Over the hill? Come to Bexhill, where life begins at 100
It's been named the borough with the highest concentration of centenarians. Liam O'Brien grows old (for a day) in 'God's waiting room'
Tuesday 02 October 2012
There's a saying in Bexhill-on-Sea that people retire there to live out their last days and then forget what they came for. It's a town of Zimmer frames and walking sticks, of stamp societies and country dances, and an analysis of last year's census showed that the East Sussex haven for the elderly has the highest proportion of people aged over 100 in England and Wales.
In Bexhill's borough of Rother, 66 people in a population of 90,558 are centenarians, compared with only 18 in 254,096 in East London's Tower Hamlets. More than 17,000 of Rother's citizens are in their nineties. But far from being pleased that living in Bexhill appears to guarantee a good innings, its residents have questioned whether its centuries-old reputation for longevity has turned the town into a shell of its former self.
"It's so boring here that I have to go to Hastings all the time. It's God's waiting room," says Leofwin Edwards, 32. He's making his way into "Music's Not Dead", an aptly-titled shop selling records by trendy bands such as The XX and The Vaccines – but it's an anomaly. In quick succession along one of the main shopping streets are the premises "Second Spin", "Past & Present", "Second Chance", and "Second Time Around". Outside one of the nightclubs (or "dances", as the Mayor, Joanne Gadd, calls them) a mobility scooter is parked.
But not everyone is in despair. "I like it in Bexhill," says Emma Royston, 24. "There's no crime really and you never get any bother." The few offences that do come to the attention of police tend to be of the curious, prankish kind. Last week's local paper reported that a red beach flag had been set alight and run back up its mast, while nails were hammered into trees in the cemetery.
But generally, the elderly here live a charmed life. "There's a lot for them to do. When you're older you need to keep your mind active," says Ms Gadd, who makes sure that when residents turn 100 they receive not only a card from the Queen, but a bouquet of flowers (for the women) or a bottle of whisky (for the men).
Two of Bexhill-on-Sea's centenarians live in Eridge Park Care Home. Molly Allardyce still has her 100th birthday balloons floating in the lounge after a celebration earlier this month. In her room are "dozens and dozens" of cards, "flowers galore, and presents". Molly says she always loved being outdoors, and going on rambles in the countryside. "I just sort of arrived at 100, it's just something that happens" she says.
Her older friend Beryl Adcock, who was born in Suffolk on 17 January 1912, is bright and confident. "I still enjoy life, and catch up with what's going on in the newspapers," she says. "I still like to see what's happening."
Like Molly, she loved playing badminton and golf. "I've never been out on a drinking spree but I enjoy a small glass of sherry," she adds.
It's tempting to assume the Bexhill's high centenarian population is purely down to the number of people who retire there, but the idea that the town is a self-sustaining elixir goes back almost 200 years. In 1819, there was a celebratory dinner in honour of George III's 81st birthday. The average age of the men at the meal was 81, while the waiters' mean age was 71.
In the 1880s, hoteliers began trading on the town's health-giving image, and tourists flocked in. Some made money in other ways. "There was a natural spring of iron-rich water, and a landowner erected a fountain," says Bexhill Museum curator Julian Porter. People could then scoop the water into an iron cup for a drink that would allegedly prolong their life. The waters were even bottled and sold in London. "But it didn't last long," he adds. "Because it tasted awful, it was essentially rust."
But in the 1970s schools and hotels gave way to retirement homes. Pensioners were never likely to spend as much as the merchants whose children were sent to Bexhill's boarding schools and so the infrastructure and economy has suffered.
"The perception of Bexhill being a place where people live a long time sometimes doesn't help the town – it's seen as somewhere for old people when in fact there are plenty of young families," says Julian Porter.
Others have been less kind. The infamous Crap Towns book, published in 2003, spoke of Bexhill-on-Sea's "essence of death" robbing the town of any animation. But watching the elderly residents gaze out over the marina, it's clear that many are having the time of their lives.
Old England: the senior sites
Bexhill: 66 out of 90,588 people are centenarians (0.073 per cent). The town is well known for its abundance of fossils. In 2009 the world's oldest spider's web was found there.
Worthing: 64 out of 104,640 are centenarians (0.061) A relatively large seaside town which is also host to the greatest number of Stone Age flint mines in Britain.
Eastbourne: 54 out of 99,412 are centenarians (0.05). Its unusually balmy climate probably explains this high number of retirees.
West Somerset: 18 out of 34,675 are centenarians (0.052) This district also boasts the oldest average age in the UK (52), as well as a bountiful number of Grade 1-listed buildings.
Torbay: 65 out of 130,959 are cen- tenarians (0.05). A fragment of bone found here may be the earliest ex- ample of a modern human in Europe.
West Dorset: 48 out of 99,264 are centenarians (0.048). No visit here is complete without a stroll along the fossil-filled Jurassic Coast.
East Devon: 61 out of 132,457 are centenarians (0.046). A third of the area's population are over 60.
Bournemouth: 84 out of 183,491 are centenarians (0.046). Narrowly missed out on city status as part of the jubilee celebrations this year, but still has the reputation as the "happiest" place in the UK.
Isles of Scilly: One out of 2,203 is a centenarian (0.045). Despite its elderly demographic, the Isles are always in bloom – the warm air and rare frosts means daffodils are a central agricultural export.
Malvern Hills: 32 out of 74,631 are centenarians (0.043). Home to many holy wells – could the water be the secret to a longer life?
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