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Harking back to happier days
A time portal has appeared in Hastings Old Town. Between the florist and angling centre and bakery stands a dusty “family department store”, where staff in Victorian attire scurry about assisting customers with the purchase of cabinet dusters, ink blotters, ceiling brushes and industrial posture chairs.
It smells of wood smoke (from the open fires) and the only noise is that of squeaking floorboards as people ascend the narrow staircase to the first, second and third floors.
Rather like a living history centre where one can take home the props, the shop belongs to celebrated chef, photographer and stylist Alastair Hendy, who also owns a Tudor property in All Saints Street, which he has spent five years restoring to its original form.
Formerly a bistro called Rhoda’s, it took three years of painstaking and costly work to transform the 19th-century High Street building to the Georgian splendour of AG Hendy & Co Home Store.
Aside from the sizeable task of gutting the interior, uncovering fireplaces and putting windows where there weren’t any, he had to find plumbers who didn’t blanch at the sight of a Victorian “leadless glaze”
toilet and electricians capable of wiring turn-of-the-century light fittings. Most tradesman, he says, are not up for that sort of challenge.
There is no trace of the 21st century within – even the till is hidden beneath a huge wooden counter. It’s something of a shock when Hendy’s mobile phone goes off.
He didn’t set out to make the shop as historically authentic as it’s turned out. “But the more time I spent here, the more it felt right. It’s a period I’ve always loved. And I think we’ve moved into quite a nostalgic area in the past few years.
In times of recession and unrest, we always go back to slightly nostalgic things and modernism goes out of the window. People still want to spend money but they want to spend it on something justifiable, and objects that are beautiful and practical fit the bill perfectly.”
Rather echoing the sentiments of shopping guru Mary Portas, who has stated her belief that “When shops are truly great, they provide remarkable and extraordinary experiences to brighten up peoples’ lives”, Hendy too wanted to create a shop that was as much about the experience as the products.
Whether in styling a home, dressing a photo shoot or, as here, opening a shop, he likes to create environments.
“I studied theatre and costume design at [Central St Martins] college and I like the idea of transporting people somewhere,”
he explains. “It’s not a set because it’s real, but it is about set-building. All shops are – homes too. It’s just something I enjoy doing.”
Hendy thinks too many retailers have lost sight of the sensory pleasures of shopping – everything from the environment to the texture and scents of products should be appealing.
“I wanted people to come in and feel excited in the way they did as children. And they do – they squeal about the place.”
When I visit, a cluster of people are stroking the array of feather-soft goat’s hair household brushes hanging from a ceiling rack. Their biggest sellers are ostrich feather dusters. “Ostriches have fine, filament-like feathers that hold the dust,” a member of staff tells customers. “We don’t stock anything that is purely decorative.”
Upstairs, there’s a display of shiny Sheffield steel scissors, all designed for different purposes, a wall of bathroom cabinet mirrors, and restored leather chairs. Light streams through artfully aged windowpanes.
Hendy sources everything himself, trawling antique fairs at Ardingly and Newark and boot sales all over the UK to find his industrial bulkhead lights and tin baths.
“I’ve always been fascinated by old things, even as a child.
I always loved utilitarian stuff – chain, bits of string. My maternal grandfather [whose picture looks out over the second floor] loved string – he used to go round with his coat tied up with twine – so perhaps that’s where I get it from.”
The kitchen towards the back of the shop is the only “new”
addition to the building and even this features an enormous restored Victorian range and tiles matched to original period fittings. It is here Hendy plans to have a fish kitchen at weekends.
Formerly a Sunday Times food writer, the self-taught cook began his cookery career when he was a runner-up in BBC Good Food magazine’s Italian Cook of the Year competition.
This was followed by a brief stint at Antonio Carluccio’s Neal Street restaurant in London. He launched the food pages of Red magazine (and was food editor for a period) and was the photographic art director for Eat It and also creative director for Live It – Sir Terence Conran’s food and lifestyle magazines. While the kitchen will be “informal” and “un-restauranty”, he is already being swamped with enquiries.
It all bodes rather well for Hastings, which has long struggled to compete with seaside cousins such as Brighton.
Hendy, like many locals, has mixed feelings about the new Jerwood Gallery – “I think it’s ruined Hastings’ biggest architectural gem: the shingle beach. You look down there now and see this big, black block. There are lots of other places it could have gone in the town but it was a decision made without any proper consultation. Most people were happy to have the gallery, just not there.”But he is delighted to see the town making its mark on the national agenda – and to be playing his own part in this revival.
He has been coming to Hastings since childhood, when he would visit his grandparents just outside the town. He later attended Ardingly College.
“I loved it as a child and I love it now, although in a different way. My father was in the Army so we moved every two years. I never really had a proper home – I’d come back for the school holidays and I’d have a new bedroom every time.
“Hastings has always felt like my home and it’s nice having my anchor here finally.”
* AG Hendy & Co Home Store is at 36 High Street, Old Town, Hastings. For enquiries, call 01424 447171
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