Certain things are guaranteed when you head to an English seaside town: ice creams on sale at every corner come hail or shine. So, too, inflatable rubber rings, sticks of rock, buckets and spades and outsize beach towels. It’s traditional.
The seagull is also traditional, but their numbers have, reportedly, quadrupled in recent years. So this once cheeky-chirpy seaside character is now redrawn as an airborne villain, dive-bombing tourists’ chip wrappers at will, leaving a trail of debris and terrified small children in its wake.
And the noise! So how thoughtful, when we reach our elegant, Georgian, Hastings seaside guest house on our otherwise tranquil tour of East Sussex and Kent’s charming highlights, to find ‘Gull Plugs’ on the bedside table. To stick in our ears. Some hosts think of everything. Out of earshot, out of mind. Or so we thought.
The 90-mile tour starts inland at Tunbridge Wells which has revelled in ‘Royal’ status since 1909 and - with its gracious, colonnaded Pantiles shopping, eating and promenading area - you can see why. The poshest bit of town, the Pantiles has art galleries, many cafes and - time it right - intoxicatingly aromatic weekend food festivals.
Our Range Rover Velar R-Dynamic HSE D300 fitted in perfectly, a regal match for a regal town in eye-catching Kaikoura Stone set off with Light Oyster and Ebony trim. It’s not just the tones, mind you, it’s the immaculately ruched material lining the cabin when you peer inside. Those exterior lines - it’s so sleek it looks as though it’s only just rolled off the drawing board, its ego inflated by 21-inch 10-spoke Satin Grey alloy wheels – make it a camera magnet.
Climb the twisty A267 out of town towards Frant, past rows of important-looking villas and mansions, and there are further delights in store as we activate ‘Dynamic’ mode. Smelling salts electronically administered, throttle response, ride and steering? all sharpen as though the Velar is spurring us on to Hastings’ seaside delights...
First though we stray into a Darling Buds of May film set, or so it seems as we pass endless, High Weald, period, tile-hung cottages, white clapperboard shops and cosily bucolic pubs lining quiet country lanes transformed into mysterious green tunnels by long rows of over-arching trees. It all feels rather dreamy and - lost in thought - we almost miss the turning, immediately after a little brick-built bridge in Newenden, for The Lime Wharf Cafe.
It’s not like the rest of Kent but a beguiling mix of Scandi boat house, laid-back Chelsea harbour chic and boating facilities, all on the banks of the River Rother. The perfect get-away-from-it all hunt for a mid-tour drink or tasty Spanish tapas.
There’s just time to nip back along the A28 to Rolvenden to visit the tiny CM Booth Motor Museum, which is a real gem. Owner Chris Booth admits it’s a hobby that got out of control.
What used to be the back-room store for his antique shop is now a man-shed of mythical proportions, boasting historic Morgan sports cars, mostly three-wheelers. Crammed in between are vintage bicycles including a 1914 Golden Sunbeam, antique Evinrude outboard motors, model cars, vintage petrol pumps and ancient motorcycles including a rare 1911 Phelan and Moore with wicker Bramble sidecar.
Pride of place goes to a titchy cream and orange timber-built 1937 Bampton Caravan, perfick, you might think, for Ma and Pa Larkin’s summer holiday. Pay the museum’s £4 entry fee and you’ll be lost in time but don’t dally overlong; you might want to stock up on real, English wine at the nearby Oxney Organic Wine Estate south east of Newenden before negotiating some of East Sussex’s prettiest lanes via Ewhurst Green to Bodiam.
Your first instinct on spotting famous, crenellated, 14th century Bodiam castle, floating above its own reflection in the moat, is that it’s a mirage. Scale the towers to admire long views, enjoy a cream tea then head south to Hastings. The scintillating, handsome 300hp V6, twin-turbocharged Velar - always composed, always superbly comfortable, its elevated seating offering fine views over the hedges, its 4x4 handling a surefooted match for the enjoyably crooked roads - excels.
Hastings is a funny mix but it’s not short on atmosphere. Gaudy gaming arcades, chip shops and unbecoming modern infill try but fail to overshadow charming rows of quaint historic houses, pretty, old-fashioned street lamps, rambling side-alleys crammed with curious little shops, a recently refurbished award-winning pier, and those seagulls.
Gull Plugs aren’t the only surprise at The Laindons, a smart four-storey town house dating to 1804 when smuggling was a way of life. In the wall above the fireplace in our comfy, modish bedroom - just where you’d least expect it - two small doors conceal a secret escape passage built, claim the owners, to outfox the Customs and Excise men.
It’s almost as intriguing as the 43 ghostly “net shops” on the sea front, sombre old wooden shacks with a footprint the size of a garden shed but towering three stories high. The best position from which to admire them is in the window of Hastings’ celebrated Rock a Nore Kitchen. Sitting opposite the sheds once used by fishermen to store their nets, and built in a similar black, clapperboard style, 300 years ago, the atmospheric Rock a Nore is where residents in-the-know feast on local treats such as chilli vodka soused herrings. Delightful.
Bunged up with our gull plugs we miss the alarm, rush a tasty breakfast and dash to rendezvous with our photographer, who will capture the Velar in all its glory. But it looks as though someone has emptied a can of white paint over those once pristine flanks. The seagulls have done their worst overnight, perhaps in revenge for those ear plugs.
Just half a mile from our guest house is that other feature no seaside town is without; a hand car wash. Ten minutes, five frantic workers and a tenner later we’re ready for our close-up on the haunting, other-worldly shingle of eerie Dungeness headland.
Doubling back to Rye, the Globe in the Marsh on the edge of this fetching medieval town is as fitting a place as any to round off this tour. An extraordinarily theatrical clapboard-covered cross between a fisherman’s shack and the inside of a vintage trawler, it’s ingeniously decorated – surely? - with upcycled objets washed up on the beach; lobster pots, sheep troughs, arty corrugated iron and drift wood everywhere. The food and beer – specially brewed for them - are terrific too.
What better reward for reaching journey’s end than a mellow sun-kissed stroll over the railway bridge to explore Rye’s quiet cobbled streets, half-timbered houses, galleries and antique shops, ice cream in hand. And scarcely a seagull in sight.
laindons.com; oxneyestate.com; morganmuseum.org.uk
Range Rover Velar R-Dynamic HSE D300
ENGINE 2,993cc V6 diesel
TOP SPEED 150mph
ACCELERATION 0-62mph in 6.1sec
FUEL ECONOMY 44.1mpg (EU Combined)