it looks cool and that’s what counts.
As we stare out over the promenade, a sea mist develops making everything under its veil look mysterious. A stranger approaches Nhung and starts telling her about the onion-domed houses next to the Pavilion. Apparently they were built by an Indian prince to “house his eunuchs”. Later research proves this claim (which Tamsin thought he’d made up) to be more or less true. The Maharajah of Cooch Behar stayed in one of the houses (it was already built though) in 1900, unexpectedly dying there after only a few months. A water fountain was erected in Bexhill by his son, in memory of him and originally stood on the site of the De La Warr Pavilion. When the Pavilion was built, it was moved to a nearby park until the 1960s when it mysteriously disappeared. Its whereabouts have never been discovered.
The last thing we do in Bexhill is to visit the park in question. There is something very 1950s about its arrangement – boating lake, curves, serenity, shouts of children in the late summer. It’s like something from a Ladybird book and has a sense of the slightly unreal. Much like Bexhill as a whole really.
Criterion Café (what Nhung thinks Di Paolo’s was before, with red walls)
Bexhill Museum (closed)
Sugar pot that Nhung decided not to buy because it had a crack in it
Poirot jigsaw puzzle (we wanted to, but it was too big to carry)
A turn on the pedalos (maybe next time)
The Maharajah of Cooch Behar’s memorial fountain
Brown & white spriggy floral print blouse
3 handmade soaps
Brown leather barrel style 1960s handbag
2 RSPB badges
Welsh wool navy & white geometric woven 1960s coin purse
1950s sewing pattern
2 1960s/70s striped knit tops – 1 aqua & white, 1 red, blue & white
2 elasticated 1980s belts with enamel buckles
Mint green polyester blouse
2 bags of toffee crumble