Seaside postcard: Bexhill Most fading south coast resorts can only dream of having a cultural magnet like the De La Warr Pavilion in their midst. Margate is trying to follow suit with the construction of the Turner Contemporary, and Folkestone this week launched a triennial arts festival in a bold attempt to raise the profile of the town. Brighton's the place to beat, obviously. But Bexhill has one or two other treats up its sleeve, including another national first. Let's go racing...
Motor Racing Heritage Centre: British motor racing began in 1902, here on the promenade at Bexhill-on-Sea. The event was the idea of the 8th Earl De La Warr (yes, him again), in conjunction with the Automobile Club of Great Britain. He wanted somewhere appropriate to drive his new fangled motor car in competition with others, and decided that the private road he owned along the seafront would fit the bill perfectly. Approximately 200 vehicles drove to Bexhill for the day, avoiding the police speed traps set up on surrounding roads ("Oi, you're exceeding 12mph, you're nicked!"). No such worries on the kilometre run down from the top of Galley Hill to the finishing line outside the Sackville Hotel, and so the "Petrol Derbies" were born. Lord Northcliffe, the founder of the Daily Mail, took part and the day also saw the first public appearance of a Wolseley racing car. And the winning speed? An amazing 54mph, courtesy of Frenchman Leon Serpollet in his steam driven "Easter Egg".
The Frenchman's victory is commemorated by what looks like a car-shaped metal climbing frame on the promenade outside the Sackville, as well as a none too exciting rock to mark the finishing line. Plus, according to the brown sign on a lamppost, there's a 'Motor Racing Heritage Centre' nearby. I walked round the block without finding anything, then asked the Eastern European lady in an ice cream van where it might be. She smiled, vaguely, and pointed at the hotel opposite. Nothing whatsoever at the hotel entrance indicated I was on the right track but, turning right down a corridor inside, I discovered the so-called Heritage Centre. It was the corridor itself, a fusty off-peach back alley zigzagging round the back of the ground floor, leading to the hotel's hairdressers and launderette. So long as the washeteria is open (daily, 9am-5pm) then this delightfully underwhelming attraction is also open. As I viewed the handful of display cases and evocative sepia photographs hung from the wall (for at least four minutes) I was given a curious look from the salon manager, as if to say "we don't get many tourists in here". I'm not surprised, dear, I'm not surprised.
Bexhill Museum: [website] Apparently this long arched building near the wetstern seafront "gives incredible insight into the history of Bexhill, its famous residents and visitors, and the important historic milestones that have made Bexhill famous." Unfortunately it's also closed for refurbishment until 2009, so I can't tell you any more. Bexhill Museum of Costume and Social History: [website] Now here's a quaint curio. This tiny museum in a barn boasts "a rare collection of lace and embroidery samples, dolls, costumes and accessories from the 18th Century, through to the 1960's." Unfortunately a sign on the door offered sincere apologies that they were unable to open the museum due to a shortage of volunteer staff, so I can't tell you any more. Manor Gardens: [website] These picturesque gardens in the hilltop Old Town were a riot of colour, and I was indeed "dazzled by the dense, colourful borders, planted with the season's best blooms." At least until I noticed an entire wedding reception staring out from what's left of the 13th century Manor House, wondering what the hell I was doing wandering around on the lawns outside their window. So I left, and I can't tell you much more. John Logie Baird's House: [website] The inventor of television moved to a semi in Bexhill in 1945, only to die eighteen months later following a stroke. I had hoped to view the plaque on the wall, but "the old house was acquired by a property company and, despite some public objections, it was demolished in August 2007." A modern block of flats is being built on the site, which must be why there was a big yellow crane blocking the road outside, so I can't tell you any more. The Promenade: Ah, you can't beat a goodpromenade. No need to say more.