We lunched on the way at a smugglers inn, The Star, formerly a Sluice House close by the ditch called Wallers Haven, part of the salt marshes with their watery inlets able to hide the smugglers and their boats, the marshes being notoriously difficult to cross without local knowledge.
View westwards across Normans Bay from Hastings towards Bexhill, Pevensey and then Eastbourne
We had fresh fish and chips and a crab salad, while to finish off a chocolate chip and nut ice cream sundae with mountains of cream on the top – sadly not Cornish cream. We sat outside and nattered about family musings – I’m in my inquisitive mode .. I can find out things from Jenny and then at a later stage regale with my mother with the tales, that will keep her amused and interested.
Jenny, my mother’s cousin, lives on Vancouver Island and as I’ve been away in South Africa it is only recently that we’ve seen a little more of each other. The family came from St Ives in Cornwall and I wanted to find out some more. My grandfather died when my mother was two in an accident in the 1920s, and again there was a dislocation and for various reasons I’ve never found out more.
Star Inn, Normans Bay © Copyright Kevin Gordon and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
I knew the family had been in shipping, my grandfather apparently wanted to be a farmer, but his father decided he would be an engineer – as happened in those days; but for the sons World War I intervened in their early days before they could set out on their careers.
My great grandfather was the financial officer for The Hain Shipping Line in St Ives, which was in existence for 100 years until it was taken over by P & O during WWI. His elder son, one of my great uncles, took over his position with the steamship line and then became a director, when the firm moved to the larger deeper port of Cardiff, in Wales, on the takeover by P & O.
St Ives Bay, showing the harbour
Their early trade was the local Cornish fishing industry using sailing luggers; soon they moved on and bought schooners enabling their trade to expand to the Mediterranean ports, exporting cured fish returning with Greek and Turkish dried fruit; then with the development of larger schooners and the conversion to steam they were trading with the Caribbean for West Indian sugar, and with Brazil for coffee; ultimately trading with India, Ceylon and Australia.
The firm was very philanthropic giving preference to local boys wishing to make a career at sea, and this policy resulted in a large number of Master Mariners who were respected in all the major ports of the world. Considering that most of these mariners received only a very basic education, there is all the more reason to applaud their achievements in the much harder school of Master Mariners.
Jenny’s mother was the boys’ younger sister and on her marriage they moved to London, which was when they would come down to Bexhill-on-Sea along the coast from Pevensey Bay to visit other relations. We went into Bexhill to Galley Hill, where Jenny said her father had skied down, with Jenny standing on his skis! She said ‘ it’s not much of a hill is it?, which it isn’t .. but her young memory was of an exciting time .. all the way back to the early 1930s!
The four boys in the early 1900s, without their young sister in the picture
In 1808 a Martello Tower was built on Galley Hill as one of the line of defensive forts built in several countries of the British Empire during the 19th century, from the time of the Napoleonic Wars onwards. Unfortunately this one was destroyed through coastal erosion by about 1868.
Galley Hill however was the high lookout point for Normans Bay between Eastbourne and Hastings where the Customs and Excise officers or ‘Preventivemen’ tried to stop smuggling; this situation worsened after the Battle of Waterloo 1815, due to the return of thousands of soldiers and sailors who could find no legitimate employment and so turned to smuggling.
The Coast Blockade was formed in 1818 to meet the new threat and was eventually replaced by the Coastguard in 1831 – our British Coastguard is a civilian organisation whose only role is search and rescue.
A pitched battle ensued in 1828 after the blockade men on Galley Hill spotted smuggling going on down at the Sluice Gate in Normans Bay and engaged the Little Common Gang in a bloody rout.
Martello Tower at Galley Hill (discover Bexhill)
courtesy Bexhill Museum
Within 74 years the first British motor race took place using the Bicycle Boulevard, part of the seafront at Bexhill; away in the distance up Galley Hill puffs of smoke could be seen, a speck of a toy car emerging, a few seconds later two monsters throbbing, puffing and snorting raced past, causing the earth to tremble.
Such was the occasion that thousands flocked to Bexhill to witness this unique spectacle. Nothing could be seen of the drivers except a crouching figure with streaming hair, whose hands had a death-like grip on the steering wheel. Not only were straight sprint races run from east to west against the clock, but cars raced side by side, very much resembling the start of the Grand Prix races today.
Monsieur Leon Serpollet, the Frenchman, in his steam driven "Easter Egg" with the fastest speed of 54mph and the first French victory on British soil c/o Discover Bexhill
More than 200 entries competed in that inaugural meeting in 1902 and the local hotels and boarding houses were packed with the curious who had come to witness, for the first time on British soil, the spectacle of motor cars racing at speeds in excess of 50 mph, when the speed limit of the day was a mere 12 mph!
We went inland a little searching for Jenny’s cousin’s house .. but to no avail, and drove up through the housing estate, that used to be my paternal grandmother’s home, when she moved to Bexhill, also from London, before it was razed for housing in the early 1960s. The marketing achieved by the motor racing appeared to be successful – as Bexhill became a fashionable retirement resort.
We returned along the coast road towards Pevensey Castle, where we could see the imposing facade of the fortress walls .. more in my next post. Jenny had to get back to London as she was meant to be going to France by train fortunately – but I suspect that she will have been involved in a terrible scrum, arising from the volcanic ash fall out .. and I hope she is alright .. travelling is not easy when you get to your 80s ..
So dear Mr Postman – you can see it was an interesting day for me. On Wednesday my mother had been her old self and we had a really good chat – but now she’s not very well again .. and it is challenging for her, as well as me.
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories