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Talking Location With … Hannah Dolby – HASTINGS and ST LEONARDS

13th June 2024

#TalkingLocationWithHannah Dolby, author of How To Solve Murders Like a Lady – HASTINGS and ST LEONARDS

I was twenty-one and studying journalism when I lived in Hastings and St Leonards, and it was the most exciting and terrifying few months of my life. I had to go out each week to the town centre and find two news stories, under threat of not being allowed back on the course if I failed. It involved a lot of chatting to people and wandering around the streets, and in between writing hot stories on stolen spectacles, I fell in love with the beauty and the history of the place. This was the early 90s, when many buildings were crumbling and neglected and an ugly 1930’s concrete swimming pool dominated the seafront, but the sweeping curves of older streets and squares, the glorious vista of the elegant miles-long promenade and the rich smuggling and fishing history of the Old Town stayed with me long after I left.

Those memories led me, nearly 30 years later, to choose it as the setting for my first novel, No Life for a Lady, and its standalone sequel, How To Solve Murders Like A Lady, both about the adventures of a Victorian lady detective.  My research challenge was to rediscover what the town was like in the Victorian era, not too challenging a task when history peeks around every corner.

I adopted the approach of a magpie, seeking out bits of sparkling history and geography that excited me. I haunted the town’s rich panoply of junk and antique shops, wandered the streets with a map dating from the 1890s, sat under the ancient iron struts of its long Victorian pier to watch the waves, and even stayed in a Victorian-themed guest house, St Benedict’s. Their guest rooms are packed full of 19th century items from books to ornaments, and I ate breakfast served up on silver platters.

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Hannah DolbyI also found plenty of reading material on my wanders. In one junk shop I found a copy of Illustrated Bits, a Victorian ladies’ magazine full of weird ads for moustache-growing ointment, hair-curling fluid, machines to reshape ugly noses and sweets to give you ‘brilliant and fascinating eyes.’ And in the town’s bookshops, which include the brilliant Hare and Hawthorn and The Hastings Bookshop, I discovered lots about the town’s history, from journals by the local history group to the oddly brilliant Strange Exits from Hastings series by Helena Wojtczak, telling the gory stories of deaths in the town.

So much of the town’s Victorian splendour still throngs its streets. Much of St Leonards was designed by James Burton, the architect behind so many iconic buildings in London, from the grand squares of Bloomsbury to the circular Regent’s Park. As you wander along the promenade, overlooked by a row of these grand houses, it is easy to imagine the colour, noise and drama of Hastings and St Leonards in its Victorian seaside heyday. Today it is still full of holidaymakers, ice-cream, slot machines and deckchairs (which became fashionable in 1896), and there are even beach huts not so very different from the bathing carriages that must once have let ladies and gentlemen bathe in modesty, only missing the wheels and the horses that once pulled the carriages to the water’s edge.

Hannah DolbyYou can still take the West and East Hill Lifts, the two funicular railways that take weary day-trippers from the beach to the top of the town’s two main hills. One goes through a tunnel, the other steeply up the open rock face, a landmark you can clearly see from a distance. It is easy as you travel in the little wooden carriages to imagine yourself back in the 1890s, twirling a parasol or a cane.

The beautiful parks, too, reflect the Victorian passion for creating luxurious green spaces, from the huge expanse of Alexandra Park with its formal gardens, arboretum, wrought-iron bridges across streams and a pretty tiled bandstand, to the smaller St Leonards Gardens with its undulating slopes and ornamental lily pond, once only open to wealthy subscribers, now free to all

Hannah Dolby

The town is peppered with blue plaques to several eminent Victorians who lived there, from Marianne North, the botanist and biologist who travelled the world painting exotic plants and insects, to Dante Gabrielle Rosetti, the Pre-Raphaelite artist, who married his model and muse Elizabeth Siddal in St Clement’s Church.

My challenge, in the end, was knowing when to stop. It was hard, but I managed, and I leave my two adventure novels vastly enriched, but not engulfed, by the fascinating detail of their Victorian setting.


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Catch the author on Twitter X @LadyDolby

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