Bexhill-on-Sea in East Sussex
Bexhill-on-Sea retains much of the charm and style that made it a favourite of the Victorian and Edwardian aristocracy. It lies between Eastbourne and Hastings in the beautiful 1066 Country area, and is in within easy reach of many castles and attractions such as the beautiful medieval town of Rye.
Bexhill’s history dates back to 771 when it was granted a charter by King Offa of Mercia, establishing a church and community. In Medieval times it was a base for infamous smuggling gangs. Later in 1804, during the Napoleonic wars, soldiers of the King’s German Legion were stationed there.
The Sackville Hotel known as “the Jewel of the South Coast” was where the Edwardian aristocracy stayed to play and party in luxurious style.
Bexhill was one of the first places to allow mixed sea bathing – very avant-garde for the time. Another landmark date was 1902 when Bexhill hosted the first international motor racing event.
Bexhill has kept its elegant two-mile promenade, where deck chairs and beach huts can be hired. The world famous De La Warr Pavilion also lies along the seafront and offers an excellent arts programme throughout the year.
There are many interesting shops, cafés and restaurants to be found in the town where many of the buildings date from 18th century. The Museum of Costume and Social History is located in the Old Town Manor Gardens and the Bexhill Museum shows such diversity as dinosaurs and artefacts from India and Africa.
The De La Warr Pavilion
The De La Warr Pavilion was the dream of the 9th Earl de la Warr. The Earl drew up a list of ideas for a modern building in Bexhill to be built on the seafront. The criteria was for a light and airy building with clean simple lines to be used as an entertainment venue, restaurant and reading room.
The De La Warr Pavillion was commissioned in 1935 and designed by architects Eric Mendlesohn and Serge Chermayeff. It was the first public building in Britain to be built in the Modernist style, with a revolutionary structure of steel and concrete. The aim of the building was to provide a centre of culture and leisure for the people of Bexhill and the surrounding area. Today the building is Grade 1 listed and widely recognised as a perfect example of the Modernist Movement.
Seventy years on the Pavilion has undergone extensive restoration and now offers visitors a large contemporary art gallery with an exciting arts programme. There is a also a shop specialising in books on art and culture and a café- restaurant./md
The earliest evidence of occupation of the site came from the discovery of primitive boats at Egerton Park. The town came into official existence with the Charter of 772. In this charter, King Offa II, King of Mercia, granted land to Bishop Oswald to build a church. Three hundred years later, around 1066, William the Conqueror gave the Rape of Hastings,including the captured town of Bexhill (also referred to as the “Badman Town”), to Robert, Count of Eu, as the spoils of victory.
The manor of Gotham in Bexhill was held by the de Lyvet (Levett) family from an early date. (The Levetts held land at Firle, Catsfield, Ninfield, South Heighton and West Dean and elsewhere, some of which was lost due to an heir’s bankruptcy.) Thomas de Lyvet, son of Richard, granted Gotham manor to James Fiennes, 1st Baron Saye and Sele.Thomas’s daughter Elizabeth, who married William Gildredge of Withyham, unsuccessful disputed Gotham manor in 1445. The Gildredge family later lived at nearby Eastbourne, where by 1554 they owned much of the land. Today’s Gildredge Park in Eastbourne is named for the family. Most of the Gildredge lands were carried by marriage into the Gilbert (now Davies-Gilbert) family of Eastbourne, who made the Gildredge manor house their own.
The church owned Bexhill Manor until Queen Elizabeth 1 acquired it in 1590 and granted it to Thomas Sackville, then Baron Buckhurst. Thomas became the first Earl of Dorset in 1603. In 1813, when the male line of the earldom had died out, Elizabeth Sackville married the fifth Earl De La Warr, and she and her husband inherited Bexhill. This early history can still be seen in street names, with Sackville Road, Buckhurst Road, De La Warr Parade, and King Offa Way being some of the most significant roads in the town. On 20 May 1729, a waterspout came ashore, became a tornado, and travelled 12 miles inland to Battle and Linkhill; nine farms and properties received serious damage.
Smuggling was rife in the area in the early nineteenth century. In 1828, the local Little Common Gang were involved in what was known as the Battle of Sidley Green, Sidley being an area in the north of Bexhill.
The Birth of British Motorsport
Today the trail-blazing motor racing drivers of 1902 seem as remote in the minds of those connected with the present day sport as the Casablanca Grand Prix. Bexhill’s motor races did not occur in isolation but were part of a campaign to promote Bexhill on Sea as a fashionable new resort and used the Bicycle Boulevard, which the 8th Earl had built along De La Warr Parade in 1896.
In May 1902, the 8th Earl De La Warr worked, in conjunction with the Automobile Club of Great Britain and Ireland, subsequently the Royal Automobile Club, to organise the very first automobile racing on British soil. Such was the occasion that thousands flocked to Bexhill to witness the unique spectacle. The very atmosphere reeked with the smell of paraffin with throbbing, puffing and snorting motors everywhere. Away up Galley Hill at the far end of the course one could see a puff of smoke and a fair-sized speck emerge from it. A few seconds later a monster dashes past, causing the very earth to tremble. Nothing could be seen of the drivers except a crouching figure with streaming hair, whose hands had a death-like grip of the steering wheel. Not only were straight sprint races run from east to west against the clock but cars raced side by side in the opposite direction, very much resembling the start of the Grand Prix races today. Distinguished names appeared on the entry list. There was Lord Northcliffe, the founder of the Daily Mail Newspaper in his Mercedes. Monsieur Leon Serpollet, the Frenchman, in his steam driven Easter Egg with the fastest speed of 54 mph and the first French victory on British soil. The indefatigable Mr S F Edge, who ran his Napier against a large entry of French owned Darracqs, and many more well known personalities of the day.
More than 200 entries competed in that inaugural meeting in 1902 and the local hotels and boarding houses were packed with the curious who had come to witness, for the first time on British soil, the spectacle of motor cars racing at speeds in excess of 50 mph when the speed limit of the day was a mere 12 mph.
The huge success of the meeting encouraged Earl De La Warr to make Bexhill the motoring centre for British racing drivers of the day. By 1906 plans were drawn up for a circuit almost reaching Beachy Head, with garages, restaurants and hotel accommodation. The course unfortunately never saw the light of day, and the motoring set moved to the new Brooklands circuit in 1907. A few attempts were made to resurrect the races, and the last competition was held in 1925 after which the Royal Automobile Club withdrew permits on public highways.
A Site of Special Scientific Interest lies within the Bexhill district—High Woods. It is of biological importance because it is the only known sessile oak Quercus petraea woodland in East Sussex. Fossils are also commonly found in Bexhill. In 2009 the world’s oldest spider web was found encased in amber in the town. It was 140 million years old.Areas
Old Town: The original town on the hill, chartered by King Offa in 772.
Cooden: An upperclass area of the town, it is in the southwest/west and plays host to a couple of hotels, a golf course and a beach.
- Little Common: A suburb in the west near Cooden.
- Pebsham: An area to the east of the town, it is near Sidley.
- Sidley: Another area, it is in the north.
- Collington: A residential area near Cooden.
- Bexhill New Town: The main part of Bexhill. There are several roads with a variety of shops, a railway station, a library and the De La Warr Pavillion on the seafront.
- Ninfield: A rural area to the north.
- Barnhorn: An area west of Bexhill; its name survives in Barnhorn Manor and Barnhorn Road (a section of the A259). The name was recorded in AD 772 in an Anglo-Saxon Charter as Berna horna.
Reginald Sackville, seventh Earl De La Warr, decided to transform what was then a village on a hill around its church into an exclusive seaside resort, which he named Bexhill-on-Sea. He was instrumental in building a sea wall south of the village, and the road above it was then named De La Warr Parade. Large houses were built inland from there, and the new town began. In 1890, the luxurious Sackville Hotel was built.
Holiday Monday in Bexhill was the location for the first Moter Racing in the United Kingdom, in May 1902. Signs at the town’s outskirts have the text ‘Birthplace of British Motor Racing’ appended below the town’s name. The Bexhill 100 Festival of Motoring, held on Bexhill’s seafront, celebrated this important milestone in motoring history from 1990 until 2002. This final festival commemorated the Centenary of the original races. During the life of the Festival, in 1999, the organisers launched The Bexhill 100 Motoring Club, so although the Festival no longer exists, the club still goes from strength to strength, and their committee organises The Bexhill 100 Motoring Club Classic Car Show held on August Bank Holiday at the Polegrove, Bexhill, each year.
The De La Warr Pavillion, brainchild of the ninth Earl De la warr, opened in 1935 as one of the earliest examples of Modern architecture in a major British public building. It closed for major restoration work in December 2003 and reopened in October 2005.
During the Second World War, Bexhill was named as a point to attack as part of Operation Sea Lion by Nazi Germany.
The town, like many other English seaside resorts, is now much more a settled community. Although there is a small entertainment area on the seafront, it now has a large retired population, like much of the south coast.
The town is served by the coastal railway line between Ashford and Brighton and has three railway stations, including Cooden Beach, Collington, and Bexhill. Regular trains run to Brighton, Ashford and London.
Notable people who lived in Bexhill
- John Logie Baird, Scottish inventor of the television, resided in a house by the station toward the end of his life.
- James Beeching (1788–1858), shipbuilder and inventor of the self-righting lifeboat.
- Michael Cowpland, founder of high-tech companies Mitel, Corel, and ZIM, lived in Bexhill and went to Bexhill College until he was 18.
- Fanny Cradock and Johnnie Cradock lived on Cooden Drive, Bexhill.
- Sir David Hare, British dramatist, comes from Bexhill.
- Comedian Eddie Izzard spent part of his childhood years in Bexhill-on-Sea.
- Peter Katin—concert pianist, recitalist, chamber musician, and concerto soloist—has made Bexhill his home.
- Desmond Llewelyn, the James Bond actor (“Q”), lived in the town until his death in 1999.
- The Maharajas of Cooch Behar, the Indian princely family had a house in Bexhill in the early 1900s.
- Spike Milligan was stationed in Bexhill while in the army during the Second World War, and most of the first volume of his war memoirs takes place there.
- Indie-rock band Mumm-Ra came from Bexhill. The topic of their hometown frequently came up in interviews.
- Graham Norton, Irish actor, comedian and television presenter, lives in a contemporary house in the Cooden Beach area.
- Oli Thompson – Strongman and 2006 winner of Britain’s Strongest Man.
- Leslie Weatherhead, renowned preacher and theologian, retired to Bexhill.
- Ronald Skirth (1897–1977), conscientious objector and author of the First World War memoir The Reluctant Tommy, grew up in Bexhill and describes it at length in his book.