For ages I’ve been meaning to do a ride from Brighton along the coast to Eastbourne to the Towner Gallery, and then on to Bexhill to the De La Warr Pavilion. Never quite managed to find a free weekend that coincided with exhibitions I really wanted to see. Then recently I discovered the Coastal Culture Trail via the Towner’s twitter feed, and had noticed there’s a ‘passport’ which you get stamped at each gallery, kind of like an audax brevet card, but for a 20 mile audax with no time limit. These kinds of things appeal to the collector in me. The timing was perfect, the Ravilious room at the Towner has been re-hung since I last visited and there was a Bridget Riley show in Bexhill that was coming to a close. Also I’m trying to have a few restful, easy weekends between what has been a fairly hectic riding year so far and more audaxing and racing in September.
My friend Lois and I had been planning an easy cafe ride the weekend before but ended up sitting in a coffee house for an hour nattering and watching a lot of rain fall from the sky. I mentioned the gallery ride so we aborted our planned ride and decided to try for the galleries the following weekend. We would get the train to Eastbourne, then work our way along the coast before jumping on a train back from Hastings. All week we monitored the ever-changing forecast and eventually decided it was worth risking. It was likely to be mild and grey, and we would probably get rained on after midday, but at least we’d have a gentle tail wind. Fortunately the forecast was completely wrong and it was a warm day with blue skies all day.
I had just arrived at Brighton station with the Singular Peregrine (always the bike of choice when not in a rush) when Lois rolled in on her Raleigh singlespeed. These two bikes hadn’t been ridden together since Bike Belle in May when we saw Belle & Sebastian in Cambridge and slowly rode home over couple of days. Amazingly that was actually the last time we’d ridden together…if you don’t count a damp mile around rainy Brighton the weekend before.
First gallery was the Towner in Eastbourne to the William Gear Curates show and the Ravilious room. The latter has become a bit of a favourite of mine after years of not really liking Ravilious’s work. However spending hours on end on the South Downs I’ve become more and more drawn to his work, and what I used to think was a bit washed out and vague I now see as a fine interpretation of the light and colour of the downs. After wandering the galleries we popped into the cafe. It’s neither a proper museum visit nor pretend audax without tea and cake. So far we’d ridden less than a mile. The cake to mile ratio was looking good. We sat on the balcony and listened to the syncopated thwacks of tennis games from a storey below at the club behind the museum.
I’ve never ridden the coast between Eastbourne and Pevensey Bay before. Whenever I’ve come to Eastbourne before it’s usually the end or turning back of a ride, and to get to Pevensey I would loop north of Eastbourne past Pevensey Castle. Felt odd to be riding somewhere familiar but completely unfamiliar. Lois talked about playing in concerts at the Winter Gardens pointing out a favourite childhood Italian ice cream parlour as sunlight warmed us and bounced off the white painted houses and pastel hotels. The aquamarine turquoise sea to our right was dotted with yatch sails of bright hues. It felt like being on proper holiday somewhere far away from Sussex.
Once we got to Pevensey Bay I would know the way, so we followed signposts and a mix of National Cycle Routes 21 and 2, which obviously meant every now and again there wasn’t a blue sign when you expected it and some guesswork and a dead end was inevitable. One set of route 21 signs seemed to send you into an eternal loop around a roundabout on a housing estate. After a bit of a wiggly meander we found ourselves riding past the caravans of Normans Bay and across the flat world of Pevensey Levels, the hills of the high weald on the northern horizon, and the flat sea of shingle disappearing into the waves to the south. Soon the iconic white Modernist De La Warr Pavilion glowed in the sunlight amongst the stone and brick of Bexhill.
The main show here were the curve paintings of Bridget Riley from the early 1960s right up to 2014. The last exhibition of Riley’s work I saw was at the old Towner Gallery in 2002 and still have the poster hanging on a wall at home. I knew much of the older works but not the newer paintings, which seemed more colour field than op art, and included a Sol Le Witt style wall painting. Right in the middle of the galleries was a room of smaller works and sketches on graph paper which were really beautiful. In the upstairs gallery was a montage of text and graphic works from the late 1960s to early 1970s from the Schmuck, POP, bRIAN and Assembling groups.
We decided not to opt for more tea and cake on another balcony but to crack on to the Jerwood Gallery a few miles along the coast in Hastings. I’d not yet been to the Jerwood so was interested in seeing the building as much as the exhibitions. Heading east from Bexhill we hit the first “hills” of the day with a couple of lumpy cliffs to get over. NCN2 has been tweaked along this bit of coast. After a section of sea front cycle path you used to have to join the main coastal road into Hasting, which was always a bit unpleasant. However they have now fixed a rubber mesh over the shingle so you can continue to ride along the edge of the beach sandwiched between the railway line and beach huts before joining the promenade in Hasting. It’s a weird surface to ride on, and it’ll be interesting to see how it fairs through the winter and if the shingle swamps it again. I was on cyclorcross tyres but Lois was on road tyres, and if it had been raining we probably would’ve risked the couple of miles of road into town. Past the ruined pier we headed towards the Old Town and the fishing quarter where the Jerwood sits camouflaged amongst the dark wooden fishing net huts. Being a sunny bank holiday Saturday the seafront was rammed, so we hopped off the bikes and walked the last mile to the gallery through the arcades and candy floss stalls.
The gallery houses a selection from the Jerwood Collection as well as spaces for temporary exhibitions, which currently include Quentin Blake drawings specially created in Hastings for the Jerwood, and the beautiful, sorrowful seascapes of L.S. Lowry. The space itself is a beautifully angular mix of stone, wood and glass that allows light to filter through the galleries. In it’s simplicity it reminded me of the Mies van der Rohe pavilion in Barcelona, except it was surrounded by chips and brash amusements. Also be warned Giro cycling shoes squeak like hell on the stone floors.
Afterwards we headed over the road for fish and chips and mushy peas at the Mermaid Cafe, before spinning back through the middle of Hastings to the station to collapse on a train home. Well you know, 20 miles in six hours takes it out of you.