Hastings & St. Leonards on-line community newspaper
Andrew Hemsley

Andrew Hemsley

Andrew Hemsley thinks about being Hastings born and bred.

In this second article Andrew Hemsley, writer and journalist for the Hastings and St Leonards Observer, talks with HOT’s Chandra Masoliver about how it feels to have lived in Hastings most of his life –and how that might inspire his writing.


CM: Andrew, nearly always living in Hastings, you must know it so well, how does that feel?

AH: My first reaction to that question is ambiguous. I have a love-hate relationship with Hastings. It both repels and attracts. It’s different to be born here because it’s not a reasoned choice you make as an adult, but an accident of circumstance and birth. You are thrown into it and it’s then up to you to make the best of it, discover the things you love and don’t so much love, like discovering new foods for the first time.

Andrew Hemsley

Standing beside a Poll Tax demo on the bridge at Camden Lock in 1989-90.

I remember when I was in my late teens, going through a period of seldom spending a weekend in Hastings. A mate and I would head for London or Brighton, both of which we found more exciting with better pubs, bigger record and book shops. We had little money back then but were quite ingenious in avoiding travel costs and squeezing a lot out of experience on a low budget. When Andy McDuffie and I went to London for the weekend we’d bunk the late night Gatwick Express which runs hourly from Victoria, sleep at the airport, then catch the express back into town on the Sunday morning to go to Camden.

Andrew Hemsley

At the Dove, Hammersmith, in the mid 80s, with my brother Robert, before going to Jethro Tull at the Hammersmith Odeon.

Now, I have a far greater appreciation of Hastings and spend most of my time here, I think that is partly to do with the way the town has improved. The pubs, for example are way better in the choice they offer. Back in the day, I would have to take a train to Brighton to enjoy a wider selection of interesting beers. Now I can save the time and train fare as it’s right on my doorstep. I even stopped going to beer festivals, reasoning that a short walk around Hastings pubs would provide the same choice.

Andrew Hemsley

At the Stag in the mid 90s, with Andy McDuffie centre, Dave Roberts right, a member of Mad Jacks Morris, and the best squeeze box player in the country.

The pub music scene is second to none. If you have eclectic taste and the time, you could actually enjoy a different style of music seven nights a week. There is always something going on. I can pass the Stag in the Old Town on the way home on a Tuesday night and if I’m in the mood, just pop in and sing an old traditional Sussex folk song.


Andrew Hemsley

At the Stag in the 90s, with Mick (Goose) Gander, left, and Sean Cochman, top right, one of the best Morris musicians in Hastings, he can play and sing at the same time (not easy). I am wearing a green beret, as I often did then

My relationship with the town over the years has been a bit like falling out with family at times. I have these internal rows going backward and forward, but as with family, in most cases, they are usually resolved. Hastings and I always seem to sort out our differences, I guess we have to if I am to remain here.

CM: What makes it complicated?

AH: Hastings has always been somewhere I want to escape from, while also wanting to escape into. For me it can be a bed of roses or a bed of nails. Let me try to explain. There are moments and moods where I wouldn’t want to be in any other place, while there are also times, when I walk through the town centre, with its decay and atrophy, from the crumbling pavements upward, impossible to avoid, hearing mothers swear and threaten their own four-year-old children, I just want to keep right on walking up to the station and catch a train to Lewes, Brighton, Eastbourne, anywhere that seems more civilised and sympathetic to the way I feel in those moods and moments.

CM: Does time play a part in its complexity?

AH: Time inevitably plays a part. Forty years ago you certainly didn’t see people sleeping in shop doorways or have to run a gauntlet of aggressive drunks and fast food delivery vehicles in the town centre.

There was no McDonalds or fast food take-away joints then. Where McDonalds is now was Dimarcos, a family run Italian restaurant famous for its coffee and gelato, where all the waiters wore red coats.

I remember in the 80’s having four thriving record shops; now with the continued closure of HMV there are none, unless you count second-hand outlets.

The town seemed less run down and shabby then too, and roads and pavements were in much better condition.

We have also lost many well loved watering holes. Having said that I do think the town has more energy and character at this moment in time and a cultural scene second to none. Nothing makes you so aware of time as when you sit on a bench and discover you actually knew the people inscribed in the memorial dedication.

If you have lived anywhere for long enough you can become a static time traveller. Stand in certain places and you channel all the evolved memories associated with that one spot, how it was and what it is like at that present moment in time. It’s resonance of place, genius loci, if you will. It’s essentially like experiencing one place through multiple timelines and dimensions. Kaleidoscopic.

CM: What places hold a particular resonance for you?

Andrew Hemsley

Alexandra Park, here is the park, with the war memorial, which I remember as a child. On the horizon is the line of buildings on the West Hill, with the tower of Emanuel Church, opposite the Red House. The park and the West Hill are two constants in my life.

AH: Somewhere like Alexandra Park becomes a place where I was stung by a bee as a four year old, taken fishing by my father as a seven year old, played football on Sunday afternoons in my early teens, went to beer festivals later than that and now sit, dream and read, with a cold beer at this later time in my life. It has become a crucible for memories over the course of half a century and yet has remained essentially unchanged.

Andrew Hemsley

The Red House, where my grandparents lived. I spent much of my childhood there, it was the centre of my gravity for many years.


It grows more complex as space and time is irrevocably entwined with lives that once occupied it and are no longer here. For me these include immediate family, my grandparents, my father, and my youngest brother. Through me and my continuing memories of Hastings, these people still exist and persist. It’s as if I still have the responsibility of keeping them alive. When my time comes, perhaps my daughter and those who have loved me will perform the same instinctive function.

And here we return to that earlier question you asked me about time playing a part. It’s very much a case of certain places in Hastings co-existing with different periods in my life. Endless summers of playing on the West Hill rocks or exploring the mysteries of the fishing beach at a young age. Being taken to St Helens Woods as a child with my brothers by my parents and grandparents, falling in love with the place, then re-discovering all over again, as a 17-year-old, with my first serious girlfriend, who lived close to St Helens Woods.

The forbidden thrill of drinking underage in local pubs, many of which no longer exist or which have changed beyond all recognition. It was never the drinking that appealed, but the pub environment. I was a ‘half a bitter and a game of bar billiards’ man back then – an old boy in the body of a 15-year-old.

By the time I started Hastings College to take A Levels, aged 16, I had ticked off every pub and hotel bar in Hastings and St Leonards – 96 as I recall. I was tall for my age and had mastered a deep voice, which helped. But I think the real reason I did not get questioned about my age is that I didn’t act like a teenager. I was still as happy sitting in a pub alone and reading a book back then as I am now.

CM: What about people you have known for years?

AH: Sometimes I feel like a survivor. You inevitably start to develop a kinship with those who have known the town as long, or longer, than you have. People like Jonathan Mendenhall, who went to the same school (Priory Road|) that I did. When you greet them you increasingly talk of the dead, while marveling that we are still alive, clinging to some sort of wreckage as if we have somehow eluded fate. It’s a strange yet familiar experience.

You have also become aware of the many great eccentric, colourful and individual characters in Hastings, particularly in the Old Town. Paths often cross. I have written about them in the column I write for Hastings Observer. But still, always this sense of transience. Many of these characters are no longer with us, yet still they seem to haunt the place, if only by the fact they are still remembered and talked about in conversations.

Andrew Hemsley

On the back steps of the Red House, aged 2 or 3.

I am both hopelessly nostalgic and yet a great believer in the inevitability of change. You value the past yet tacitly welcome the future, all the while recognising that the Hastings you know and love is one fraction and dimension, perhaps an entirely different world, away from what younger, Hastings born children will take from the town. Our individual stories will be mostly unrecognisable, but will inevitably contain similar strands and echoes of what it is like to be here in Hastings.

CM: So how does it feel both when you go abroad, and then come back again?

AH: I have always been very adaptable. If I go anywhere else, be that a few days away in another city in England, or abroad, I instantly feel at home there and enjoy what these different places have to offer. Perhaps a case of ‘wherever I lay my hat, that’s my home’. But when I return here, there is never regret. It’s always a case of ‘Ah yes – Hastings’.

I would though, I am pretty sure, miss the sea if I was away from it for too long. It’s odd as when I was much younger, say in my twenties, I took the sea for granted. I was never one for laying on the beach sunbathing, too much on the move. Now I find the sea compels me. I feel contented to live a five minute’s walk from it and have come to appreciate its capricious and ever changing nature – the sea and clouds never look exactly the same twice, even though the weather might be in the same pattern.

Hastings to me is like experiencing weather, though it’s intrinsic, lodged inside me like a bodily organ. Ultimately you can never sever yourself from it, but perhaps being born here and having lived here for so many years, gives one permission to complain and occasionally rebel. There is a lyric I recall that I really identified with ‘I’m homesick though I live in the town I was born in’.

CM: You link yourself with the weather, does Hastings inspire your own writing?

AH: More so at present but not originally. I have written more stories set in London than Hastings, even though I have never lived there. The only story I intentionally set out to write that was directly influenced by Hastings was inspired by an alternative version of the Old Town where a young sailor arrives with ship’s papers, hoping to board a sailing vessel, but no matter how hard he tries cannot locate the sea. He can hear the sea, smell it, yet never seem to reach it. Somehow the shifting twittens and narrow streets conspire against him.

Now I am setting sail myself on a new voyage of exploration to re-examine my birth town, explore the place with fresh eyes, particularly its connections through time, space and memory.

Fundamentally, I believe we live in two places at once – inside ourselves and in our physical surroundings, so the external – the town and space we inhabit, the weather we experience – can often inform and have great influence on our internal space.

Much of it is about seeing and of finding new ways to see and perceive the familiar. You can live in a place for decades, have a deep sense of the familiar and yet it is still capable of surprising you if you keep your eyes and mind open. Things never stand still, transformations are occurring all the time. The way the light suddenly strikes a familiar building at a certain time of day, giving it a magical, otherworldly quality, the way untended vegetation can engulf and ultimately erase once familiar landmarks. Everything is in flux and motion, even if you think it is standing still. That’s an illusion.

Memories too overlap like tides and are a further illusion. The writer M John Harrison noted ‘every memory has to be forced back into existence. And for all the effort, what do you get? An artefact of the process if you are lucky, something not quite right in the corner of your eye.’

It’s complicated as place is complicit in our own desires and longings, our sense of identity. We cannot help but project that onto our surrounding, which can both absorb and push back – we are often unknowingly dealing with opposing forces. Place can adapt to, or reject, the myriad forces that occupy it at any one time. It’s both a mirror that reflects and imprisons.

Andrew Hemsley

Andrew Hemsley

To haunt is not necessarily to be a ghost, as the living have their favourite haunts. But it is a premonition of impermanence.

What continues to inform me is a skewed focus on familiar things. The town is collapsing and reforming around us at any given moment. You are born here and yet find yourself on unstable ground.

Hastings is, and always will be, a place that fascinates me on so many levels. The length of time I have spent here hardly matters. I am still experiencing new aspects of Hastings, almost continuously, and I hope going forwards I can capture something of this in my writing.

CM: Thank you, Andrew, for your thoughts and images about living in Hastings. The third article will be about Andrew Hemsley’s writing and the blog he will create.

The first article can be read here



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Posted 14:40 Monday, Oct 2, 2023 In: Hastings People


Please read our comment guidelines before posting on HOT

  1. Old bodger

    Andrew’s reflections have a lyrical quality, almost poetry. Puts one in mind of Betjeman. The photo of accordian players is very well composed like an old master oil painting.

    Comment by Old bodger — Wednesday, Oct 4, 2023 @ 07:55

  2. Ann Kramer

    What a thoughtful and fascinating piece, thank you Andy.

    Comment by Ann Kramer — Tuesday, Oct 3, 2023 @ 03:39

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