Move to...St Leonards

Pebble Beach of St Leonards © donsimon/Shutterstock

With its great-value property, attractive regency architecture and buzzing urban vibe, it's no wonder this East Sussex town is popular with Londoners. By Lesley Gillilan.

Geographically, it makes no sense to separate St Leonards from Hastings. The two towns are so close you can hardly see the join. But though they tend to get lumped together as one big Hastings, St Leonards-on-Sea is quite a different kettle of fish.

With one foot in 1066, Hastings is the warty old seadog; St Leonards, born in the 1820s, is the bright young thing. ‘It’s all cornicing, high ceilings and lah-di-dah,’ says author and journalist Kathryn Flett. ‘The two places are as different as Brighton and Hove.’

To the west of the border – from the aptly-named Bohemia Road down to Hastings Pier – St Leonards is largely made up of terraces and squares of Regency housing, built by 19th-century developer-architects James Burton and his son Decimus. Taking some of the ideas they’d already practised on smart parts of London – Bloomsbury, Regents Park, St John’s Wood – they planned the town as an elegant resort for well-off down-from-London folk to enjoy the sea air.

Kathryn Flett, who cheerfully describes herself as DFL (Down From London), moved from ‘Media Vale’ to St Leonards-on-Sea in 2005 when her older son Jackson was still a toddler. The initial attraction, she says, was ‘big houses for not very much money, no mortgage and the sea at the end of the road’.

She bought one house, then another; then she bought the property next door (Caple Gardens, caplegardens.co.uk, is offered as a holiday let). Her second son, Rider, was born in St Leonards, and the family is now entrenched in local life. Kathryn’s novel Separate Lives, published in 2012, is set in Random-on-Sea, a seaside town inspired by St Leonards.

Spending less and less time in London, she celebrates the recent and dramatic changes in St Leonards. ‘Five years ago you couldn’t get a decent cup of coffee,’ she says. ‘Now, the place is buzzing with boutique cafés and quirky, funky vintage shops.’

The Regency terraces are being spruced up and the town is attracting a boho crowd of artists, film-makers, designers and writers. And, of course, good old Hastings is right next door.

Where to buy

Head for Burton St Leonards – the surviving streets of the original Regency development – where tall stucco-fronted, colonnaded terraces radiate off Warrior Square and the seafront’s Grand Parade. Popular streets include Stanhope Place, the Lawn, Undercliff Terrace and St Leonards Gardens. There are some lovely Victorian houses, a smattering of Edwardian Arts and Crafts properties and, for Art-Deco fans, cheapish, sea-view apartments in shabby but iconic Marine Court (the tallest block of flats in the UK when it was built in 1937). Mews-style houses in the Burton conservation area, start at around £175,000. A six-bedroom Edwardian house sold recently for £350,000.

Time out

The beach is right on the doorstep – a long strip of sandy shingle that stretches for miles, from Hastings to Bexhill and beyond. For green spaces, make your way to Hastings Country Park or, in town, hang out in St Leonards Gardens or Alexandra Park. For cafés, galleries and vintage shops head for Norman Road or Hastings’ Old Town. For culture, Hastings has the Jerwood Gallery and the Electric Palace Cinema; Bexhill has the De La Warr Pavilion; the area has a vibrant live music scene. For a bit of city life, Brighton is an hour away. Close to home, eat out at St Leonards’ Michelin-listed St Clements Restaurant (01424 200355, stclementsrestaurant.co.uk) or at Pier Nine at the Zanzibar hotel (piernine.co.uk).

Jobs & Commuting

On a good day, the 65-mile drive to London can take an hour and a half, but it usually takes longer. The train is more reliable (the faster services from West St Leonards, Warrior Square or Hastings to Charing Cross are around 90 minutes), but a daily slog into the city is not really viable; most people come with a view to setting up a lifestyle business, to work in public service jobs, or to work from home. One of the largest local employers is Saga in Hastings. Ashford International Station (for Eurostar services) is an hour away. Gatwick is the nearest airport (60 miles).

Schools

You wouldn’t move here for the quality of the education, but as Ofsted would say, the local schools are ‘satisfactory’. Best bet among the secondaries is St Leonards Academy – opened in 2011 as a merger of two older schools and recently rated ‘good’ by Ofsted.

Reality check

A combination of salt air and neglect has left some of St Leonards’ fine-toothed Regency houses looking tired and tatty. However, many of these attractive properties are being renovated, and the down-from-London crowd like the arty, ‘edgy’ urban vibe.

Coming up

Hastings Pier, virtually destroyed by fire in 2010, is to rise from the ashes thanks to the money raised through a community shareholder scheme and the Heritage Lottery Fund. The £14 million project aims to restore the Grade II-listed pier for a grand re-opening next year – expect traditional end-of-the-pier fun updated for the 21st century. According to Hastings Pier Charity, the pier will be a ‘viable and vibrant addition to the town’s economic future’.

 

What Kathryn likes about St Leonards

Her St Leonards Beach chalet, rented on an annual lease from the local council.

‘It’s got a little patio and a garden gate, and I can watch the sun go down over Beachy Head, or my kids swimming like porpoises, and think this is bloody marvellous.’ The council has a waiting list for huts and chalets (hastings.gov.uk).The St Leonard (thestleonard.co.uk, 01424 272332) on London Road. ‘A good local pub, recently opened, with a laid-back atmosphere and a great quiz night.’ As a trustee of the newly formed Hastings Pier Charity (hpcharity.co.uk), Kathryn is looking forward to the resurrection of the town’s pier. ‘I have happy memories of sitting on the pier watching sunsets and drinking cocktails, and I can’t wait to do it again next year,’ she says. ‘It’s going to be absolutely wonderful.’

 

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