I used to be a right old snob about Newhaven, but since having kids I’ve become fond of the place. Its lack of gloss now seems the very opposite of unappealing. Pealing, possibly. And I don’t mean the paintwork.
When I worked in Newhaven ten years ago, there was only one sandwich shop for lunch. If you didn’t like it, and you probably didn’t, tough. Get you to McDonalds you whinging posho. I don’t know if the sandwich situation has improved, but certainly the town retains its bolshy realness. Unlike our own dear Lewes, it doesn’t care what you think. Take it or leave it, that’s Newhaven’s official motto. And plenty of people go for the latter option, such as the French teenagers who pitch up from Dieppe with their Serge Gainsbourg haircuts and leap straight onto the nearest charabanc to Brighton.
Of course, I love Lewes. I’m all for nice cafes and decent sandwiches and unboarded shop fronts. But gritty Newhaven is a great place to entertain kids because it has – implausibly - two major attractions. I’ve mentioned before my beloved Paradise Park. Where else but Newhaven can you find animatronic dinosaurs, a slightly dangerous rifle range, and a large garden centre, all under one roof, and for around half the price of Drusillas? So it doesn’t have ring-tailed lemurs and Thomas the Tank Engine. Pshaw! It has Koi carp and a darling little unbranded train in which you are encouraged to scream when going through tunnels.
This weekend we paid our first visit to the other amazing Newhaven site: the Fort, which has just re-opened. Like Paradise Park, at which you can inadvertently find yourself wandering aisles of watering-cans if you lose concentration, the Fort doesn’t entirely put its best foot forward. The car-park signs are vague; the dozy punter (ahem) can easily wander off in the wrong direction. The entrance to the Fort looks closed and you find yourself trotting up dead-ends and closed-off staircases before entering, as Banksy might name his sequel, through the gift shop. Once in though, the welcome is warm and friendly. The Fort, in short, is a metaphor for Newhaven itself: coyly hiding its charms, but full of surprising pleasures once you’ve penetrated its inner sanctum. I expect Playboy will hire me when they read that sentence.
We had a brilliant day at the Fort, and I learned a great deal about war. I didn’t realise, for instance, that Morrison shelters and Anderson shelters were two different things. I’m keeping hold of this information in case the topic comes up in conversation. Which I’ll make sure it will. I also didn’t realise how terrific the views are from the top of the cliffs, nor how nervous a fake air-raid can make a small child.
There are other Newhaven treats yet to explore: the Lifeboat Station and the Castle Hill Nature Reserve. And perhaps a drink in the extremely un-Lewes Drove Pub before we head happily home to Pleasantville.
Beth Miller, 16th March 2011. Published in VivaLewes.com. Photo by Alex Leith