Ten minutes later, the manager met me at the desk. “Well, I just drove the car around, and it’s perfectly fine,” she said. She eyed me carefully. “Are you sure … you wouldn’t feel more comfortable with an automatic?” I protested briefly, but caved, humbly taking the automatic — which cost an additional £30 per day, nearly doubling what I’d expected to pay.
After that one hiccup, things went smoothly on my two-hour drive down to Eastbourne, a seaside town roughly 20 miles east of Brighton, its more popular resort cousin. But Eastbourne’s Grand Parade, the main avenue along the coast, can stand toe-to-toe with any splendorous thoroughfare. Handsome 19th-century buildings watch over the English Channel, a wide pebble beach and Eastbourne Pier, a lovely Victorian relic. Better still, going during shoulder season (I went in April) allowed me to score a cheap room at the Cavendish Hotel, its imposing white facade taking up the length of an entire block.
The room was worn but acceptable — decidedly less grand than its outside indicated — but at only £44, I wasn’t going to complain. I used the RingGo mobile app when paid street parking was necessary. It’s cashless and fairly convenient; for a 40-pence charge, you can add additional parking time from any location via the app.
I headed out for a morning walk near the beach, the air brisk from the wind blowing off the Channel. I walked the length of Eastbourne Pier and headed into town for a quick lunch at Gashi Fish & Chips. The food was hot and fresh and the price was right, only £3.95 to go (£1 more to stay) for a piece of flaky cod and steaming French fries.
Across the street, I exchanged dollars for pounds at a pawnshop called Cashbrokers. The dollar sign that replaced the first “S” in the sign nearly kept me away, but the promise of a commission-free exchange made me try my luck. It ended up being a good experience, and I received a better rate than expected. Better still, I consulted with a woman behind the counter about things to do in town. “Well, there’s some nice walks up Beachy Head,” she said with a raspy chuckle. “But that’s if you like walking.”
Luckily, I do. I made the brief drive from Eastbourne to see the famous lighthouse and headland, which has its own vertiginously high chalk sea cliff, the tallest in England. I parked along Beachy Head Road near a worn wooden sign that said, “cliff edge,” and showed a cartoon man falling off a ledge. I plodded through the grass and wildflowers, smelling the sea air and taking in the bright, clear day; the weather throughout my visit was wonderful.
Despite the signage, the cliff very nearly sneaked up on me. One minute, I was enjoying the bucolic scenery; the next, I was faced with a sheer wall of off-white plunging hundreds of feet to the rocks and sea. It felt awe-inspiring and a little dangerous (just ask the guy on that sign). Standing in the distance on the beach, like a barbershop pole, was the red-and-white lighthouse. While there were a few other people milling about, I had this impressive scene nearly all to myself: green grass giving way to a rampart of white chalk, and the sea swallowing the entire tableau.
The scenery on the drive to my next destination, the ancient town of Rye, was nearly as enjoyable. Fields of green, cattle grazing and sheep lazily milling about, and vast, shockingly bright swaths of yellow rapeseed flowers marked the countryside. I approached the tiny town, historically the first layer of defense against many a European intruder, from the south on New Winchelsea Road, passing Camber Castle. (The fort, built by Henry VIII, gives infrequent tours, around one a month.)
Carefully maneuvering my car along the narrowing streets, I arrived at my $65 Airbnb at the bottom of Mermaid Street and lucked into a free spot in the nearby lot. A relaxed walk up Mermaid to West Street, and I was quickly in the England of my dreams: tiny houses crumbling under the weight of their own history; tile roofs and cobblestone streets; lanterns hanging off ivy-covered walls. I passed under a large gate built in the 1300s by Edward III and quickly had covered most of the town; it’s small and extremely manageable by foot.