Take the trip to…
Eastbourne, a Victorian seaside town making a comeback, is in the spotlight this year thanks to its venerable art gallery. Towner Eastbourne celebrates the centenary of its opening (one mile from the current building, in the town’s Manor Gardens) with special exhibitions, installations, screenings and lectures, culminating in the Turner Prize, hosting for the first time (28 September-14 January, winner announced on December 5).
The gallery originally focused on Sussex landscapes, but its collection has expanded over the decades to include abstract British art and international contemporary art. In 1962, the Observer described the Towner as “the most cutting-edge municipal gallery of its size in the country,” and it’s still a progressive place. For example, it has commissioned a three-year research project on gender imbalance in its permanent collection and has promised that 50% of future acquisitions will be by female artists.
There are some outstanding pieces by women in her current exhibitions, Towner 100: The Living Collection (through August 28) and Towner 100: Unseen (through May 24, both free). They include Composition: Eastbourne (1935), an abstract landscape by Margaret Benecke, granddaughter of Felix Mendelssohn, and Sea Painting, Birling Gap (2017), by Jessica Warboys, which she made by dipping pigmented canvases into the sea. Familiar names on display include Andy Warhol, Paul Nash and Grayson Perry.
The Towner also has a wonderful room dedicated to Eastbourne’s beloved Eric Ravilious, the watercolourist, designer, illustrator, wood engraver and war artist who died in 1942, aged 39, when his plane was lost at the off Iceland.
In 2009, the Towner moved to its current location, a modernist building decorated on three sides with an eye-catching geometric mural by German artist Lothar Götz. While the gallery can only display a fraction of its collection of more than 5,000 at a time, it does offer weekly tours of its art shop (Sundays 2pm, £10).
Next stop on the Towner 100 program is Barbara Hepworth: Art and Life, featuring some of the artist’s most celebrated sculptures (from £6, 27 May-3 September).
Other galleries in the town include Emma Mason, who specialized in printmakers working in Britain from the 1940s onwards, and Volt, a contemporary gallery run by community arts organization Devonshire Collective. Street art by Sussex artists including SOS can be seen along the promenade and in the windows of the former Debenhams building in the town centre.
Shopping for souvenirs
Little Chelsea, up and around Grove Road, is a hub of independent shops including Camilla’s Bookshop, which has more than 500,000 volumes and a resident parrot called Archie. The Enterprise shopping center behind the station also has gift, jewelery and homeware boutiques. Barley Sugar on Cornfield Terrace is a delightful delicatessen, gift and vintage shop selling everything from Sussex cheeses to pottery. The Seaside Road antique shops are worth perusing – we bought a watercolor for ten pounds which turned out to be by the artist Horace Walter Tuck, whose work is in the Norfolk Museums collection. There are occasional craft markets at the Sovereign Harbor Waterfront, east of downtown (next July 8-9).
When we go
The Towner celebrates its centenary on 27 May, with art workshops, free films in its cinema, a brass band and DJ sets, galleries open until 8pm and bars until 10pm. Or plan a visit to coincide with the Rothesay International tennis tournament, the traditional warm-up for Wimbledon (24 June-1 July). Tip: From the DQ Terrace Bar & Café you have a wonderful view over the fields.
A strenuous five-mile circular walk from the town center runs over the cliffs to Beachy Head, Britain’s highest chalk cliff, then turns inland at Birling Gap to the village of East Dean, with its Tiger Inn by the XV century. The Beachy Head Story, in the ascendancy, has landscape exhibits and paintings on loan from the Towner, including works by Ravilious and another Eastbourne son, Harold Mockford. It also hosts popups – there was a pottery and glass exhibit on our visit. From East Dean, it’s another two miles walk back to the city (there are frequent buses).
Drinks and dinner
There are a handful of quality coffee shops – we liked Foundry Coffee, which opened last autumn in the old station ticket office. The Art House is a lovely creative café serving salads and smoothies and organizing art activities (sketching, pottery, fabric printing) for children and adults.
Fantastic pubs include the Lamb Inn, which dates back to 1180, and the Eagle, which has live music at weekends – we saw a local blues-rock band. Several bars are clustered in Little Chelsea, including Vinyl Frontier, a record store with a bar, and the Enterprise center is home to Ninkaci, a speakeasy-style craft beer bar.
The Port hotel’s excellent restaurant uses ingredients from within a 30-mile radius of Eastbourne, so the menus change seasonally: perhaps Jerusalem artichoke soup with wild garlic oil, followed by smoked duck breast with asparagus, then rhubarb (dinner only from Thursday to Saturday). Skylark, which also endorses Sussex produce, is a lively café by day and a relaxed restaurant by night. My battered banana blossom tacos were an inspired vegan option, and chalk creek trout and salt marsh lamb were also on the menu (Thursday through Saturday dinner, plus Sunday lunch).
Port (doubles from £80 room only) opened in 2021 and is a fantastic minimalist conversion of a Victorian seafront building. There are 19 bedrooms, six overlooking the sea and the pier, some with independent bathrooms. Port has partnered with the Devonshire Collective to showcase the work of emerging artists from the South East – the first exhibition, by Claire Shakespeare, had been in place when we arrived.
Related: An artsy weekend in… Southend-on-Sea, Essex
The Chatsworth Hotel (doubles from £135 room only) is a waterfront building built in 1905 which has recently reopened after a more classic refurbishment. There’s a grand lobby with a vintage elevator, huge rooms with high ceilings and large windows, and marble bathrooms with whirlpool tubs.
Southern Railway has direct trains from London Victoria (90 minutes, from £44.20 return) and Brighton (40 minutes, from £26.20 return), visit eastbourne.com.