How they're losing the modern battle of Hastings: Esther Oxford contrasts the plight of a run-down English resort with its counterpart 40 miles across the Channel

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE FISHERMAN at the end of Hastings pier stood out from the rest of the crowd, mostly of day- trippers and foreign students on language courses. He was still, breath quiet, waiting for the fish.

Around him was movement and noise: students wheeling bustling in and out of the amusement arcade, shaking the floorboards of the old ballroom, yelling out, mocking the pier's tarnished grandeur.

How long had he been waiting? All day - no work - hasn't been for three years now. What had he caught? Nothing: the commercial nets have swept up the fish.

Three language students galloped by. 'I can't run', one shouted, floorboards bouncing beneath, 'I've got too much money in my pockets]'

'The town needs these language students to keep the place alive,' the fisherman said.

These days, instead of housing holidaymakers, Hastings's seafront bed-and-breakfasts are as likely to accommodate the stranded. A report by Crisis, the charity for single homeless people, says that the East Sussex town has more than its share of the homeless, mentally ill, old and unemployed.

It says Britain's seaside resorts are no longer 'sand-between- your-toes' happy, carefree places. Instead they have become 'places of loneliness and despair for the many homeless people who live on the streets, in squats, on friends' floors or in crumbling properties'.

It is a different story 40 miles away. More than the Channel separates Hastings from Wimereux, a sprightly town on the 'Opal Coast' near Boulogne. Wimereux is thriving. The sandy, open beach is enjoyed by families, windsurfers, couples in love. The high street is a string of brasseries, restaurants and shops that cater for locals as much as visitors.

Every weekend - in winter too - the town hosts a festival. In summer the population doubles - and not with society's 'unwanteds'.

'Homeless?' answers a local policeman. 'Ah, non]' Drugs? 'Non, non.' Crime? No crime. A little prodding reveals a slightly less idyllic picture. But the 'homeless' are back-packers, the drug is cannabis, and crime is limited to scuffles between drunken youths and the odd burglary.

Some parts of Hastings look as pretty as Wimereux's idyillic front. But behind the rosebeds and grand seafront hotels are people on benches who sit, walk, eat, then go home to accommodation sometimes acknowledged as 'unfit for habitation' or to the basements of boarded-up hotels.

'Ninety per cent of these hidden homeless are local people,' said Nigel Bolton, of Shelter Housing Action for Hastings. 'The rest are mentally ill or the travelling unemployed: 13.8 per cent of the local 'working' population are unemployed.'

Drifting people are discouraged from sitting in the centre of town; most can be found in draft- free corners of the concrete beach front, or in the small parks, behind churches, or in the Sea View day centre.

Local people still in work say the 'hangers-on' are discouraging tourists. But that does not stop the local youths from doing their bit to scare off visitors as well: Reg Howett, a taxi driver, said he had picked up five language students in the past six months who had been attacked by them. 'These local youngsters have had nothing for years. They see these students take their boyfriends or girlfriends out for a good time and think they have money. It's jealousy, that's all.'

A few decades ago, Hastings was a British version of Wimereux. The pleasures were simple: ice-cream, Punch and Judy shows, beach-huts. Now, the seafront is a messy line of ruined grandeur and sausage shops offering cheap meals for students; Wimereux's has two restaurants and a line of white wooden beach- huts.

Tourist officials put its success down to the golf, the sailing, the 'beautiful' buildings, the 'smiles', the beaches and the weekend festivals. Brochures focus on Wimereux as part of a coastline rather than a place worth visiting for itself.

The leaflets are nearly all in French, as are the menus in town. Wimereux has not seen itself as warranting the attention of rich foreign tourists, but the abundance of budget hotels, budget meals, and cheap souvenirs and amusements to be found in Hastings are nowhere to be seen.

Robert Thornton, 34, used to be a chef and a postman in Lancashire. Last week he was sipping soup in St Leonard's Church, Hastings, along with 20 other homeless men. He spends his days walking up and down the seafront for something to do.

He said: 'Hastings is a place for the old. It's a town where people come to die. Hastings has always been a bit like that. It has always been known as the resort that didn't quite make it.' Why? 'The council. They don't put any money into the place. The buildings rot. Nothing has been done to win back the tourists. Why should anyone come? There are only caves - they take 20 minutes. The castle? There is not much left of it.'

Why had he come? 'Because you get your rent cheque without much hassle. Because of soup kitchens like this. And because it is by the sea.'

In Wimereux, they have not heard of the 'homeless'. Jean David Marcourt, the police chief, said the local unemployed stayed in their homes and played cards, or went fishing. They still have something to catch.

Homeless-on-Sea: An investigation into the plight of the single homeless in seaside towns. By Michael Kennedy, July 1993.

(Photograph omitted)