On a balmy spring morning, Eastbourne seemed to be showing off. The bright white stuccowork of its large seafront properties gleamed; the vibrantly coloured flowerbeds bloomed; the perfectly blue sea gently receded to reveal alluring sandy expanses beyond the spotlessly clean shingle. Perhaps best of all, the town's pier shimmered in a romantic haze, its elegant walkway stretching out nearly 1,000ft above the calm water, culminating in a glistening arrangement of domes.
A few elderly couples ambled along the beach boardwalk holding hands, but otherwise, the place looked almost empty. Small posters on the balustrades fluttered in a light breeze. They advertised forthcoming tribute nights at the seafront bandstand (renditions of Abba, Tom Jones and more) and the imminent appearance of the (real) New Seekers at Eastbourne's Royal Hippodrome ("Relive the magic of the Seventies" was the catchline).
I strolled along the beach to the pier and promenaded its half-deserted length to the sound of quietly piped music - one of Santana's gentler numbers. Beyond the cheerful entertainment booths, sweet stalls and chip shops, a couple of fishermen at the angling club nodded in wordless greeting, cigarettes dangling from their lips.
While Brighton, a little over 20 miles along the coast to the west, has become busily retro-chic and self-consciously cool, Eastbourne remains the quintessential British seaside town. It seems stoically rooted in another era: retro by default. Locals talk to you knowledgeably about the town's carpet beds - a series of riotous floral displays along the Grand Parade near the pier. They confide that the working camera obscura on the pier is a bone of much contention since it is opened only irregularly (indeed, it was firmly closed the day I was there). They urge you to explore beyond the seafront and to visit the Old Town, with its narrow streets and pretty parish church of St Mary the Virgin (dating from the 12th century, and open to visitors during daylight hours).
Most of all, though, they are quick to point out how their seafront architecture remains gloriously unblemished by the commercial thrust of shops and shoppers. The grand line of 19th-century pilastered and pedimented buildings facing the sea (for the most part, the row is unbroken by modern intrusions) is strictly conserved and predominantly occupied by hotels, quiet establishments attracting visitors of a certain age.
At the town's little heritage centre, you learn how Eastbourne has always preserved its looks. It was designed to be an exclusive resort, built, as the Victorian townsfolk boasted, "by gentlemen for gentlemen".
Until the 19th century, seaside Eastbourne did not exist. The resort grew rapidly from the merging of ancient little settlements in the area. The largest was an inland village called East Bourne, now known as the Old Town, set a mile from the sea and still retaining a snug feel, with antiques shops rubbing shoulders along Crown Street. Meanwhile, down by the coast, little Sea Houses was a fishing hamlet that took a bow when George III sent his children there for a visit in 1780.
Thirteen years later, coastal defences against Napoleon were constructed along the undeveloped shoreline in the form of round Martello towers, two of which still stand today in what became Victorian Eastbourne. Even in 1808, when William Wilberforce stayed at Sea Houses with his family, the idea of turning the area into a dedicated holiday destination was not even a pipe dream. Yet such was to become the vision of local landowners William Cavendish, later to become 7th Duke of Devonshire (and inheriting a tidy fortune along the way), and Carew Davies Gilbert.
Cavendish had particularly grand designs on the area, which quickly came to fruition once the railway reached East Bourne. A branch line from Polegate opened in May 1849; the local band played "See, the Conquering Hero Comes!" as the first train arrived. The seafront developed rapidly and new Eastbourne was born, an upmarket health and pleasure resort.
Cavendish maintained tight control to ensure that the place remained the acme of all things genteel. The Italianate villas were to have "proper" households, with a minimum of three servants, and along the glamorous seafront there were to be no shops, no cockle-and-whelk stalls, no barking dogs even.
In 1872, the pier opened. Three years later, the Grand Hotel at the west end of the seafront was completed - and quickly became renowned for its sheer style and pizzazz. Among its notable guests were Edward Elgar and Charlie Chaplin. Most celebrated, though, was Claude Debussy; the French composer installed himself and his mistress here, and composed La Mer while looking out from Eastbourne's seafront.
Nine years later the London Illustrated News recorded that "the agreeable and fashionable Sussex-coast watering place of Eastbourne" was about to take the unprecedented step of displaying "the electric light" along the entire length of the seafront, a distance of about three miles.
But what of the place today: is it still first class? Certainly, in terms of old-world genteel appeal, it is. Brass bands play in the bandstand on summer weekend afternoons. At the Grand, magnificent afternoon teas are served with due flourish in the cream-draped lounges. There's a continuing sense, too, of dashing British showmanship with Airbourne, the four-day international airshow held in August every year and featuring seafront shows by the Red Arrows. Tennis, meanwhile, adds an edge of sporting glamour, with Eastbourne hosting the International Women's Open each June.
To accusations that Eastbourne is otherwise ossified, locals respond that there's great change and innovation in the pipeline. A striking and very contemporary Culture Centre is being built next to the rather tired-looking Congress Theatre near the town centre. The new arts centre is intended to be a landmark building, demonstrating that the town is living in the 21st century. It is due to open next year, and will house the town's Towner Art Gallery collection. This remarkable portfolio began as a bequest of 22 Victorian paintings left to Eastbourne in 1923. It has since grown to more than 4,000 works, and features such artists as Henry Moore, Pablo Picasso and Christopher Wood.
Eastbourne, though, has a hurdle to overcome before it can hope to shake off its image as a somewhat forgotten, if charming, old-timer. With very few exceptions, the options for fine food are fairly dismal. The Grand provides well-respected gourmet fare at its Mirabelle Restaurant; Meze, at 15 Pevensey Road, just off the seafront, serves great Turkish dishes. But despite offering wonderful seafood at its fishmongers, Eastbourne otherwise remains very much in the culinary backwaters.
Of course, Eastbourne does offer first-class ice-cream options. Abundant sundaes with all the trimmings of nuts and cherries are served at Favo'loso Café, opposite the Heritage Centre. Fusciardi's, in the old Sea Houses area, also whips up spectacular offerings, complete with glittery decorations. This Italian parlour is very much a local favourite, and the staff say that the most popular ice-cream flavours are double-scoop cones of chocolate and honeycomb. However, along the seafront it seems that tastes are more conservative. On my spring-day visit, stalls pronounced the simple, classic "99" Flake, as featured on the new Eastbourne stamp, as the perennial, sell-out winner.
Eastbourne is served by Southern Railway (National Rail enquiries: 08457 484950; www.nationalrail.co.uk).
The Grand Hotel, King Edwards Parade (01323 412345; www.grandeastbourne.com). This 19th-century confection of white stucco and chandeliers remains the best address in town. Doubles from £180, including breakfast.
Ocklynge Manor, Mill Road (01323 734121; www.ocklyngemanor.co.uk). A charming old manor house in the Old Town, this B&B was once home to the illustrator Mabel Lucie Attwell. Doubles from £70, including breakfast.
The Guesthouse East, 13 Hartington Place (01323 722774; www.theguesthouseeastbourne.co.uk). This contemporary-chic B&B offers six suites in an elegant villa just off the seafront. Doubles from £80, including breakfast.
How We Lived Then Museum of Shops and Social History, 20 Cornfield Terrace (01323 737143; daily 10am-5pm; £4). An old terraced house with reconstructions of 19th- and 20th-century shops.
Eastbourne Heritage Centre, 2 Carlisle Road (01323 411189; www.eastbourneheritagecentre.co.uk; Open April-October, daily 2-5pm; £2). See how Eastbourne developed into a grand Victorian resort. The first- floor exhibition celebrates Mabel Lucie Attwell.
Redoubt Fortress and Military Museum, Royal Parade (01323 410300; www.eastbournemuseums.co.uk; open Tuesday-Sunday 10am-5pm; £4). One of three fortresses that controlled the Martello towers, Redoubt was built to withstand Napoleon's army. It has been well preserved. Downstairs is a museum on three Sussex regiments; you can visit its upper floor, complete with cannons and ramparts, for free.
Natural Fitness Centre, The Redoubt, Royal Parade (01323 732024; www.naturalfitnesscentre.co.uk). Classes from £5.50.
Sk8 School, 32 Lawns Avenue (07940 773295; www.sk8 school.com). Inline skating classes along the seafront at weekends.
Eastbourne Tourist Office: 0871 663 0031; www.visiteastbourne.com
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