Did you know, a little piece of England's south coast once flew the Stars and Stripes? In 1822, a shingle bank (now found just behind Hastings' seafront) free of the burden of taxes and rents was named America Ground and claimed as the 24th US state until it was seized on behalf of George IV five years later. Today, it is a quaint quarter of the town, with an attractive late-19th-century Gothic church (holytrinity church.hastings.org) at its heart. It's also the location of the former offices of the Hastings and St Leonard's Observer, a Victorian redbrick building. Its façade is decorated with scenes from the printers' trade and an ornate loggia set just below the eaves. Now the presses have ceased, it's the home of a quirky multi-purpose space, which, ascending the storeys, hosts the homeware shop Dyke and Dean (01424 429202; dykeanddean.com), an events area, artists' studios and, on the top level, a B&B.
The building was stripped back, so far as the Grade II listing would allow, to reveal the wooden floors and central staircase and expose original brick and plaster work here and there, giving a sense of the vast spaces within. So far, two rooms at the top of the building have been set aside for guests. (The owners hope to expand to four.) Appropriately named after the giants of printing, there's Gutenberg, a small double in the attic with a separate bathroom and toilet along the landing, and Caxton, a more spacious room with large ensuite bathroom. Both have large comfy beds dressed in white linen and most of the furniture and ornaments, dating from the 1950s to the 1970s, have been personally collected and artfully positioned. Free Wi-Fi, tea and fresh coffee-making facilities, toiletries and flat-screen Freeview TV are provided in the bedrooms.
Guests can use the dining room on the floor below, a huge open-plan space with vaulted- and part-glass ceilings that is big enough to hold a sitting area, dining table and kitchen. Among the unusual furnishings in here are two huge banks of drawers that once lived at Central TV, a home for the costumes for Crossroads.
Breakfast is a generous selection of locally sourced food, presented on vintage crockery at a communal table in the dining room. Berry yoghurt, served in a dainty teacup, refreshed my palate as I surveyed the hearty spread of breads, jars of home-made preserves and a bowl filled up with fresh fruit. There were bottles of juice and freshly brewed pots of tea and coffee, a strawberry and blueberry smoothie (sprinkled with tchai seeds if you fancy) whizzed up to order. Hot dishes – ordered the night before – up to and including a full English (two lightly poached eggs on toast for me) are also available.
Lorna Lloyd, a ceramicist and photographer and her partner Bryan Dyke, a film editor, bought the former printworks in 2009. Lorna's touches are evident everywhere in the eclectic choice of furnishings and art, especially her own ceramic creations and photographic prints.
Hastings and its neighbour St Leonards have long been wooing the arty crowd with the promise of bohemian regeneration amid melancholy seaside decline. Since my last visit a few years ago, progress seems to have been slow but sure, particularly in St Leonards' hub of art and antiques, Norman Road. This is now spreading into the adjacent streets, with The St Leonards (thestleonard.co.uk), a new pub on the London Road, the place to review purchases over a glass of sauvignon. Check out the retro Post Office Tearooms (01424 718985; potearooms.wix.com/info; open Weds to Sun 10.30am-4pm) in the 1930s Marine Court. If you're in town on a Thursday, pack your needles for the weekly knitting night (6.30pm-8pm; admission £3.50).
Hastings has a thriving modern shopping centre, but head to the seafront – where there's a lot of smartening up still to do – and go east to George Street, a lane of independent boutiques that will delay your journey to the Stade, the home of the tall black huts that house Hastings' fishing community. The Stade is also where you'll find the town's biggest cultural draw, the Jerwood Gallery (01424 728377; jerwoodgallery.org; £7), a collection of 20th- and 21st-century art that opened (to much debate) next to the fishermen's huts in 2012. It reopens on 2 February with a new exhibition titled Knock Knock: Seven Artists in Hastings. When you've had enough of shops and galleries, take the East Hill lift up the cliff and stride out in the Country Park. For more ideas, go to visit1066country.com.
The pit stop
Webbe's Rock-a-Nore (01424 721650; webbesrestaurants.co.uk) in the old town takes advantage of its location across the road from the town's fishing fleet to offer the freshest landings from Hastings' shores. The menu will excite seafood fans, with inspired nibbles such as a glass of rosé prosecco with three oysters (£8.50), and a selection of tasting plates that includes skate cheeks with sauce gribiche (£3.50 per dish, five for £16). Top choice is the shellfish platter, a pile of oysters, whelks, winkles, prawns and crabs, served on a bed of ice, which is available for one at a very competitive £12. The styling of the dining space is disappointing, seemingly borrowing its inspiration from Furniture Village, but the bustling restaurant is no less popular for it.
The Printworks, 14 Claremont, America Ground, Hastings, East Sussex TN34 1HA (01424 425532; theprintworkshastings.com). B&B doubles from £80.
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