...some of the quietest beaches in Europe, affordable accommodation, impressive architecture. To most of us, the resorts of Kent and East Sussex remain the obscure haunt of wet weekenders and the financially challenged, best glimpsed from 20,000ft en route to the Med. This is not the Seychelles, but things are improving. Some have embarked on regeneration schemes intended to reverse decades of decay. Visit now, and you'll find them in transition but still recognisable as the places our great-great-grand...

Smike's shoe shop, the Barnaby Rudge pub, Peggoty's launderette, Quilp's cafe, The Old Curiosity Shop ... there's certainly a theme to this town. What could it possibly be? Wasn't this where Ted Heath was born? But why is there no Morning Cloud pub or Grocer's wine bar? is where Dickens lived for 13 years and penned, among others, The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, David Copperfield and Barnaby Rudge. "Of course," one local observed sadly, "it was a much busier place in those days." These days, it's a great place to visit. After all, there aren't many places within 90 minutes drive of London where you can eat an excellent rocket salad on the terrace of a good Italian restaurant and watch the sun set on the fine sands of a small bay below as you sip your wine. Nor, for that matter, a friendly little shop with a comforting notice in its window that "slippers are always in stock". Such are the delights of a day in compact, friendly . Of course, it may be raining.

Bleak House, called Fort House when Dickens lived there, dominates pretty Viking Bay and looks over the sea-front jumble of Victorian and Georgian buildings. The house, the first of hundreds of bleak houses you have to pass before reaching the old town, is now a Dickens museum. In case you need a further dose of Tiny Tims and Little Dorrits, there's another museum a short walk away. If it is raining, you could shelter in one of three excellent Italian cafes - Rino's, Morelli's (founded 1932) or Chiappini's - and watch the deluge over a cappuccino and a cream cake. And yes, that low, greyish ridge on the horizon is France. If there's no let up in the downpour by afternoon, make for the cavernous Albion bookshop, stuffed with a fantastic range of second-hand and antiquarian tomes.

If by evening it's torrential, you can have a drink in the incredibly old Tartar Frigate pub on the quay, then nip across to the tiny Windsor cinema for a dose of Hollywood (three shows daily, tickets pounds 1-pounds 3). After the film, dash 100 yards for last orders at Osteria Posillipo, the aforementioned restaurant. If you wake up the next day and you're still in , there are half a dozen quiet beaches nearby where you can walk off your hangover in peace and start all over again. With a cappuccino.


Believe it or not, Bexhill-on-Sea was once a racy place. It was the first English resort to allow mixed bathing and hosted Britain's first grand prix. Now, 100 years after dashing Herr Stanislaus Wurm and his Viennese Band set young hearts a-flutter in Cantelupe Gardens, the town is indeed full of old people - so many, in fact, that there were huge traffic jams when they massed one morning for winter flu jabs. But just in case town centre attractions such as the hospice coffee lounge, the orthopaedic shop, and the hearing aid clinic lead you to believe that Bexhill is little more than the Grim Reaper's waiting room, make straight for the sea-front. Here, style and elegance abound, most notably in the sensual, white curves of the De La Warr pavilion. Designed by Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff, this stunning Art Deco palace is set against a backdrop of seaside Edwardiana, like a Thirties ocean liner run aground. Now undergoing restoration, the building, greeted as "by far the most civilised thing that has been done on the south coast since the days of the Regency", serves as an arts centre-cum-meeting place. People love it. On a sunny early summer afternoon, the place was alive with visitors, some on the terrace, sipping tea and listening to Blow the Wind Southerly courtesy the East Peckham Silver Band, others perusing a modern art exhibition and old photographs of sea-front life, which included a snap of 1920s male gymnasts. "Eeee, look at them," one granny cackled with glee to her friends, "they're playing with their large balls".

Out on the prom, strollers pass the turrets of the Victorian Colonnade in an ozone-induced daze while waves lap against one of the most idyllic of English resort beaches - crowd-free, dark groynes receding into the distance, sails at sea, gulls in the air, beach-huts for pounds 8 a day or pounds 200 a season, and all's well with the Empire.

BOHEMIANS loved this place, and still do. To be more accurate, they love Old Hastings, picturesque sibling of sad, decaying Hastings proper, which on a wet and windy weekday graces the coastline with all the charm of a bronchitic bent over a sink. Oddly, the town is also rich in men hobbling around on crutches. Still, don't let that put you off. If you find beauty in decay, then Hastings is one of our most beautiful towns. Between the delights of the Nothing Over A Pound emporium and a clutch of house clearance "specialists", Warrior Square is the British seaside at its most grand. Conceived and built by the man who constructed much of regency west London, this huge, stuccoed, pillared enclosure was intended to be a Kensington-by-the-sea, centrepiece of a decidedly upper- crust resort. Nearly two centuries on, it's still standing, amid seedy holiday flats and boarded-up shops. Glory of a kind survives too in the shape of the pier, built in 1872, which extends 910ft out over the grey sea. Here, Sharon the Clairvoyant - "of Romany origin" - will read your palm for pounds 2. The pier ballroom now accommodates raves, which, one pier worker said, "keep the place going". Sadly, the tiny garlic museum was closed. Just a short walk along the broad, shingle seafront things are very different. Old Hastings, comprising a jumble of tiny streets and over 600 listed buildings squeezed into the narrow valley between West Hill and East Hill, is a great place to spend a day or two or - as a growing band of arty refugees from pushy Brighton are finding - live. High Street boasts an excellent fish restaurant at the Jenny Lind Hotel and a damn fine tapas at Harris's, while junk and antique shops abound. Painters adored Old Hastings. In 1860, Dante Gabriel Rossetti married Elizabeth Siddal - his doomed Ophelia - at the medieval St Clement's church, William Holman Hunt painted Our English Coasts and Whistler's mother lived at St Mary's terrace, while this century Lucien Pissarro and Edward Burra worked here. On the Stade, the Old Hastings front, fishermen from the last south coast fleet which is winched ashore tinker with their tackle amid the tall, surreal net huts or talk turbot with the fishmongers on Rock-a-Nore street. When we visited, the surrounding hills were shrouded in sea mist. Rising by the precarious funicular railway to the country park on East Hill, Old Hastings receded, then vanished, in a thin film of white. Then nothing but cliffs, lush fields, mist, and gulls.


Victorious in the bitter "sunshine war" with Jersey, Eastbourne is officially our sunniest resort. It's also one of the most confident and busy. Just a few years ago, the town was in danger of sleeping its way into deep decay - hotels crumbling, shops ailing or boarded up. As long ago as the 1850s Dickens called it "that sink of deep disgust", but in recent years urban improvement schemes and cash from tens of thousands of German, French and Italian language students have greatly improved shopping and eating, making it a contender, in consumer terms at least, for promotion to the Brighton league.

There's still a way to go before it regains the cachet it enjoyed when it attracted visitors such as Debussy, who composed La Mer at the Grand Hotel, or Swinburne, who confessed "I am very much in love with Eastbourne", but it's drifting in the right direction. For now, there's enough to both love and disgust. In town, trendies slurp cappuccinos in the post-modern surroundings of the Coast and Aroma cafes, and fritter money at Next, Jones footwear, the cavernous Boots, or the ominously-named Crumbles shopping centre (Six-screen multiplex cinema).

On the front, however, it's business as usual, with the elegant pier, currently undergoing a pounds 1.5m improvement, a clutter of low-budget browsing. A small flock of grannies in dayglo floral-print blouses pick a cut-price clothing shop bare, Burger King touts its Chicken New York burger and the Fantasia entertainment centre beckons with bingo and video games. At weekends, brass bands play under the Art Nouveau turquoise dome of the Grand Parade Bandstand. Even on off-season wet Wednesdays, much of the three-mile promenade is dotted with elderly coach parties, shambling along at low velocity towards the fragrant Carpet Gardens, fish and chips and oblivion. The main bathing beach - the long, clean shingle stretch from the pier to Wish Tower - is a Seaside Award winner.


A FEW MILES out of Hastings you leave what the tourist boards call "1066 Country" and enter "The Garden Coast" - the long sweep from the great shingle spit of Dungeness up to the Channel ports. Actually, garden is not a bad word, as much of this Kentish coastline was long ago domesticated and made suburban with acres of the dreaded bungalows. This is a blessing in disguise, as the beaches, some of the cleanest in Britain, are free from Victorian over-development and remain quiet and friendly. Among the best are Romney Sands (sands, that is, only at low tide. Normally, shingle is your lot), Littlestone and Dymchurch, where the tide reveals clean, fine sand beneath the sea wall. The peculiar sensation of Penge having met the Channel is best felt at Hythe, where the seafront is graced with well-kept Edwardian and 1920s villas so at one with the shore you could imagine them being there since the dawn of history. The beach is wide, clean and, during the week, virtually empty. What the seafront lacks in cafes it makes up for in sedate charm. As the bard of gloom, Morrissey, once sang about some seaside town, in Hythe every day is like Sunday. Good. Take a lover.


POOR FOLKESTONE. Like Dover, it was once very smart, they say. Now the remains of what indeed would have been a compact, scenic little bay keep company with the obscene slab that is the Burstin Hotel - like some conference centre from a people's republic circa 1970. The Victoriana is in an advanced state of decay, especially on the once-grand Marine Crescent.

Once you've freed yourself from Folkestone's one-way system and head east, you enter "White Cliffs Country". Ignore the white cliffs and make for Deal, then ignore Deal town and head for the seafront. This is another laid-back, pretty seaside gem, with a long line of 17th and 18th-century houses facing a broad, clean, shingle beach. After a lengthy browse in the Golden Hind bookshop, you can take tea at the Lobster Pot cafe, take an hour's stroll along the shore, return for a gourmet meal of grilled rock oysters in pesto or Kentish whelks with tarragon and spinach at the Boathouse restaurant on the front.



Seventy-bed Albemarle Hotel - on the seafront. 01323 730666. pounds 21pp including breakfast.

Queen's Hotel, Marine Parade (01323 722822). pounds 32-pounds 35 pp per night including breakfast.

Burlington Hotel, Grand Parade (01323 722724). Weekend breaks (from Friday to Sunday) pounds 75pp for 3 nights. Faces the pier.

Grand Hotel, King Edward's Parade (01323 412345). Special deals for short breaks. Huge, imposing Edwardian building. Double sea-view room with balcony pounds 200 a night including breakfast. Super-opulent.

York House Hotel, family owned by the Williamsons since 1896 (01323 412918). 14-22 Royal Parade pounds 21-pounds 39 pp per night including breakfast.

Bexhill-on Sea

Award-winning Jarvis Cooden Beach Hotel, 20 mins walk along the beach from Hastings proper (01424 842281). Two-night rate of pounds 52.50 per person full board for a double room.

The Dunselma Hotel, facing the Art Deco splendour of the De La Warr pavillion, on the sea front (01424 734144). pounds 22 per person including breakfast


Jenny Lind Hotel, 69 High Street, Hastings Old Town (01424 421392). Double room pounds 40, huge breakfast extra.

Lionsdown House, 116 High Street (01424 420802). Medieval timber-framed building. B&B pounds 17.50-19.50 pp per night.


The Imperial Hotel (01303 267441). Rather flash. Double/twin with breakfast pounds 117 a night for the room. Stade Court (01303 268263). Two-night break pounds 100 per person for twin/double room.


Royal Hotel, Beach Street (01304 375555). Overlooks sea. Former guests include Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton. Balcony rooms overlooking Channel. Room prices pounds 95-pounds 130 night; Double/twin pounds 75 night including breakfast.

Royal Albion Hotel, Albion Street (01843 868071). pounds 60 for a double, breakfast extra. In middle of town, overlooks Viking Bay. Dickens stayed here. Would benefit from complete refit. However, it's the only big hotel in town.