site unseen The Fishermen's Net Shops, Old Hastings

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The Independent Online
It sounds like a particularly bizarre question from Trivial Pursuit: what is the connection between American skyscrapers and the beach at Hastings, England? Most people scratch their heads irritably and deny that such a link could ever have existed.

The best way to discover the answer is to travel to Hastings in Sussex and perch high up inside the West Hill Lift Cafe. England has few sights more fair than the prospect of Old Hastings spread out down below. Behind you are the remains of the Norman castle, the first built following the invasion of 1066. Below are the smugglers' caves.

In front is Old Hastings, sandwiched neatly in a valley between West Hill and East Hill. The jumble of buildings come from each and every century, whether it be the two old medieval parish churches, the pubs or the timber- framed houses which are warrened by narrow twittens or passages. My favourite is the yellow, ledge-shaped building rightly dubbed "The Piece of Cheese" which started life as a Victorian workshop.

Out towards sea, the observant will spot that Hastings lacks a harbour. In 1896 - at great cost - work was begun on just such a project, but the elements proved much too strong. Only one forlorn wall was ever completed.

This failure meant that the 40-strong fishing fleet is still hauled up onto the shingle beach each day, giving the sea-front a compelling mix of the picturesque and the practical. The story of the Hastings fleet is told nearby in the old mission chapel of 1854, now the Fishermen's Museum, on the delightfully named Rock-a-Nore (Rock to the North Road).

Close by is a grouping of black wooden sheds, tall and mysterious. Naturally the fishermen needed somewhere to store their ropes and nets, but with space at a premium, these shops or sheds were restricted to plots of 8ft- square. If you can't expand outwards then the only alternative is to go upwards, and gradually these shops, some of which date back to the 1830s, edged up. The tallest of these "skyscrapers" reach 26ft high.

Where the Hastings fishermen first went, modern architects have merely followed. At their peak, more than 100 shops were arranged neatly in rows. Today, 43 of these unique structures still survive.

Inspecting the shops does, however, require a certain amount of bravery because of the huge and vociferous sea-gulls which mount a vigilant guard. Undoubtedly the biggest and most muscular gulls to be found in Britain - larger than the average cat - these "birds with attitude" eye passers- by menacingly, as if debating whether they would make a tasty snack or not.

So there's another question for Trivial Pursuit: Alfred Hitchcock got the idea for his film The Birds from which English fishing village?

The Fishermen's Net Shops are beside Rock-a-Nore Road, Old Hastings, East Sussex