Bexhill: The New Brighton?

Well, that might be stretching things a little, but with the recent £8 million restoration of its Modernist crown jewel, the De La Warr Pavilion, that formerly most dormant of seaside towns on Britain’s Sussex coast may yet challenge some of its more consistently fashionable neighbors as a destination in its own right.

Such was my impression after staying in Bexhill with my former band-mate Tony Page this January. Saturday nights with the Pages usually mean a visit to the local pub, a late-night singalong around the karaoke machine and even later-night reminiscences around a bottle of Scotch… and I’m pleased to say that some things never change. But other things do, and before we got on with those activities, we went for a semi-posh dinner at the De La Warr Pavilion’s recently opened first floor restaurant.

The De La Warr Pavilion viewed from the courtyard. The restaurant and café are on the first floor: for Americans, that’s the second floor. The gallery is on the ground floor: for Americans, that’s the first floor. At right, the view from the café, which is on the… you figure it out.

The four of us (Tony, his wife Sarah, their 11-year old daughter Yasmin and myself) were the first customers to be seated in the rather cavernous terraced hall at 7pm, and when we left two hours later, only two other tables were occupied. Our floor manager, the attractive and attentive Sam, did not seem overly concerned: it was, she pointed out, the middle of January, and there were no shows taking place in the Pavilion that night. (The restaurant, open for lunch every day, currently serves dinner only on Fridays, Saturday and Theatre nights.) So despite the lack of atmosphere, we sat back determined to enjoy our food….

Which was, on almost every level, on a par with The Ideal Meal I’d enjoyed at London’s RSJ but a week earlier. A basket of warm fresh bread rolls got us off to a good start; a healthy salad full of roasted peppers and goat cheese with pine nuts and “chargrilled red onion rrelish” would have served many as a main course; and the wild mushroom risotto with roasted parsnips, rocket lettuce and a big “foam” of pecorino cheese was simply sensational, one of the best risottos I’ve had anywhere. We hit a small snag when we learned that that the fish and chips, as listed on a menu Tony and Sarah picked up earlier in the day, had been replaced by a more exotic, less child-friendly fish. Upon our firm request, the chef honored the earlier dish, but a simple kids menu – standard fare at places like this in the States where children are a welcome part of the scene – would as surely have averted the whole crisis.

Yasmin was later seen happily tucking into home-made ice cream, while I pigged out on some impossibly light-footed “Valhrrona chocolate tart with a caramel and bitterr chocolate sorbet,” sadly not among those desserts listed on the online sample menu. Though the Pages didn’t let me see the bill, the risotto was a sensible £10, and the online menus list several starters and desserts for under £5 each. Considering the quality, these seem perfectly fair prices.

But while the food was a delight, the short wine list was a disappointment, its attempt at eclecticism rendering only confusion. There were Sauvignon Blancs not from France or New Zealand as you’d expect but Spain (twice over!) and Chile; there was Pinot Grigio not from Italy but from both Hungary and New Zealand; and the welcome appearance of something from the excellent local Chapel Down winery was dampened by the fact that the wine in question featured the word “Oak” in its name. Among the reds, there were no less than five Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot wines out of a mere seven choices, meaning a complete absence of Pinot Noir, Syrah, Rhône blends, Cab Francs, Chiantis and Riojas such as you might normally choose to accompany hearty farm-fresh food. As for what wine we were served – pleasant but unspectacular – I’d have preferred proper tulip-shaped glasses, rather than the cheap cone-shaped type that allowed little opportunity to swill or sniff.

It’s not, after all, as if the Pavilion doesn’t stock better glassware. When we returned the following lunchtime, the café was already overflowing onto the sun-strewn outdoor terrace, with wines being served in the high-end bowl glasses that should have found their way onto our dinner tables the night before. Oh well. The restaurant itself appeared to be doing brisker business than the previous night, while the good-natured café staff were positively sweating as they filled endless orders for coffee, cake, beer, wine, cookies and cokes – and that was just our crowd! Nobody in line complained about the long wait; this was Britain, after all, and besides, the sun was out.

The Pavilion’s glass-coated stairways; the two Tones enjoying a Sunday lunch.

The restoration of the Grade One Listed De La Warr Pavilion has not been without controversy: £8 million is a lot of money if you’re the kind of pensioner who moves to Bexhill hoping for an inexpensive and quiet retirement courtesy of your typically old-fashioned frugal council. (The DLWP, according to its web site, is funded by “Arts Council England and Heritage Lottery” funds, various donations, and “funding from a unique partnership of Arts Council England and Rother District Council.”) But from the perspective of anyone looking beyond Bexhill’s borders, it’s hard to dispute the investment’s impact. The Modernist building has been returned to its (presumably) original glory, and in the spirit of its design, fitted with a distinctly Modern Art program, the combination of which, judging by the crowds on this surprisingly sunny January Sunday, is already attracting visitors from afar.

The current art exhibition, abstract paintings by Iain Stephenson entitled ‘And Our Eyes Scan Time,’ is your conservative retiree’s worst nightmare: our own eyes scanned the meticulously dotted canvases multiple times and completely failed to spot Chelsea Bridge where indicated. But we can’t accuse the curators of elitism. The following Friday, my good friend Chris Coco, host of Radio 1’s superlative The Blue Room show, was hitting the Theatre for a DJ set, and this coming Saturday February 18th, none other than electronic/house music pioneers Coldcut will be at the Pavilion for a live show. That one off concert is sandwiched between more typical seaside fare: local productions of ‘the Wizard Of Oz’ and Agatha Christie’s The Unexpected Guest. Further down the calendar we see visits from such diverse talents as Ken Dodd, Eddie Izzard, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and the Moscow Ballet; if the promoters are trying to find something for everyone, they appear to be succeeding.

Abstract art on the inside, skateboarders on the outside: The De La Warr Pavilion seems to be catering to all kinds.

In a further example of the Pavilion’s egalitarian tone, I was thrilled to see the concourse beneath the terrace open to local skateboarders. As Tony, myself and our friend Lee looked out on the crystal blue English Channel under a brilliant sunshine – drinks in front of us, kids playing happily beneath us and significant others chattering contentedly away behind us – we entertained the prospect of staying put all day. The De La Warr Pavilion that Sunday lunchtime was a marriage of olde-tyme English seaside with Modern English Riviera – and there was absolutely nothing wrong with the picture.

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2 Comment(s)

  1. 15 February, 2006 at 12:48 pm

    Tony & Tony

    But I’m different now? Surely not.

  2. whisky a go go

    21 February, 2006 at 7:10 pm

    A class report on a classier weekend. Come to Bexhill On Sea We did and we stayed.


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